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What Can the Opera Rebellion Teach us about the Social Toleration of Violence (and the Martial Arts) in Late Imperial China?

Antique Bronze Cash.  SourceL Wikimedia.
Antique Bronze Cash. SourceL Wikimedia.

The Logic of Violence and its Relationship with the State

My academic background and doctorate is in political science where I specialize in a sub-field called “international political economy.”  That is where I have focused most of my teaching and writing over the years.  I have never really been an “area studies” person.  I actually became interested in the academic study of the martial arts precisely because China was such a great “case study” for many of the most important theoretical questions of my field.

For instance, if you want to understand how swings in global trade effect local society, or when revolutions are likely to happen, how the idea of “national identity” is spread or the specific relationship between a community’s  physical security and good governance, late Qing and Republic era China is a topic of endless interest.  It presents tons of well-preserved data that speaks to many really important questions and debates.  Better yet, relatively few people in the international relations literature use this era of Chinese history in their writings.  That further increases the chances of finding something new and interesting that might actually be helpful when trying to decipher other events around the globe.

While rereading a section of David Robinson’s volume, Bandits, Eunuchs and the Son of Heaven: Rebellion and the Economy of Violence in Mid-Ming China (2001, University of Hawaii Press) I was reminded of many of the core questions and concerns that drew me to Chinese political history in the first place.  If you are not familiar with Robinson’s work you should run, not walk, and get a copy of it.  It really is that important.

While not a history of the martial arts per se, Robinson provides readers with something equally important.  His brief study paints perhaps the richest picture of the violent world of soldiers, bandits, vagabonds, rebels and corrupt officials during the Ming dynasty that we currently have.  This is critical because it describes the milieu that the Ming (and later Qing) era martial arts actually arose in.  If the martial arts are viewed as a “solution,” a purposeful creation reacting to something in the social environment, Davidson does a wonderful job of describing many elements of the “problem” that generated them.

Of course that last sentence is actually subtly problematic.  It implied that the martial arts were a rational response to a discrete set of easily identifiable problems in the environment of late imperial China.  This characterization ascribes a certain degree of rationality to the martial artists, bandits, soldiers, performers and corrupt officials of the period.  As a political economist this is precisely how I am most comfortable looking at the world.  To oversimplify terribly, people face problems, so they create institutions to help them deal with those challenges, and some of these institutions work better than others.  Much of my professional work has to do with understanding why these institutions sometimes succeed, but more often fail.

Still, this is not how we usually talk about the martial arts, or any of the central institutions that control violence (the throne, the military, the clan structure or the imperial degree system) in medieval China.  Very often when discussing the martial arts we just assume that these are ancient traditions emerging out of the mists of time, carried on by a profound sense of cultural continuity.

If that is the case, whatever it was that the martial arts were a response to is long lost to the historical record.  It is something that existed hundreds of years ago and probably did not even have any direct bearing on life in the Ming.  As such there is no reason to think that the martial arts, or any of the key institutions of violence, are a rational response to anything.   They are simply artifacts of Chinese history and culture that Ming officials inherited and were forced to make the best of.

In current academic parlance we would say that the first view of the Chinese martial arts follows a “rational choice” approach, where the second does not.  It is a culturally driven, qualitative, understanding of the same phenomenon.  This distinction is actually pretty important, because it determines what sorts of skills and methodologies you will need to carry out the rest of your discussion.  It even tells you what the goals of that investigation should be, “causal inference” or “thick description.”

For instance, if we adopt a rational choice perspective what I really need to understand are the institutional constraints that actors, whether bandits or soldiers, in the Ming operated under.  If they worked under very tight constraints (for instance, a bandit might be executed if captured) I can rationally reconstruct for myself the strategies that he might employ not to be caught.  Even if it is impossible to guess what his exact moves are, I should at least be able to explain them in simple strategic terms.

If, on the other hand, these actors are responding primarily to cultural scripts and inherited identities, than strategic analysis is not likely to be all that helpful.  Instead I need to strive to attain a deep normative or cultural understanding of the meanings of their actions.  Maybe the martial arts novels of the period, or the developing ideas of “martial virtue,” will be more important than the seemingly universal dictum of strategists like Sun Tzu.  For instance, when discussing the Boxer Uprising Esherick notes that condemned men and women tended to adopt scripts and behaviors that were highly stylized and drawn from the executions of “heroes” in popular operas.  Throughout this work he wonders how much impact theatrical ideas and stories had on the actions and choices of other individuals in the region.

In broader terms this is really a discussion about the best way to understand the world, either through a “rational” or a “normative” lens.  It is probably the single most important debate in all of the social sciences today.  It is literally what keeps professors up at night (at least it does in political science).

Not surprisingly, this debate reoccurs throughout the theoretical literature.  For instance, Benedict Anderson sees nations as “imagined communities.”  While the first batch of nations (in the Americas and Western Europe) may have evolved organically and liberally, during the post-colonial period state leaders (such as those in China) callously crafted definitions of “the nation” to include some groups and exclude others in ways that benefited themselves politically.  Sadly this often involved great violence.  While Anderson is interested in how values and identities are created, he sees them as emerging from a fundamentally rational and strategic set of processes.

Ernest Gellner and Anthony Marx (an old professor of mine, now the President of the New York City Library) have instead argued that leaders are not free to create nations any way they would like.  Rather the seeds of this identity are inherited from the distance past and they constrain what sets of options are open to leaders at any given time and place.  As such “the nation” tends to reduce down to some other preexisting category like language, ethnicity or religion.  These irreducible categories also cause conflict both within and between nations.

David Robinson’s discussion brings up many of these same issues.  While written as a purely historical text about the political economy of violence during the Ming dynasty, his book suggests some pretty relevant questions about how we should view patronage, power, coercion and community violence in the current era.

Of course care must be taken when extrapolating arguments about the past into the present.  At minimum we need to have a clear conception of what our theory is, and what the driving forces behind it actually are.  Only then can we safely ask whether this is similar to, or different from, what we see today.

Unfortunately there is some ambiguity in Robinson’s discussion on exactly these points. He never directly addresses the question of rational vs. normative theories, and seems to draw freely from both sets of distinctions when it suits his purposes.  On one level there is nothing wrong with that.  Real life is messy.  Sometimes we respond to rational inducements (like when we go to a job we hate because we get paid to do so) and sometimes cultural considerations and identities take over (like when we gender certain sports, such as wrestling or boxing).  In that sense Robinson’s story likely reflects an ambiguity on these points that his subjects also felt.  If our goal is thick description and descriptive inferences, that is fine.

If our goal is to figure out how much of this argument applies to the social regulation of the martial arts in Hong Kong in the 1960s and 1970s (which is my actual area of focus) then I need something else.  It is no longer enough to say “the world is complicated, everything matters,” rather I must decide which specific variables and historical pathways matter the most.  Yes it is difficult to tease these arguments apart, and many normative theorists doubt that this sort of “causal explanation” is even possible.  But that is why Robinson is getting paid the big bucks.  So what specifically does he have to say on the subject?

Tlinglit body armor made from Chinese trade coins.  19th century.  North West Coast, USA.
Tlinglit body armor made from Chinese trade coins. 19th century. North West Coast, USA.

The Martial Arts and Violence: Two Theories of Social Control.

Robinson describes two different models of how social elites sought to manipulate independent bases of coercive power in traditional Chinese society.  One of these strategies of explaining the existence of violence and its subjugation to the state is fundamentally normative in nature.  The other one ignores Confucian or cultural concepts and instead looks at the material power dynamic between core and peripheral elements in society.  In a nutshell, the core tolerated and even attempted to co-opt independent bases of violence because it lacked the strength to do anything about them, even at the supposed “height” of the Ming dynasty.

Let’s start by assuming that there is a special logic of violence in Chinese society that exists independently of any material conditions or “facts on the ground.”  What would a cultural or normative theory of this situation look like?

There seems to be a paradoxical dialectic in traditional Confucian thought that might be a good place to start.  Orthodox Confucian thinkers assert that by their very nature all men are good.  This means that with the right guidance, education and institutional oversight, almost anyone can be made a productive member of society.  When this process derailed good Confucian scholars were not above actually looking at a situation in detail to attempt to find the place where local institutions had failed, letting all parties down.

This faith in humanity is actually an important point to keep in mind when thinking about the social regulation of crime and violence.  In the modern west we tend to remember traditional Chinese justice only for its violence or seeming brutality.  Torture and execution were used much more liberally at the time than would be acceptable today.  Nor were all people equal before the law in China.  Social relationships and status were often the defining facts in how a crime or lawsuit was resolved.

Still, when you read the accounts of criminal trials in Robinson’s book, it is clear that there was genuine mercy and actual attempts at rehabilitation in the Chinese justice system.  Over and over criminals I expected to simply be executed (because that is how they would have been dealt with in Europe at the time) were given relatively short prison terms or relocated to another community through exile.  It would have been easy to execute all of these criminals when they were in state custody, but the belief that they could be made “better” had a material effect on the way that justice was carried out.

Balancing this out, late imperial society also included a health degree of class based suspicion and even hatred.  While it was theoretically possible to make anyone a useful member of society through education, in actual fact officials tended to regard peasants as hopeless objects.  Refugees, soldiers, bandits, merchants, wandering monks, vagabonds and “urban toughs” were viewed even more harshly.  These individuals were seen as irredeemably based or coarse.  They existed in a world dominated by violence, and in the views of their social betters, violence was the only language that they truly understood.  They were beyond any real hope of redemption.

This view even found its way into the civil service exam tradition.  The children of traveling performers, opera singers, prostitutes and boat people were all prohibited from even taking the exam.  Thus the only official path for social mobility was closed to individuals from the lowest social caste.

And as far as good society was concerned, this was just fine.  Rather than rescuing these individuals from their benighted existence, the real goal of a statesman was to use their “unique skill-set” to execute and carry out government policy.  After all, a talented bureaucrat might be able to come up with a plan to reinforce the border, keep bandits off the road, or dredge a canal, but they certainly could not carry out such a scheme without a very large number of “rough men” who knew about labor and violence.

The classic illustration of this line of thought is the character Monkey from Journey to the West.  At the start of the story Monkey (a natural martial artist) is more concerned with wreaking havoc on the world than doing anything good or wholesome.  In fact, Monkey seems to have an actual aversion to “good and wholesome.”  As Robinson points out, he is a shockingly violent character.

And that is exactly what Heaven needs.  A religious work is about to be undertaken and Heaven needs an “enforcer” to make sure the task can be seen through to completion.  Heaven needs a hero that can act as the left hand of God (or the Buddha in this particular case).  Rather than destroying Monkey he is set to this particular task.  A deity fits an iron band around his head that causes him indescribable pain when he does anything “evil” and makes him the apprentice/servant/guardian of a wandering monk intent on retrieving ancient scriptures from India.

Throughout the rest of the story Monkey is forced to save his master from all kinds of monsters, and he usually does this in the most violent ways possible.  Yet his actions are now “good” because they have been subordinated to Heaven’s cause.  It is not clear that Monkey is made any better through this process, and he is clearly just as violent at the end of the story as he was at the start.  Yet that is precisely what makes him useful.  As a specialist in violence Monkey literally exists to be exploited.

When looking at the formation of patronage networks and the social regulation of violence in Ming China it is very possible to see exactly this sort of thing going on.  Elites never really tried to cure the root causes of violence because they didn’t see it as intrinsically bad.  In all reality they needed a supply of hardened individuals to carry out their plan, and so they accepted a situation in which such people would always be in ready supply.  Rather than remaking Ming society into something much more strongly centralized and institutionalized, they were content to refine their own “iron band” of social control over the martial artists, thugs and bandits that they accepted into their households.

There are some problems with this narrative.  Robinson goes a long way towards normalizing the reality of violence and social coercion in daily Ming life.  I think that this is a valuable corrective for modern readers who are generally exposed only to elite accounts of how life was supposed to be (i.e., everyone-including the Emperor-listens to the advice of the Confucian elite and there is harmony in the realm).  The reality of life during this period was actually so far from the ideal that one wonders how the educated class managed to keep up the charade.

Part of the Confucian meta-myth is that the martial forces of destruction and disorder (wu) can be institutionalized and controlled by the powers of civil statecraft and education (wen).  This is basically the same pattern that we saw in Journey to the West, but now on a much broader scale.  Of course it is hard to “subordinate” these forces without first acknowledging them, and then giving them something in return.  So even at the best of times we might be subjected to the jarring sight of high officials cultivating relationships with local toughs, bandits and (heaven forbid) common soldiers.  But that was fine because in Confucian thought there was no balance between Wen and Wu; the former clearly dominated the later.

Chinese Silver Tael.  These silver ingots were the stanard currency accepted by the Ming and Qing governments for tax payments.  Neither dynasty minted silver coins,  The production of raw taels was far cheaper.
Chinese Silver Tael. These stamped silver ingots were the standard currency accepted by the Ming and Qing governments for tax payments. Neither dynasty minted silver coins, The production of raw taels was far cheaper.  Later the Qing dynasty accepted and circulated large quantities of Mexican silver dollars which it acquired through international trade.

Except that in real life that almost never seems to have happened.  Robinson’s entire book is one protracted case study in elites being out-maneuvered, inconvenienced and generally held to account for the ill-considered self-enrichment schemes of their informal retainers.  No level of society seemed entirely safe from this.  Village elders, brothel owners, landlords and even high court officials were constantly being bitten by their own guard dogs.  Economists call this sort of thing a “principal-agent dilemma” meaning the desires of the employee (the military retainer) are not properly aligned their employer (the prince or landlord who sponsors them).  In other words, social control of these “independent bases of violence” tended to exist much more in theory than in fact.

Nor does it seem that any of these individuals really have any idea how to address these problems.  Military retainers and thugs were essential because the roads around the capital were filled with bandits.  They were necessary to protect your estate and to intimidate your enemies.  But they were never fully under control and inevitably contributed to the very problems they were supposed to solve.  Time and again the court would order a crackdown on banditry and the assigned officer, with the supposed weight of the kingdom behind him, would fail (at which point they were usually demoted and sent to the frontier).

It is one thing to say that this situation was allowed to exist because of some cultural norm, but it is quite another to realize that even when the government tried to address fairly minor manifestations of this lawlessness (such as banditry directed against tax payments) they discovered that they actually lacked the troops and institutional strength to do anything about it.  A fair percentage of the time the bandits turned out to be the government’s own soldiers, and even the elite Palace Guard themselves!

By modern standards, what Robinson describes is clearly a failed state.  Not only that, it’s a state that is stuck in a poverty trap.  The institutions of the day do not give anyone an incentive to solve the really pressing economic and political problems.  Further, the government itself seems paralyzed and unable to radically rethink its own institutions because deep down inside they don’t really believe they can ever dig their way out of the hole. Of course to be totally fair one would be hard pressed to find any well-functioning states in the 1400s.  At least the Chinese leadership should receive credit for making a serious go of it.

This is a fascinating conversation precisely because this interplay between corruption, violence and institutional failure is not unique to medieval China.  In fact, it has been seen in most areas of the world at one time or another.  Granted it never takes quite the same shape in any two places (so “standard operating procedures” are a bad idea), but certain basic principles seem to be universal.  If you want to get out of this trap you need some set of institutions that will bring individual incentives in line with social incentives.  Ming era China lacked what development economists call “efficient institutions.”  That is what Robinson illustrates so aptly.  It doesn’t matter who you look at, court officials, military officers, common soldiers, gang members, or large landholders, none of them have incentives that are actually aligned with the good of society as a whole.  All of these individuals are embedded in a corrupting environment that force them to seek their own self-interest in ways that are destructive to the greater community.

Note that we are now having a very different sort of conversation than was the case with the previous theory.  We still need to know enough about Chinese society to understand how its institutions function on a fairly detailed level, but at the end of the day we are discussing rational actors who are motivated by their own self-interest.  Why do they choose violent strategies?  Because in this environment violence pays, and sometimes it pays extraordinarily well (at least in the short-run).  Do we need to know anything about ancient Chinese culture or literature to understand this?  No.  Do we even need to stop and define the “national interest?”  Not really.  That rarely comes up in a rent-seeking state.

Assorted Chinese coins.  Source: Wikimedia.
Assorted Chinese coins, copper and bronze. Coins such as this were generally used for small transactions. Source: Wikimedia.

Testing our Theory with the Opera Rebellion: Guangdong, 1854-1855.

I personally suspect that the toleration of high levels of violence, including extensive militarized patronage networks, likely had more to do with the general weakness of the state than any sort of cultural toleration of martial virtues.  One cannot help but notice that when the pendulum swings in the other direction, and the state is genuinely strong, it tends to be much less tolerant of crime, disorder and anyone who would use force to challenge the legitimacy of the government.  For instance, there is generally less disorder at the start of a dynasty when the state is strongest and can still exert considerable control over (recently pacified) local society.

Another good example of this would be the Red Turban Revolt which ripped through Guangdong in 1854-1855.  It makes a useful test case as it occurs later and in a different region of the country.  As such it is totally independent of Robinson’s research.  For any graduate students out there it is critical that you remember to always test your theories on a different body of data than you used to create them.  Yet many of the same basic variables and social conditions that he was interested in can be seen here as well.

Sometimes referred to as the “Opera Revolt” because of the participation of some Cantonese opera companies, this uprising had fewer connections to the Taiping Rebellion than is commonly assumed.  The event actually started as a violent tax revolt along the East Branch of the Pearl River.  Because of the strained nature of Guangdong’s economy (which was being forced to pay for the entire war effort against the Taipings) it quickly spread throughout the province.

While the actual uprising may have had its roots in economic (rather than religious or ideological) grievances, it posed a very serious threat to the existence of the imperial order in Southern China.  For months it was touch and go as to whether Guangzhou would be able to defend itself from the rebels.  Foshan (the location of important cannon foundries) and other cities in the region fell relatively quickly in the first burst of revolutionary fervor.

Eventually the government forces triumphed and were able to counterattack throughout the Pearl River delta driving the remaining rebel forces north and west.  Usually that is where the telling of the story ends, but for the purposes of this post what happened next is critical.  Previously the government had lacked the ability to adequately control banditry and piracy in the region for a number of reasons.  It lacked the troops, it lacked the cooperation of the major clans (who played a much greater role in local politics in the South than in other parts of China) and it was too infiltrated with corrupt clerks and allies of the various secret societies.

The Red Turban Revolt changed all of that.  It was destructive enough that it actually forced officials (many of whom were literally besieged and cut off from outside communication) to make a choice as to whether they were going to support central government control, or to throw their lot in with the many local patronage networks that were turning against the established social order.  Likewise clan elders, degree holders and local landlords were all forced to decide whether they favored state regulation or violent revolution.

It was a stark choice, and revolution likely meant economic ruin for all of the existing social elites in southern China.  These elites cut their ties with networks that aligned themselves with the revolutionaries, organized their own households into government registered militia units and threw their full economic support behind the Governor.  It was this social realignment more than anything that happened on the battlefield that assured the eventual defeat of the uprising.

At the end of the formal fighting the local government found itself in a unique position.  Typically in southern Chinese politics the Governor General was forced to balance the competing economic interests of the literati/landlords with the masses.  Either side could cause a public disturbance if they were unhappy with the course of events or how they were being treated.  Still, the Governor could control the situation with relatively few troops precisely because he held the balance of power between these two competing blocks.

Now the situation was different.  The Governor had entered into a firm alliance with the local landlords against the masses.  Further, the gangsters, drifters, martial artists and bandits who had been the “muscle” of the poor residents of the area had been vanquished.  In short, the local government of southern China was suddenly stronger, and had more coercive influence over society, than it had possessed at any time since the end of the “clearances” at the start of the dynasty.

And what did the government do with its new found power?  It started hunting down socially undesirable people and killing them, often for no reason, in massive quantities.  Government troops and gentry led militia members rounded and killed not just former rebels but also bandits, secret society members, traveling performers, homeless individuals, wandering monks and priests, and anyone else who they thought could be “trouble.”  Clan leaders took the opportunity to have bothersome community members eliminated and scores were settled by the tens of thousands.  Noted historian Fredric Wakeman estimates that in the attempt to restore “good social order” follow the defeat of the rebels, the government and its allies may have killed up to one million people in the Pearl River Delta region alone.  The loss of life and social disruption in this purge clearly dwarfs the death and destruction of the Red Turban Revolt.  The ban on the public performance of Cantonese opera that is of such interest to modern martial artists was actually just one small part of a much larger campaign of terror directed at the lower levels of society.

So why did the government suddenly decide to kill all of the socially undesirables?  Why not work them back into renewed and strengthened patronage networks?  I suspect that the only explanation one can really give is that the government took this course of action because it could.  While there had been previous campaigns against pirates, gangsters and bandits in the region, the State had never undertaken an operation on this scale because it lacked the material strength and elite support to do so.  However, the moment the government had sufficient strength the Confucian values of “moderation” and “education” were replaced with an extreme love of (equally Confucian) “justice” and “social order.” And to some extent it worked.  While crime can never totally be eliminated (especially with the British importing huge quantities of opium into the region), the purges of the 1850s seem to be responsible for the generally conservative nature of region up through the 1920s.

The Red Turban Revolt is an interesting case for a number of reasons.  While historians often neglect it (situated as it is between the first and second Opium Wars and overshadowed by the Taiping Rebellion) it is a critical episode in the history of the southern Chinese martial arts.  Many modern schools love to associate themselves with the colorful gamblers, gangsters and opera performers of the rebellion in their creation myths.  Of course these myths themselves mostly date to the 1920s or 1930s when the actual events were far enough in the past that they were safe to re-imagine.  In the 1850s being “a rebel” was not socially popular; it was a literal death sentence.

The government did an extremely good job of figuring out who the rebel leaders actually were and hunting them all down.  We know this because the British seized all records relating to the incident and its aftermath when they occupied Guangzhou a few years later.  The original accounts of the Red Turban Uprising and the execution of its leadership can still be seen in London today.  I suspect that many of the region’s martial arts actually owe more to the 19th century gentry militia movement that put the rebellion down than they do secret societies or revolutionary groups that promoted it.

The “White Terror” following the end of the rebellion is an interesting case study in what elites, both in government and society, thought the ideal community should look like in the late imperial period.  Given unlimited power they did not move to “educate” or “reform” the bandits, vagabonds, rebels and floating population.  Instead they moved decisively to wipe them out.  While cultural narratives may be a useful tool for discovering how people understood and rationalized the world around them, they don’t seem to offer much of an explanation for the choices that are made in actual times of crises and civil war.  That behavior instead appears to be both materialistic, opportunistic and highly strategic.  Rather than being caught up in circular cultural narratives, these are the sorts of variables that we need to consider when looking at the overall political economy of violence in late imperial China.

An ancient coin dating to Han dynasty.  Source: Wikimedia.
An ancient coin dating to the Han dynasty. Source: Wikimedia.

Through a Lens Darkly (2): Images of the Boxer Uprising

One of my projects for the next couple of weeks is to revise a conference paper I wrote a few years ago and submit it to a journal.  I have been meaning to get to this one for a while but book manuscript stuff keeps taking priority.  Outside of Chinese martial studies I am interested in international relation, domestic institutions and religion.  As such I decided to write a paper looking at how religious groups generate “social capital” (basically reciprocal bonds of trust within a community) and when that social capital impedes or speeds up cycles of violence.

My case study for this paper was the Boxer Uprising (1899-1900).  Its a great case to look at as you see lots of different religious groups having all sorts of effects on the course of the crises.  My final conclusion was that in certain circumstances religion would have a stabilizing effect on the community, and at other times it was in danger of being captured by radicals.  What matters most is actually not a group’s religious institutions or beliefs per se, but instead the broader social and political institutions that a religious community is embedded in.  In other words, how you regulate your religious marketplace determines how it will function.  The Qing government, following traditional but outmoded political models of the state and its role in Chinese society, regulated their market for religion very, very, badly.  Of course when one looks at the broader pattern of religiously inspired uprisings and revolutions that literally consumed the 19th century Chinese state (White Lotus, Eight Trigrams, the Taiping Rebellion and the Boxer Uprising–just to name the most prominent examples) this probably shouldn’t come as a great surprise.

All of this has me thinking about the Boxer Uprising again, so I decided to share some images from that conflict.  Contrary to the more commonly ascribed “rebellion” title, the Boxers actually had no problem with their own government.  As a matter of fact this was a pro-government uprising (see Esherick 1987 for an extensive discussion of this distinction).  The Boxers themselves were for the most part impoverished peasants from the countryside.  The movement began with martial arts societies and local militias in the poorer areas of Shandong but it quickly spread beyond that base and became a broader social moment in the rural parts of northern China.  These individuals lashed out at both foreign and Christian interests (which were often the same thing–at least in rural Shandong), eventually marching on big cities like the capital and Tianjin to both support the government and besiege the foreign communities of missionaries and businessmen.

The first image is one half of a stereograph that I found at a local antique store.  Unfortunately the card has curved and warped with age.  This makes it difficult to scan.  I need to take it to a photographic restoration house in Rochester and see if I can get it conserved.  The ostensible subject of the card is the “Boxers of Tientsin” (pinyin Tianjin).  The Battle of Tianjin was a critical moment in the military history of the Boxer Uprising.  It was in the early phases of this battle (around July 17-18, 1900) that the Imperial court decided to back the Boxers and attack the foreign armies (and civilian communities) after a period of wavering.  This decision had a huge impact on the subsequent history of modern China, and the Chinese martial arts.

The battle was also interesting because of its complexity.  Tainjin was an old city that grew up over time.  As such it had a well-defended central administrative area (surrounded by walls 20 feet high, 16 feet thick).  Yet it also had flat open areas down by the river.  This is where the foreign residences were.  The western armies arrived on July 16th to find them already besieged by Boxers from the countryside.  While the western armies had no trouble defeating the poorly fed and armed Boxers, they fared much more poorly against the well-armed soldiers of the Chinese Imperial Army in the wall city.  While the Boxers fought with swords and spears, the Imperial army had a large supply of modern Mauser rifles, ammunition and machine guns.  In fact, the west may never have taken the city at all if not for the heroic (and suicidal) efforts of the Japanese Army to mine and destroy the south gate.

In all the western armies suffered over 1000 casualties in the Battle of Tianjin.  The exact number of Chinese casualties is unknown but it was probably much higher.  What is known is that a disturbingly large number of them were civilians killed by the occupying western armies (and in particular the Germans and Austrians) after the battle had actually ended.

What should be obvious from the picture above is that the gentlemen in the foreground are probably not Boxer (at least not in the political or social sense).  It seems that in the media’s rush to get images of the turn of the century conflict anyone of Chinese origin could simply be called a “Boxer” and western public would believe it.  The presence of what appear to be individuals in western military uniform in the background of the photo is evidence that this photo must have been taken after the battle was ended and order was restored.  Given the uniform weapons and clothing I would guess that this is some sort of newly assembled city defense militia or police force.

The firearms they are carrying are especially interesting.  Some of the Boxers did have old black powder rifles.  However, these guns are much too large to have been held by a single individual, especially given the age and health of the individuals in the photo.  Instead these were designed to be mounted on the walls of the city, where they functioned as essentially small artillery pieces.  If you look carefully at the base of the barrel you can see that they use a cap, rather than a flint-lock, ignition system indicating that they were probably made sometime between the Taiping Rebellion and the 1880s.  Of course everyone in the west just “knew” that the Boxers were armed with primitive and obsolete weapons, so the shot served the photographer’s purpose.  Lots of copies of this card were sold and it must have been a popular subject.  I have a run across 2-3 copies of it myself.

To me the most striking element of this stereograph is its unrelenting humanity.  The subjects of the photograph make no effort to hide their sheer exhaustion and humiliation.  It is a stark reminder of how awful the Battle of Tianjin must have been, even for its survivors.  Its also one of the more exploitative pieces of photojournalism that I have seen from a time and place when that was simply good commercial practice.

One of the most iconic images of the Boxer Uprising. This photograph was taken for the turn of the century wire news media.

The second photograph will likely be familiar to many of my readers.  I have not had any luck in hunting down the exact details of where this image was actually taken.  The search is ongoing.  What I do know is that this was used as a news wire photo in 1900 and it was subsequently picked up by multiple news agencies.

The individual in the photograph is evidently a serious martial artist.  Woven shields like the one in front of him were very dense, and no one carried one of those around for fun.  His is all the more interesting because of its large radius.  The pole weapon at his side is also noteworthy.  The blade is narrower in depth than many of the ones used by Chinese martial artists today, but it looks very effective.  The pole is longer and heavier than the shorter, more maneuverable weapons seen in the modern era.  Evidently the blade is mounted with a tang, rather a socket.  A weapon of this length and heft would actually have a number of advantages on the battlefield, though it would likely prove unpopular in a modern training hall or school.  Compared to the photos that one occasionally sees of market place martial artists with their thin oxtail daos and flexible spears, its clear that this guy means business and is armed accordingly.

The man is also well dressed in warm, new clothing and he wears a hat (perhaps with tiger decorations).  Given that most of the action of the Boxer Uprising happened in the summer of 1900 it seems unlikely that he is an actual combatant.  The fact that he posing for, rather than attacking, the foreign news photographer would also seem to indicate that this individual may not have been as directly involved in the Boxer Uprising as the caption usually implies.  The banner is quite interesting.  It is usually translated as: “By Imperial Order – Boxer Supply Commissariat” indicating that it was probably produced after the middle of July 1900.

I wondered whether this individual was not a local martial artist or member of an armed escort company that was payed to pose as a “Boxer” by a foreign photographer looking for a good shot.  While an iconic image there is a lot about it that just doesn’t seem right.  But whatever its origins, it remains an important visual record of the civilian Chinese martial artist circa 1900.

“Jesus Didn’t Tap”: Sixt Wetzler and the Connection of Religion and Martial Arts

I fundamentally dislike to the term “myth busting.” It reminds me of an American television program that gained great popularity by deconstructing urban legends and popular wisdom through the excessive use of car crashes and C-4 explosives. I can’t actually hear “myth busting” without seeing a giant explosion in my mind.

Historians, social scientists, or cultural theorists are not primarily concerned with explosions. Simply blowing up a popular narrative in a well-reasoned book chapter or blog post will have zero impact on the community of practitioners and most other scholars. It is just too easy to take things apart. That is a skill everyone learns in the first semester of graduate school. By the end of our first years we see that literally any theory can be broken. And because theories are, by their nature, brittle no one gets much credit for breaking them.  The much more challenging step is developing a rigorous causal story, or system of interpretation, that explains something about the world better than the thing that you just broke. Can you make a contribution to an ongoing conversation?  

Myth busting is easy. Understanding the world is not.

This is not to say that criticizing popular narratives about the martial arts is unnecessary. Yet it is only ever a first step in establishing a baseline of historical understanding. If done in an unbalanced way it can actually impede our ability to perceive more fundamental social or cultural processes. 

Consider the question of theatricality in the Chinese martial arts or, more specifically, the relatively modern systems from the Pearl River Delta region such as Wing Chun and Choy Li Fut. Certain Cantonese arts claim a connection with, or origin within, the area’s culturally famous “Red Boats Opera” tradition. The problem is that, like all other lineage creation myths, many of these stories distort or mangle the actual history of Cantonese Opera in the region. The Red Boats certainly existed, but not always at the times that martial arts myth-making seek to place them. Nor did they function in the ways that subsequent Wuxia novels and radio dramas would reimagine them. 

“Chinese Stage Shows.” Cigarette Card. Source: Digital Collections of the NY Public Library.

Responsible martial arts historians must point out that these origin myths are fundamentally a type of mystification that replaces an actual lived history with exciting and socially useful narratives that satisfy modern desires. Origin stories are useful in that they teach us about martial artists today, but they tend not to reveal very much about the past. If you try to locate your modern (and probably highly Westernized) Wing Chun on the actual opera barges of the late 19th century, you are likely to be disappointed.

However, in dealing with one set of modern myths we need to be careful to not to create a second, reactionary, set of historical distortions. That would be to claim that since we have dismissed one mystification, we can now accept the null hypothesis that the fighting systems of the Pearl River Delta region were marked only by their combat efficiency and had nothing to do with operatic performance or seasonal festivals. In fact, theatricality had a huge impact on not just martial arts, but pretty much every other aspect of Chinese popular culture. This is not to say that martial arts weren’t also practiced by soldiers, armed escorts and local pharmacists. They certainly were. Yet all of these people would also have been opera fans and influenced to one degree or another by that cultural system. The key to building a sound historical or cultural understanding lies not in the busting of myths about painted face actors, but in understandings of how theatricality shaped popular world views in southern China during the late 19th century.  Aside from Scott Park Philips and Daniel Mroz, not many researchers have been asking this question.   

In no area is this lack of balance between critical scholarship and cultural exploration more evident than in conversations about religion, spirituality and the East Asian martial arts. Some wonderful papers came out of the recent 2020 Martial Arts Studies conference, so I am hopeful that this is changing as the area receives sustained scholarly attention. Yet the pattern of previous debates, particularly those that have broken into the popular literature, has been less inspiring. Typically, the conversation begins by forgetting that fighting systems exist in other areas of the world besides East Asia, or that religion comes in flavors other than Zen Buddhism (always a crowd pleaser) and Daoism. Next a scholar latches onto a specific popular belief within a martial arts community (all samurai warriors were Zen masters; Bodhidharma invented Shaolin Kung Fu), which is already known to be prima facia untrue, and goes about explaining why. The conclusion is then reached that what we are dealing with is essentially a secular combat system, the protestation of its poorly informed students not-withstanding. 

Shi Yongxin (L), current abbot of the Shaolin Temple, presents a sculpture of Bodhidharma to Professor Charles Mattera of United Studios of Self Defense (USSD) from the United States.

It is true that many elements of current martial arts practice are much more modern than students might care to admit. Where relevant to an argument it is important to point this out. Yet as our theatrical example suggests, it does not follow that we have thus gained a full understanding of how these systems evolved or continue to function in the lives of practitioners today.  All we have done is the “myth busting,” and that is the easy bit.

To really make progress we would need to take a much closer look at all of our source material.  Further, we would need to be willing to abandon some preconceived modern notions as to what religion looks like, or what role it plays in society. Luckily for us Sixt Wetzler in “Martial Arts and Religion: An Evident Connection?” has done much of this heavy lifting. In my opinion this paper was one of the best things to emerge from the recent conference and I highly recommend that readers check it out for themselves. At the moment it is only available in oral form, but I hope that there will be a published version soon.

To begin with the conclusion, Wetzler finds that the seemingly self-evident connections between martial arts and religion are real, wide-spread and geographically varied. This does not mean we should accept popular mystification on the subject.  Bodhidharma was not a kung fu expert and, despite what the bumper-sticker claims, Jesus probably wouldn’t have been a professional MMA fighter. Yet these myths don’t emerge from a void, they reflect long standing cultural desires within the West. Jared Miracle (among others) has noted, that we must look to our own history with “muscular Christianity” and the mystification of 18th and 19th century public school sports to understand our reflexive insistence that East Asian form of physical culture must also contain these same “spiritual” values, or teach similar moral lessons. Ethnocentrism can function as a pathway to a certain type of Orientalism.

Wetzler further cautions that the fundamentally contested definitions of both “religion” and “martial arts” complicates any discussion of this project. To cut to the chase, it is all too easy for practitioners and scholars to cherry pick preferred understandings of what “real” martial arts, or “real” spirituality, actually is. These moves often carry with them types of value judgements and social hierarchies that are fundamentally unhelpful in coming to grips with a topic such as this. Instead Wetzler accepts a broad definition of religion and leaves martial art open.

Rather than a single hypothesized relationship, this yields a typography of ways in which religion might relate to a set of embodied practices. This paper addresses only hand combat system, but one suspects that a similar exercises could be undertaken for sports, theater, ritual, or any other set of embodied practices.

The broad definition of religion adopted by Wetzler comes from the writings of Thomas Luckmann. Similar to Peter Berger’s treatment (which I have cited extensively in my own research), it focuses on the way that religious communication allows individuals to approach or make sense of transcendent moments, and through them generate the fundamental social structures of life.  There are thus two main ways that systems of religious meaning can relate to patterns of martial exchange.  First, the combative nature of fighting can be taken as the dominant system, and religious or spiritual practices are subordinated to achieve some aim, such as victory on the battlefield.  

This is perhaps the most widespread, and certainly the most easily observed, relationship between religion and the fighting arts.  Practically every culture has some version of “war magic” where fighters call on esoteric powers before a confrontation. Wetzler shared an image of a South East Asian blade that was adorned with “magical squares” in his talk, but we could multiply examples almost infinitely. Students of Chinese martial arts history will probably think of the invulnerability rituals practiced by so many organizations in the final years of the Qing dynasty and the Republic including (but not limited to) the Big Sword Society, the Yihi Spirit Boxers and the Red Spears of the 1920s-1930s. 

The alternative scenario is that the sphere of religious communication remains dominant and martial practices or goals are subordinated to that.  Again, society wide examples are not impossible to come by. The Pope’s decision to employ the excess martial zeal of European knights in pursuit of the crusades in the Holy Lands is perhaps the most famous example of such a relationship, but it is far from alone.  One of my favorite papers in the recent conference looked at the way that Russian Orthodox parishes have been using Sambo classes as recruitment devices to keep young men active in local communities. Winning medals isn’t the real goal of such a club, so much as it is strengthening the parish. Other papers looked at the role of evangelical churches in the support of modern combat sports in both North and South America. While the details of these engagements differed (sometimes in important ways), the structural relationship between the two spheres remained similar.

I suspect that this second set of cases will be the most interesting to students of Chinese martial arts.  When new recruits arrive in a training hall and ask about spiritual or religious values, this is typically what they have in mind. Wetzler notes that it is also the site of much of the mystification that we see in popular culture surrounding the martial arts. Teachers ranging from Mr. Miyagi to Yoda seek to move their students from a shallow understanding of outer technique, to a more mature acceptance of their inner meaning.  Given the popularity of these cultural models, it is not surprising that students so often demand that their real-world systems offer the same pathways to the transcendent.

Whether or not they actually do, and whether or not such claims can be treated as authentic, depend in large part on how religion/spirituality is defined in a given conversation. Still, Wetzler notes that there seem to be fewer examples of the second type of relationship than the first.

Perhaps that is because in the modern era a third possible relationship is rapidly emerging. Individuals are increasingly dropping religious modes of identification all together and replacing them with martial arts communities. Rather than the transcendent experiences in these practices being understood through a religious lens, they are now taken as an end in themselves, effectively allowing individuals to pursue goals such as self-actualization, empowerment, or even the creation of their own esoteric pathways without reference to larger social structures. It is the massive demand for this kind of localized religious experience that helped to popularize a certain set of popular beliefs that are often targeted by the myth busting mentioned earlier in this paper.  

Within this more nuanced framework Wetzler concludes that it is simply self-evident that martial arts and religion have interacted in many ways at different times and places. These currents have never flowed in one direction, yet may be important to understanding social trends.  Just as obviously, the field of comparative religious study may give us the tools necessary to break out of the stalemate that these discussions so often descend into.

Listening to this discussion I found myself nodding along with Wetlzer’s presentation and agreeing with almost everything that he has to say. I have read a number of one side debates on this topic and agree that a more nuanced discussion of the many types of relationships that might emerge is a great place to start.  If nothing else, being able to draw clear distinctions between Wetzler’s first and second cases would help scholars to clarify the scope and domain of their hypotheses, or the sorts of evidence that they are willing to admit when testing it. That alone is an important stepforward.

Still, one can only say so much in a twenty-minute paper, and I would like to add a few additional thoughts to the wonderful discussion that Wetzler has started. The first of these has to do with the second case in which martial practice is subordinated to the religious impulse. While it is possible to generate examples of this, it is certainly true that they these seem to be less numerous than those for the first or the third category.

In a sense this a not a surprise.  Sociologists talk about the “secularization” hypothesis which claims that as society modernizes the public square will increasingly become the domain of rationalism and religion will fade from existence.  Luckmann scoffed at the notion that religion was disappearing and instead explored the ways in which it was being privatized and personalized.  I think that most sociologists today would agree with him.  Yet once religion exits the public square, it loses the sort of coercive ability necessary to capture other social institutions (like militias or martial arts groups) and repurpose them for its own material or ideological ends.  This still happens in the modern world (again, we have already established that “Jesus didn’t tap”), but probably in a much more limited way than in the past.

Muay Boran training at the recent international gathering and tournament in Thailand. Note the association of the ancient temple in the background with a modern combat sport. Source: NY Times.

Nevertheless, other intermediate range social institutions have become a prominent part of daily life, and they have had an important effect on martial practice.  The rise of the nation and nationalism in the developing world during the 20thcentury comes to mind. As one of my professors in graduate school was fond of staying, “religion is just a 16th century word for the nation.” Nations are also vast transcendent structure, held together by social construction, yet capable of exerting such influence on our daily lives that few of us stop to contemplate their essentially metaphysical nature and rather recent creation. Nations have also proved to be experts in promoting and subverting martial arts practice to serve their own ends practically everywhere around the world. Wetzler’s second case, while a bit more difficult to put our finger on, has become the dominant mode of existence for many fighting systems precisely because they are now subordinated to the secular religion of nationalism.

This transition from local religion to national secular religion is particularly important to understanding the process of modernization within the Chinese martial arts.  Groups like Jingwu and the later Guoshu movement succeeded precisely because they argued that the service and merit that kung fu (here used in its proper sense) accumulated in local communities could be metaphysically transferred to the state through the right sort of rationalized and purified practice. Indeed, an understanding of this meeting of local identity and growing nationalism in the first half of the 20th century is critical to understanding the actual development of a many specific martial art schools. It is even helpful in grasping the ongoing relationship between the state and martial arts groups today.

The other issue that this paper forces us to make explicit is our choice of the level of analysis.  Wetzler appears to take the individual practitioner as his starting point, and asks how she would understand the process.  What goals would she articulate? Is it victory at any cost, or the magnification of a larger spiritual vocation?

The obvious possibility is that individuals may understand these goals differently than the social groups that they are part of, and that these things may become contested. The classic case of such a story in fiction would be the young warrior who appropriates spiritual power that is supposed to reinforce the social order for his own private gains.  Enter Darth Vader, Cobra Kai or the Shredder stage right. We may also look at the Big Swords or Yihi Boxer reliance on war magic as possible historical examples of Wetzler’s first case.  Yet one wonders how the various civil societies of the Plum Flower Boxers would have viewed them? They too taught similar rituals, yet by in larger refused to become embroiled in the Boxer Uprising.  Eshrick goes so far as to suggest that a divide within the Plum Flower Boxers, when a single important teacher left the larger organization to take up a local conflict, may have contributed to rise of the Boxer Rebellion. Yet it is possible that the leaders of the Yihi movement understood their goals and relationship to the religious sphere very different than what outsiders (including the leadership of the region’s Plum Blossom Boxers) may have assumed?

Alternatively, Denis Gainty noted that the Meiji government did not initially squeeze the arm of Japanese Kendo and Judo players to get involved them with public schools. In fact, education officials were highly resistant to the notion that martial arts should play any official role in pre-war Japanese society, let alone the school system.  Rather, budos’ “subordinate” position to the nation-state in the 1930s-1940s was the result of generations of planning, lobbying and hard work by martial arts reformers themselves.  By creating this seemingly subordinate relationship, Gainty argues that Japanese martial artist were able to influence ongoing elite debates about what the relationship between Japanese society and the state should be, and shift the outcomes of these processes.

It is critical to have a typology of the relationships between religious/national and martial systems, and Wetzler has given us a great place to start.  At the same time, we also need to remember that these connections are often recursive and under continual negotiation. Nor will everyone always agree on the nature of a relationship.  Still, the martial arts are fascinating precisely because they have so often given individuals a platform to enter into debates about the shape of the community and its relationship with the wider world. More fully exploring the ways that these practices have been understood in religious terms helps to explain why.


If you enjoyed his essay you might also want to read: Violence and Peace: Reconsidering the Goals of Martial Arts


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



History as the cure for Ideology

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




Bandits and Boxers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




Soldiers and Warlords

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




The Southbound Tiger

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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





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

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

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



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


History of East Asian Martial Arts: Week 10 – Modernization of Chinese Martial Arts

Wing Chun in Singapore.  A class using a variety of traditional training modalities. 



Welcome to week ten of “History of East Asian Martial Arts.”  This series follows the readings being used in Prof. TJ Hinrichs’ undergraduate course of the same name at Cornell University.  This is a great opportunity for readers looking to upgrade their understanding of Martial Arts Studies.  It is also important for those of us in the academy who are thinking about how we can craft classes, or create new units, that draw on Martial Arts Studies in our own teaching.  Rather than reporting on the class discussion and lecture, this post will introduce the readings and some of the study questions that have been assigned.  It concludes with some of my own thoughts on the questions that have been raised in the week’s assigned texts.

Regular readers of this blog will not be surprised to learn that I have been patiently waiting all semester for Week 10.  Frequent allusions to “thousands of years of history” notwithstanding, the Chinese martial arts which are actually practiced today were either reshaped or developed between the mid 19th and mid 20th century.

It is important to remember that these fighting arts are simply one aspect, a single manifestation, of popular culture.  As society changes, they must also evolve.  Thus the martial arts practiced today reflect the many debates about modernity which gripped China for much of the 20th century.  The various way in which they attempted to codify these ideological disputes in embodied practice is one of the things that makes them of such great interests to historians and social scientists.

These are only some of the topics covered in this weeks readings.  It wouldn’t be hard to structure an entire class around a comparative examination of the way these debates played out over the course of the 20th century in China, Japan and the West.  There would certainly be ample literature to support such a project.


Required Readings

  • Henning Eichberg, “A Revolution of Body Culture? Traditional Games on the Way from Modernisation to ‘Postmodernity,’” Body Cultures: Essays on Sport, Space, and Identity, (London: Routledge, 1998), 128-148.
  • Paul A. Cohen, “Mass Spirit Possession,” History in Three Keys: The Boxers as Event, Experience, and Myth, (New York: Columbia University Press, 1997), 96-118.
  • Peter Lorge, “Post-Imperial China,” Chinese Martial Arts: From Antiquity to the Twenty-First Century, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 212-237.
  • Susan Brownell, “Wushu and the Olympic Games: ‘Combination of East and West’ or Clash of Body Cultures?” Perfect Bodies: Sports, Medicine, and Immortality, Vivienne Lo, ed., (London: British Museum, 2012), 59-69.


Further Suggested Readings

  • Andrew Morris. 2004. Marrow of the Nation: A History of Sport and Physical Culture in Republican China. University of California Press.  Chapter 7: “From martial arts to national skills: the construction of a modern indigenous physical culture,” 1912–37
  • THE ANNALS OF JINGWU (精武體育會, Also known as the Pure Martial 10 Year Anniversary Book) by the Jingwu Athletic Association. Shanghai: December 1919.


Notes on the Readings

Our schedule has been revised to reflect a post-COVID-19 world where students cannot simply visit the library to look at some of the physical volumes on reserve.  As such, there has been some shuffling in the reading list.  Still, the reading that we could get on the electronic reserves provided the undergrads with a nice overview of the area.

Obviously any reader of Kung Fu Tea will already be familiar with Peter Lorge’s important Chinese Martial Arts (Cambridge UP, 2012).  While his discussion on the post-1911 period is the least detailed chapter in the book, it quickly gets readers up to speed on the important national and regional trends that shaped the Chinese martial arts in the first half of the 20th century.

The selection from Paul Cohen’s History in Three Keys provides a starting point (or foil) to this discussion by reviewing spirit possession and invulnerability practices during the Boxer Rebellion (1899-1900).  The national humiliation that resulted from this episode seriously damaged the popularity of the Chinese martial arts for the better part of a generation.  During the 1910s and 1920s, reformers within the New Wushu, Jingwu and Guoshu movements would work hard to distance themselves from this legacy while their opponents were equally persistent in tarring them with that brush.  Cohen’s entire book is mandatory reading for serious students of Martial Arts Studies, but for this unit only a single chapter is assigned.

Henning Eichberg’s chapter has largely escaped discussion within the field as he has very little to say about martial arts.  However, this work merits attention as it provides a broader historical and sociological discussion of the mechanisms behind the globalization and reform of all sorts of physical culture movements during the 20th century.  Much of his attention is focused on the rise of national level physical culture discourses in Eastern Europe during the 19th century, and the reemergence of similar interest in the post-Soviet era.  His typology of traditional, modern and post-modern practices might be of interest to students of East Asian sports development.

Susan Brownell also explores the global context of international sports competition, but more explicitly addresses the success of some martial arts within the Olympic movement (Judo, Taekwondo and now Karate) in comparison to Wushu’s repeated setbacks.  She asks readers to consider multiple explanations for Wushu’s failures to gain the IOC’s approval and focuses on the ways that Western understanding of the body conditions what we consider to be a “proper” sport.  While  I have some quibbles about this article (the discussion of how most new events enter the olympics is fairly dated) her basic conclusions seem sound.  One strongly suspects that Wushu’s headwinds reflect both China’s struggle to gain more influence within the IOC institutionally, as well as its efforts to spread its body culture globally.

Still, I might suggest that readers also consider a few additional readings.  The seventh chapter of Andrew Morris’ Marrow of the Nation is perhaps the single most influential piece that has been published on the modern history of the Chinese martial arts. There is no need to take my word of that.  Simply pay attention to the footnotes of practically everything published after its release to get a sense of the impact that Morris has had on the development of our field.  Given his foundational status, I would say that this chapter needs to anchor any discussion.

Nor would such a reading list be complete without some primary sources.  While procuring these for earlier periods of Chinese history was difficult, in the current case we are blessed with an embarrassment of riches.  The 1910s-1950s saw an explosion of publications on the practice and philosophy of the Chinese martial arts.  Most of these pieces also feature numerous photographs giving us a sense of how authors and publishers imagined martial Chinese bodies.  Paul Brennan has recently completed a translation of the Jingwu Association’s  10 year anniversary volume published in 1919.  The opening prefaces and essays are short, but rich in detail for anyone wanting to understanding the cultural and ideological trajectory of the Chinese martial arts during this period.  I would highly recommend adding this, or something like it, to your personal reading lists.


Discussion Questions

  1. How does Eichberg’s schema situate traditional, modern, and postmodern phases of “traditional games”? Are these schema useful for analyzing the development of Chinese (and Japanese) martial arts? How so?
  2. In what ways did the processes of re-inventing Chinese martial arts traditions differ between the Ming/Qing and the twentieth centuries (particularly with regard to Jingwu/Guoshu)?
  3. How do the notions of “tradition” and “reform” evolve in various periods of Chinese martial arts history?  Consider both mass spirit possession among the Boxers (1899-1900) and later writings on the emergence of Qigong (1980s-1990s) and its “spiritual” manifestations?

The Chinese Boxing Club of Fukien Christian University. Source:


Can Tradition Tell us About the “Reality” of Chinese Martial Practice?

As I listened to the students discuss this week’s reading questions, my mind kept drifting towards the ways that “tradition” and modernization (or maybe “science”) has been contested in the modern history of the Chinese martial arts.  It would be all to easy to pin this on the Republican era reformers of the Jingwu Association, or the Centeral Guoshu Academy.  Yet in truth these ideas remain very much with us and seem to be driving concepts within the global TCMA community.

Thanks to COVID-19, martial arts practitioners in the West are spending even more time at their keyboards than normal.  As a result a certain type of discourse, which was pretty common to begin with, seems to be emerging even more frequently than I had previously noted.  I am particularly fascinated by instances in which Western martial artists watch a video of someone in China or Hong Kong doing something slightly innovative and begin to loudly proclaim that not only is what they are watching garbage, but that it is “not even a real Chinese martial art.”  This is not to imply that gatekeeping behavior never happens in China. It certainly does.  And the quality of random videos on social media is highly variable at the best of times. But the frequent emergence of these Western voices of tradition strikes me as interesting.

The video that caused this week’s conflagration emerged out of the corner of social media dedicated to Wing Chun.  Given its self-conception as a “serious fighting art,” viral defeats of supposed Wing Chun masters at the hands of middling MMA fighters in social media videos have caused waves in the community.  As a result, over the last few years we have seen an increase in the numbers of schools that integrate competitive full contact (MMA-type) sparring into their curriculum.

On the surface this would seem to be a pretty clear violation of “tradition.”  Ip Man taught many practical skills. And by all accounts he encouraged his students to get outside and mix things up on the streets as a way of gaining practical experience.  But whatever Hong Kong’s legendary roof top fights were, they were not five minute MMA sparring rounds complete with gloves, mouth-guards, head gear and extensive ground fighting.  It can be challenging to imagine how Wing Chun’s concepts should manifest themselves, what they should look like, when moved into a different spatial and cultural environment from the one that they evolved in.  And while some readers commended the Chinese martial artists for getting in the ring for a serious workout against individuals from a different style (and it should be noted these were ongoing video training journals, not challenge fights), the vastly more commentators felt the need to note that what they saw “doesn’t look like Wing Chun” and in a few cases “shows no evidence of having any relationship to Chinese martial arts.”

That last point is a particularly vexing charge to toss at actual Chinese martial artists, living in China, attempting to adapt their style to deal with new challenges and training modalities coming largely from the West.  Still, it is not an uncommon sentiment.  I have run into this statement so many times that it hardly registers anymore.  Perhaps it is time to consider what is really going on here, and what it might suggest about prior periods where notions of “tradition” were also invoked in debates about the fundamental nature of Chinese martial arts.

As a matter of intellectual policy, I take a rather expansive view of what defines “Chinese martial arts culture.”  Rather than forcing the lived experiences of a continent full of people, across literally centuries of time, to conform to an arbitrary definition of my own creation, I prefer to let the individuals whom I am researching debate, stabilize and deconstruct these definitions for me. The process of how this happens is actually much more important than any single definition that might emerge at a given time or place.

In practice this means that “Chinese martial arts” are what Chinese fighting communities (and other adjacent populations) actually do, and this changes over time.  Some of the changes have been pretty radical and remind us that the Chinese martial arts never existed in pristine isolation from the rest of the world.  We could all multiply examples.  Ancient chariot warfare in China bore more than a passing resemblance to chariot traditions in the near East where the basic technology likely originated.  But eventually charioteers and dagger-axes gave way to infantry armed with steel swords and spears.  In time they would be supplemented with horsemanship, archery and saber technology developed by nomadic northern tribes but quickly adopted by the Han.  The sudden appearances of Japanese pirates wielding katanas touched off a revival of interest in two handed dao and jian among the martial artists of the late-Ming.  Further, modern Japanese training methods and the global popularity of Judo were major topic of conversation among all Republican era martial arts reformers during the 1920s-1930s.

I do not doubt that that in such a thing as “Chinese body culture” exists, or that it has a large impact on how the traditional martial arts are practiced and performed.  Yet it would clearly be an error to assume that it is essentialist in nature and unchanging through time.  Put simply, charioteering is no longer the apex of martial arts achievement that it once was.  Things change, almost beyond recognition, in the very long run.  And in the short-term world of market competition and fads, they can be hard to spot as well.  Social media videos of Taijiquan and Wing Chun masters being unceremoniously flattened have had a notable impact on the sorts of physical training Chinese consumers find desirable.  As such, “bodily culture” seems to be something that is negotiated, stabilized and retrospectively identified in the medium term.

In that sense I suppose I can agree with the Western critics of the Chinese Wing Chun school.  What they were doing didn’t look a lot like the Wing Chun that I learned.  How could it?  It was occurring in a different physical and cultural space administered by a different set of explicit and implicit rules about what a proper fight should look like.  To be totally honest I have a hard time imagining that any art would look the same when subjected to so many layers translation and dislocation.

Perhaps what we should take away from this is that “bodily culture,” as a category, is not timeless and unchanging.  It may not even monopolize current cultural values.  Chinese fighters can certainly train for, and obsess over, MMA matches without surrendering their native cultural.  Rather, the “bodily culture” that we enjoy in the martial arts reflects negotiations and stabilizations that happen within explicitly subcultural communities.

This is important as while subcultural groups often draw values and concepts from the dominant culture, they are not defined by them.  Thus they have a degree of social flexibility which allows them to respond to shocks in their environment.  This is critical for martial arts communities as one of their primary social functions is to provide support during times of crisis.  These are moments when adaptation is necessary.

Westerners falsely viewed the turn of the century Boxers as a quintessential manifestation of everything that was backwards and dangerous about traditional Chinese culture.  Its true that spirit possession, theater and martial arts groups were all aspects of local Chinese society.  Yet by focusing on these discrete points, we miss the rather obvious truth that the eruption of the Yihi Boxers in 1899 was a new event that shocked many Chinese people who actually witnessed these events on the ground.  Yes they understood all of the individual cultural pieces that would go on to define the Boxer movement. But now they were coming together in new ways that allowed for different social actions than the Big Sword Societies that came before, or the Red Spears that would emerge two decades later.  To simply harp on the fact that all three groups used some sort of invulnerability magic, and were thus “traditional,” misses the extent to which each one of them was actually an innovative response to a different set of problems.

Likewise, it is easy to locate the technical origins of the Qigong Fever of the 1990s in state led medical innovations that happened during the 1950s.  But if we leave the trauma of the Cultural Revolution out of our story, or forget to mention the scaling back of the science based hospital healthcare system in the 1990s (due in large part to China’s ascension into the Western led WTO system), we miss the degree to which this eruption of “traditional” culture was really an innovative response to an economic shock that largely originated outside the Chinese state.  One cannot address a crisis without innovation, and you cannot reassure the people without also arguing that on a deep or fundamental level, “nothing has changed.”  Discourses promoting the notion of tradition or continuity are part of the very fabric of social adjustment.

Calls to respect tradition can thus be used to delegitimize change and innovation, perhaps by a group of American Wing Chun enthusiasts who got into Kung Fu after watching the Ip Man films. One suspects that at least some Westerners have been drawn to the TCMA over the decade precisely because they were looking for an alternative to MMA. Unfortunately, as Rey Chow reminds us, such arguments can often manifest as calls for coercive mimeticism when they occur in a cross-cultural setting charged with Orientalist desire.

Alternatively, tradition can be invoked by reformers to legitimate change within a practice. Witness the army of Chinese writers now producing weekly columns arguing that MMA was actually invented in China because Bruce Lee did some ground fighting in that one scene in Enter the Dragon. Our experience of “tradition” as a social category is result of countless ongoing negotiations just like this one.

So did the Chinese Wing Chun students that inspired this discussion abandon their native “body culture” by virtue of getting in the Octagon?  I suspect that for a definitive answer we will need to revisit this question in another 10-15 years.  That is how long cultural negotiation (and generational change) takes.  If Chinese fighters continue to perform well in UFC events, further popularizing what had been Western training modalities, we maybe seeing the start of a new chapter in the development of Kung Fu.  Alternatively, if Wushu finally makes it into the Olympics and becomes a major source of Gold medals and nationalist pride, things could go very quickly in a different direction.  I am sure that no matter what happens, claims of “tradition” will prove to be the perfect tool to naturalize China’s ever evolving martial art body culture.



If you enjoyed this post you might also want to read: Telling the Story of China’s Martial Arts: Julius Eigner, Foreign Journalists and Nazi Propaganda






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)


Salvage as Method in Martial Arts Studies


***What follows is the text of my keynote address delivered at the 2019 Exploring Imperial China Workshop held on June 5-6 at Tel Aviv University.  I would like to thank both the Department of East Asian Studies and the Confucius Institute for inviting me to take part in this event which showcased some great work by young scholars.  You can read my report on the conference here.  This paper was read to a mixed group of historians and social scientists who, with a few notable exceptions, were not familiar with the field of Martial Arts Studies.  However, the conference organizers asked me to discuss some of the methodological challenges and possibilities that I have encountered in this exciting new research area.  I have not altered the text of the paper that I read, but I have selected a much smaller number of slides to accompany this presentation of the material. Enjoy!***



I have been asked to discuss some points regarding methodological challenges in my own research, and how some of these same issues have been manifest in the creation of Martial Arts Studies. That is a quickly growing interdisciplinary field comprised of social scientists, historians, critical theorists, anthropologists and media studies scholars, all interested in asking related questions about the emergence and function of various hand combat systems which have existed historically, as well as those that we see in the world today.

Given that this is a fairly young research field, and one that I have been involved with since before the beginning of its formal institutionalization, I believe that I can speak to these issues.  By way of introduction my own background is in the field of International Relations, and my research interests focus on the ways in which globalization, meaning increased flows of information and trade, can disrupt society.

My first project in this area was a social history of the Southern Chinese martial arts (published by SUNY Press in 2015) and the creation of a scholarly blog, titled Kung Fu Tea.  The blog helped to assemble, and give shape to, a nascent academic conversation between scholars in a wide variety of field on the martial arts.  In 2015 I helped to co-found, along with Paul Bowman, an interdisciplinary journal intended to give this sort of research a formal home.  Since then we have seen the creation of conferences, book series, other journals, research networks and large research grants.

Today we have scholars from a wide variety of disciplines, and in a wider variety of countries, all coming together to discuss the development and meaning of these fighting systems.  Whereas in the 1990s or early 2000s it was unusual to find any academic work being published on these systems, the last few years have seen a veritable explosion of articles, monographs and collected volumes.

Still, this rapid success suggests some issues that require careful consideration.  The martial arts, as a social phenomenon can be examined through a variety of disciplinary lens because they sit, rather uncomfortably, at the intersection of social institutions, embodied practice, media-scape, political ideology and historical process.  As Paul Bowman, Douglas Farrer, Thomas Green, myself and others have noted, if we want to understand the social function of the martial arts in the world today, or at any point in the past, it is difficult to do so using only a single set of disciplinary lens, no matter how finely ground they might be.

This does not mean that we should never conduct research on the martial arts within a disciplinary framework.  The young scholars who are contributing to these literatures today will inevitably be evaluated by hiring and promotion committees largely on the extent to which they have succeeded in contributing to a disciplinary literature.  And the good news is that it is not that difficult to use some aspect of the martial arts to make insightful arguments about historical processes, social structures or the evolution of the media landscape.

We can always think of these practices either as a dependent variable (the thing explained), or an independent variable (part of the explanation), of a larger descriptive story or causal theory.  When we employ some aspect of the martial arts as a descriptive lens to explore a disciplinary problem, we are typically employing these practices as independent variable within a larger investigation of some other topic, say, the rise of specific notions of nationalism, modernity or identity.

But here is the catch to a purely disciplinary approach. One can only do this for so long before the afore mentioned promotion committees and publishers begin to ask, “why martial arts?”  Yes, it is an interesting lens, but they are many other, better understood, facets of life, from labor movements to other aspects of popular culture that might cover the same ground just as well.

This is what really sets the current martial arts studies literature apart from the sorts of disciplinary discussions that we have seen from time to time.  It is more willing to take the exploration of the martial arts themselves as its central object.  Noting that some types of combative practices are almost universal, yet their form and social meaning varies widely, Martial Arts Studies allows us to investigate an even more basic set of questions.



How have specific practices been constructed and stabilized?  How do cultural, environment and social patterns manifest themselves in martial practice? Or what is the relationship between the martial arts and the varieties of modernity that arose in the 19thand 20thcentury.

When we explicitly make martial practice the object of our investigation, it becomes almost impossible to ignore the advantages of interdisciplinary approaches.  In an era in which our lives are ever more subject to the iron logic of specialization, individuals turn to the martial arts at least in part as they are a single tool that promises to create unity across many areas of one’s life.

In a world increasingly fraught with perceived personal insecurity, they offer the assurance of self-defense.  As traditional communities crumble, they offer a new type of belonging and the promise of social capital.  Their often-touted spiritual value is invoked within increasingly secular societies.  Even their health benefits have become a common talking point.


Methodological Triangulation

Nor are the effects of martial practice confined to the individual.  The creation and expansion of these practices can generate systemic effects, hence the enthusiasm of many government (from the Japanese in the 1920s, to the Koreans in the 1970s) in promoting these practices. Still, coming to terms with the benefits of interdisciplinary approaches can be more or less challenging depending on the disciplinary background that one emerges from.  My training within Political Science has been helpful in this regard as “Methodological Triangulation” has become the order of the day during the early 2000s.

Any well-constructed study within International Relations might now begin with a purely theoretical argument, using concepts derived from critical theory, political philosophy or game theory.  These might be explored with qualitative historical case studies.  And the entire thing would inevitably be finished off with large-N statistical analysis meant to test some sort of causal or descriptive theory.  Given the complexity of global events, the claim here is that any single interpretive lens might only offer an incomplete image.  But a mixture of approaches increases the reliability of the final image. Methodological triangulation is thus a way (imperfect to be sure) to deal with the “single observer” problem.



A similar consensus seems to be emerging within the field of Martial Arts Studies.  Gratefully, it is not quite so formulaic as what we see in the IR literature.  Our interdisciplinary insights more often emerge through edited volumes, or single projects completed by a team of researchers. Yet the basic insights about the importance of methodological triangulation, especially as we begin to tackle questions that sit at the intersections of the traditional disciplines, remains the same.

Yet some very different methodological challenges arise in the actual execution of a Martial Arts Studies project.  Much that the data that goes into methodological triangulation in political science comes from well-established public records, datasets, established literatures, or occasionally “expert interviews.”  When I describe my martial arts centered research to my colleagues in political science, their first question is typically something along of the lines of “yes, but how can you study that?”  It is not that they doubt the theoretical validity of the projects, but rather, they can’t imagine where you would get reliable data on something like martial arts practice by working class individuals in China during the 1920s.

Therein lies both the strength and the day to day challenge of martial arts studies.  Rather than diplomatic history or national politics, our subject is almost always a matter of previously unexamined popular culture.  Even when governments attempt to interject themselves into these practices it is typically because they are searching for tools to project their influence within society itself.  And very little of this sort of popular history ever gets recorded, archived and made available in your local university library.  Much of it is epiphenomenal and is immediately lost once the initial moment of practice or consumption is gone.  Yet the impacts and externalities of these actives can live on in unexpected ways.





Salvaging Social Memory

Consider if you will the following clip.  This footage was shot for a newsreel in the Manhattan Chinatown during the celebration of the Lunar New Year in 1929. In this clip we can see a number of unarmed forms being demonstrated.  These are followed by demonstrations of various traditional weapons, and two-man weapons sets.  It was not unheard of for newsreels to have the occasional clip of Lion Dancing or one of the martial arts demonstrations that went along with it.  But those features were almost always very brief and not terribly informative.

This piece of film, however, is very different.  It contains long representations of complete sets. It is probably the earliest recording that we currently possess of Southern Chinese martial arts being practice in North America.  Indeed, I don’t think there is any doubt that this is the single most significant representation of the Chinese martial arts in the pre-war diaspora that we currently possess.

So where was it found?  Literally in the trash.  Or more specifically on the cutting room floor.  All of this wonderful material?  We have it because it never made it into a completed newsreel. These are the out-takes that were gathered together along with miscellaneous clippings of other scenes of singing and dancing from the same time period.  They were quickly forgotten, never displayed, and never discussed by any source in the martial arts studies literature.  Indeed, you are the first scholarly audience to ever see this material which I ran across, totally by accident, while searching a video archive for examples of “big sword” wielding Chinese troops in the 1930s (a slightly more common topic in that era’s newsreels).

Maybe it’s a good thing that this footage was never used as the vast majority of American newsreels from the 1920s and 1930s were simply destroyed or allowed to rot.  They were never archived at the time as they were viewed as that week’s ephemera.  While historians look back on these things as a vitally important resource for understanding the era’s popular culture, norms and beliefs, at the time they were garbage. So we are very lucky that this footage has survived, even if it has continued to escape serious historical or social study.

Nor is it alone.  Much of the empirical evidence that my research draws on comes, either metaphorically or directly, out of society’s waste bins.  This charming postcard was actually sent to me as backing material when I ordered another photograph from an auction company.  That is important as it reminds us that images of the Chinese martial arts circulated much more freely in the pre-WII era than most people would suspect.  But its very difficult to flesh out the details of what was in the public imagination. By in large there are no catalogs of these images in your university library.  To locate this material you have to spend hours going through piles of random vintage postcards. Sometimes this happens on-line.  But some of my best finds have been at antique shops.



Newspaper photographs are also an important witness how the Chinese martial arts appeared, and were imagined, by the public at various points in time.  But again, in the 2000s photo archives that had taken decades to collect were taken out and tossed in dumpsters across North America.  Luckily some of these have been recovered and these sorts of images now occasionally show up in places like ebay. And that is important as a few of these images are really irreplaceable and almost none of them are in University collections.

Likewise, China’s foreign language treaty port newspapers have proved to be an incredible source of insight into the public discussion of the martial arts during the Republic period of the 1920s-1930s.  But again, society doesn’t really value 100 year old newspaper clippings, and relatively few historians ever address these sources.

Obviously, there are reasons for this.  Chinese language papers, and the newsletters of various Jingwu or Guoshu branches, offer an even greater wealth of information (at least those that survived do).  Some of China’s pre-war martial arts reformers were acutely aware of the low social esteem that their practices were held in, often being associated with the illiterate working class.  To combat this tendency, they went out of their way to publish practical manuals, patriotic discussions and photographs showing their martial arts as resolutely rational, modern and scientific projects free from the taint of regionalism, religious superstition or the opera.

By in large these were the sources that survived as their creators went to some length to ensure that it would. Unsurprisingly their reading forms the backbone of many current historical discussions of the Chinese martial arts. Yet just as society makes efforts to remember some material, it also goes to lengths to forget other facts.  As Ernest Renan reminds us the nation, and really any identity, in constructed through the dual process of remembering and forgetting.

At the same time that the central Guoshu Association was circulating images middle class martial arts reformers, dressed as though they were headed out for an afternoon of golf, tens of millions of desperate peasants in China’s impoverished northern regions were joining Red Spear militia societies. Here they received training in both their name sake weapon and a rich catalog of magical practices that were designed to make them invulnerable to bullets.  Remember this is happening in the 1920s-1940s.

These groups were not all that different from the Yihi Boxers of the 1900 Boxer Uprising.  And they proved to be surprisingly effective when it came to beating back both government tax collectors and the intrusions of independent Warlords.  I would love to show you some gripping photographs of these groups, but somehow, very few, have survived.  While the Red Spears outnumbered China’s middle-class martial arts reformers by at least 10 to 1, their existence has been effectively expunged from the socially accepted narrative of the Chinese martial arts.




This process of forgetting is by no means confined to events and identities in China.  Any review of the secondary literature on the spread of the Chinese martial arts to North America, particularly those things written from the perspective of cultural and media studies, suggests that these practices were unknown prior to the “Kung Fu Fever” that Bruce Lee unleased upon global media markets in the early 1970s.

Now, in one sense it should be obvious that this cannot be strictly true. When Lee arrived in America, he found other individuals already teaching and studying and Chinese martial arts, as outlined so well by Charles Russo in his excellent history of period, Striking Distance (Nebraska UP, 2016).  And the burgeoning Judo/Karate debate that was dominating the pages of popular publications like Black Belt in the 1960s ensured that a small but dedicated group of striking enthusiasts were actively searching for knowledge about Chinese Kung Fu in an effort to better understand the origins of Okinawan Karate.

Still, one might argue that this knowledge was restricted to a small number of hand combat aficionados.  The vast majority of Americans would never hear of Kung Fu until Bruce Lee brought them that revelation through the silver screen.

This is the conventional wisdom as it currently exists in my field.  And it makes sense until we start looking at the era’s cultural trash and asking what can be salvaged?  Lets start by thinking again about the newsreels, the postcards and all of the photographs of “Big Sword Troops” that we find.  Japanese aggression in China was a major point of public debate prior to, and during WWII, and every time the Chinese army was brought up, somewhere in the background lurks images of Chinese solider training to use their intimidating dadao.

Nor can we forget that China debuted its martial arts in the 1936 Berlin Olympics. The Nazi government made sure to give these displays glowing reports on all of the newswire services as at the time they were equipping and training the Chinese military.  If we want to go further back, the Boxer Rebellion was the single largest media event of the early 20thcentury.  Everyone in the Western world knew exactly what Chinese boxing was in 1900. Lastly, martial practices were demonstrated by Chinese student associations on pretty much every American University or College campus where they had a presence throughout the 1920s and 1930s.



So how did all of this come to be forgotten in 1945? That is the actual question.  And the answer appears to be something quite different from what we have supposed.

While a group of teens, children and young adults may have been introduced to Kung Fu through Lee’s films, by in large their parents and grand-parents were more familiar than one might think with Chinese boxing.  Yet they remained unimpressed as these things were ideologically associated with defeat on the battlefield and a stubborn resistance to economic modernization.

All of this was explicitly forgotten by Hollywood when the timing was right to sell a new and more compelling vision of the martial arts that resounded with the post-colonial and anti-establishment politics of the 1970s.  When we begin our investigation by salvaging what has been forgotten, we see that the real question isn’t “Why did Kung Fu have to wait until 1973 to be discovered,” but rather “why in the early 1970s was a radical realignment of popular views on Chinese culture possible, and how did that shape martial practice at that specific point in time.”

It is these acts of salvage that remind us that the past is not simply a linear extrapolation of the present.  It was a different, highly contingent, country, and the martial arts were at times very different practices.  A cultivated air of timelessness not-withstanding, they are flexible structures constantly adapting to, and expressing, the environment that they are embedded within.


Salvage as Method in Martial Arts Studies

Within the context of martial arts studies this methodology of salvage is more than simply an antiquarian impulse, or an obsession with the sort of connoisseurship which defines so much of today’s popular culture. Yet recently we have seen the question of salvage emerge within the realm of methodological discussions.

While the current field of Martial Art Studies is fairly young, it is only the latest (and most successful) in a long line of attempts to bring the study of hand combat into the academy.  Perhaps its best-known predecessor was “hoplology,” a proposed field dedicated to the study of human combative behavior that never really succeeded in finding its foothold in the University.



In some respects, hoplology itself is the product of its own revitalization movement.  The term was originally coined by Sir Richard Burton, a pioneering student of anthology and human culture, in the late 19thcentury as a label under which to publish some of his various cross-cultural studies of fencing and other fighting techniques.  A longtime veteran of the British Army, Burton had plenty of opportunities to study “human combative behavior” while stationed in South Asia. The label gained some currency and other early anthropologists, engaged in the practice of Salvage Ethnography, contributed to the literature.

The term “Salvage Ethnography,” used to characterize the work of Franz Boaz and his American students, described their attempts to catalog the languages, lifeways and material cultures of the world’s indigenous populations before they vanished forever.  Boaz and other also collected weapons and stories of their use contributing to the nascent hoplology literature.

Unfortunately shifting intellectual trends after WWI led to the abandonment of the field.  And it would be hard to argue that much of the early literature was not coming out of, and developed in service of, the era’s history of colonialism.  Again, one only has to remember what brought Burton into contact with South Asia’s various martial traditions.

Yet rather than simply fading away, hoplology was rescued (or perhaps reinvented) by another soldier and amateur scholar, this time in the wake of WWII.  Donn F. Draeger spent much of the postwar period in Japan studying first Judo and Kendo, and then a wide selection of older and more traditional Japanese arts.  Again, in the wake of Japan’s defeat in the Second World War it was widely believed that many of its indigenous fighting systems were on the cusp of vanishing forever.

Under the banner of Hoplology Draeger, who had no formal graduate level academic training in any scholarly discipline, but was profoundly shaped by his time as a US Marine, began to send other students into the field, placing them with threatened traditional schools and systematically publishing the results of his study of Japan’s true battlefield martial arts. Later he and his followers would mount expeditions to other areas, including South East Asia, adding a greater comparative dimension to their work.

Ultimately this vision of hoplology also failed to find a home in the academy for a variety of reasons.  Draeger had planned to start a research center at the University of Hawaii, but that fell apart following his unexpected death in 1982.  Clearly, we owe figures like Draeger and R. W. Smith a debt of gratitude for bringing some rigor to the discussion of the martial arts.  Yet ultimately the structures they constructed were not something that future scholars could build on.



Salvage, while empirically useful, also has a negative aspect.  In their rush to document arts which they believed (possibly incorrectly) to be dying, the hoplology literature of the post-war era created a skewed view of these practices.  In its obsession to recover the “battle field secrets” of “professional soldiers”, an interest that doubtless stemmed from the more recent military experience of many of these former-GI’s turned social observers, Draeger and the others failed to note that not only were the traditional martial arts not vanishing, they were about to enter their period of greatest popularity.

Indeed, during the 1970s and 1980s more people around the planet were suddenly studying these combative systems than ever before. Yet this was not the sort of phenomenon that a methodology based in salvage anthropology was well positioned to examine.

And the questions that were asked were often skewed by the perspectives of those making the inquiries. In his work Draeger sharply differentiated between civilian arts (which he made a point of dismissing as “plebian”) and the “real” military martial arts that reflected his understandings, and misunderstandings, of Japanese history. Yet those same categories could not really deal with fine gradations of social violence that dominated Chinese life during the Late Imperial period.  It was this, along with China’s poor battlefield showing during the Second World War, that led Draeger to dismiss these arts as unimportant at every turn.

And yet when Bruce Lee would explode onto the scene, aside from clutching at their pearls, he and R. W. Smith would have very little productive to say about perhaps the single most important event in the global spread of the Asian martial arts during their lifetime.  Indeed, rereading this material from our current vantage point, it becomes evident that almost every methodological criticism directed at Salvage Anthropology during the 1980s and 1990s applies equally to Draeger’s postwar experiments in Hoplology.

Doubtless this was the reason why the early pioneers of the current field of Martial Art Studies sought to make a clear break with the past.  Much of the earlier Hoplology literature was pre-theoretical.  Then, in its later stages when more comparative questions were being asked, it tended to turn to varieties of socio-biology that have not aged well.  I would like to argue instead that the actual strength of this earlier literature was always in its observations and reporting of empirical practices.

The current martial arts studies literature, on the other hand, is also not perfect.  It often seems oddly detached from the details of a specific set of practices.  Perhaps because it quite consciously seeks to draw on the most up to date theoretical innovations, it has tended to focus on larger questions of meaning, identity and embodiment.  While specific practices may inspire these studies, or even provided the basis for a case study, projects are written in such a way as to be as broadly applicable as possible.  The strength of a highly theoretical is to make our insights portable.

Yet in the last year or so the pendulum seems to have swung in the other direction.  In an effort to bring the same sort of precision and richness to the empirical side of the equation, I and a few others have started to discuss the possibility of a New Hoplology.  Again, this is a conscious effort to turn to past insights to address a current need in the literature.  Yet we cannot allow ourselves to be driven by a pure sense of nostalgia.  There is often a very good reason that something ends up on the scrap-heap of history, and so our borrowing must be discerning.

What might a New Hoplology look like?  At a minimum a New Hoplology would need to be a theoretically rather than socially driven project.  It must acknowledge that recording the details of practice in newly emerging arts offers no less insight into the nature of human culture than recording vanishing practices. Indeed, it must acknowledge clearly that culture and society are the proper field of study, rather than socio-bilogy and “human evolution.” As I have argued at length elsewhere, a constant (evolution) cannot explain a variable (how combative behavior varies by time and place).  And those aspects of combative behavior which are truly constant throughout the human experience also tend to be of relatively little social relevance. Finally, a New Hoplology must also begin by critically examining its own past and distancing itself from the project of empire and imperialism, something that colored its work both in the late 19th and mid 20th century.



Perhaps the best way to do this would be, without hierarchy or judgement, to look at a much wider range human experience, telling the often neglected stories of females within or around martial arts communities, or documenting marginal and neglected practices, such as machete fencing in Columbia or Haiti, or stick fighting in the Caribbean.

In conclusion, salvaging the past can be a powerful tool within Martial Arts Studies.  But only if we remember that the things we find there were also aspects of complex, ever shifting, social systems, and not artifacts of a mythic “better time.” Properly contextualized, these discussions can help us to understand the social functions that the martial arts perform now, as well as what they are likely to become in the future.



If you enjoyed this essay you might also want to see: Through a Lens Darkly (39): The Strength of Chinese Boxers


Contesting Kung Fu’s Soft Power: What Modern Chinese History Can Teach Us About Public and Cultural Diplomacy

Title slide for Judkins’ 2019 MAS Keynote, delivered on May 24 at Chapman University.



On May 24th I was asked to deliver the closing keynote address for the 2019 Martial Arts Studies meetings at Chapman University.  A special note of thanks must be extended to both Andrea Molle and Paul Bowman for organizing such an incredible set of meetings, and hosting this conference in North America for the very first time.  Their efforts allowed us to bring together a vibrant group of talented scholars and new faces. What follows is the text of my presentation, accompanied by a selection of slides. Hopefully this will convey something of the spirit of these wonderful meetings.


The Utility of Kung Fu Diplomacy

Every paper begins with a question.  Here is mine: Can the spread of a new method of sword combat encourage peace?  And what sort of connections might exist between any of the martial arts and politics, or conflict, more generally?

This second question has been the overarching theme of this year’s Martial Arts Studies conference, and as a political scientist, it’s a question that is near to my heart. My professional concerns tend to focus on the arena of international politics and inter-state competition.  Within that reified realm we might want to rephrase our question in the following way.  What links might exist between globalization of various martial traditions and patterns of international conflict? Might the practice of the East Asian Martial arts, or indeed any fighting system, help to contain the spread of mistrust, suspicion and ultimately inter-state violence?  Are these tools that we can look to in an increasingly isolationist and nationalist era?

Even suggesting such a question might seem audacious.  We could reasonably ask why the popularizations of certain combat systems, many of which claim to be rooted in specific moments of historical violence, might not strengthen nationalism and lead to increased isolation.  That certainly seems possible, and we might even see some support for that in the period prior to WWII.  But from a Realist position conflict within the international system is overdetermined, it is the natural order of things, so in some ways such a finding would not be very interesting.  It is those unexpected moments when cooperation emerges between potential rivals that are more interesting.

Yet our first question keeps remerging.  For instance, we might note that martial artists, individuals like Kano Jigoro or Morihei Ueshiba throughout the modern era have claimed, in all sincerity, that the practice of their arts would promote understanding, and through that a vision of world peace.  Can this homage to the “life-giving sword” ever be more than empty rhetoric?


Yu Chenghui in two of his more iconic film roles.


I was reminded of this question while conducting some fieldwork on modern Chinese swordsmanship at a recent workshop.  Yu Cheunghui is probably best remembered in the West for his various film appearances.  Within the TCMA he is most famous for inventing a taolu, or set, for the archaic double handed Jian, a weapon that was last used in anger by the Chinese military during the Tang dynasty.  I have always been interested in his set and so I was thrilled to be invited to a small workshop hosted by a couple of individuals who had studied briefly with Yu.

What was somewhat ironic was that such an event was taking place in Michigan rather than someplace in China.  Of course, Yu toured the US and taught his set to a number of Western students, including two of the people whom I was working with.  Neither of them spoke Chinese, but they could both recount the details of their time with Yu in great detail.  And both told a remarkably similar story.  When asked why he had created a somewhat archaic longsword form, Yu noted that he did this to promote global understanding and ultimately world peace.  Unable to speak English he decided that he needed to develop a different medium of communication. More specifically, Yu observed that many cultures around the world had some sort of longsword in their history.  In his views it was one of the universal notes of the human experience. So Yu believed that if he could revive the Chinese tradition, propagating it both in China and abroad, individuals who might never speak Chinese would still have an ability to understand something of the beauty of Chinese culture, and the nature of Chinese society, through experiencing their martial practices. This was possible, in his view, as Yu’s long sword was a culturally specific manifestation on a universal phenomenon.

Yu is by no means unique in this general conviction. I have run into similar ideas in the Wing Chun community. Nor can we forget that the entire Olympic movement builds strongly on the belief that athletic competition can foster mutual understanding and respect.

Scholars have theorized, probably correctly, that incomplete information and fear about another population or state’s intentions are leading causes of conflict.  Trans-national communities of commerce, study and practice are widely seen as creating the sorts of social networks that can both provide mutual understanding and act as an interest group in favor of increased cooperation rather than conflict.

Governments have often sought to encourage networks of trust as part of their larger “public diplomacy” strategy.  Public Diplomacy might be defined as a state supported effort to encourage either direct, or socially mediated, communication with the citizens of a target state to inform them or promote certain values, typically in a way that would further the sending state’s long-term strategic objectives. America’s efforts to build free lending libraries within its embassies, or to arrange for global tours of jazz musicians during the Cold War, are often pointed to as classic examples of public diplomacy campaigns.  Both efforts were designed to directly engage citizens in other countries and to give them first-hand knowledge of some aspect of American culture, thus generating mutual understanding.


American Jazz Diplomacy was a critical element of democratic and liberal outreach efforts during the Cold War.


Now, in light of the recent spike in information warfare directed at elections in various countries, I should immediately note that public diplomacy is not the same thing as propaganda, which is typically dealt with through a different body of theory.  What is envisioned here is a more open system of exchange and learning that does not presuppose a single “correct answer” that citizens of the target state are expected to be indoctrinated into. Public diplomacy campaigns tend to focus on long and medium range goals, rather than short term issues. Diplomacy has always been about locating and reaching those areas where mutual benefits are possible, and in this respect public diplomacy is not different from its traditional counterparts.

In actual practice there are many types of public diplomacy. In some cases, information campaigns are run out of embassies and are overseen directly by foreign service officers. In other instances, governments sign agreements allowing for educational or cultural exchanges, and then pretty much get out of the way, allowing private actors to speak directly to each other, carrying out the sorts of programs that private actors identify a local demand for.  There has been something of a debate in the literature as to which of these two approaches is the most effective (in my opinion it’s clearly the latter), though that is something that I hope to explore in the following cases.

Indeed, Yu Chenghui’s self-financed tour across America to promote the beauty of the Chinese longsword is one possible vision of what public diplomacy can look like.  Governments give out the visa’s, and the occasional travel grant, while private actors respond to preexisting demands to form links directly with their counterparts.  We might think of this as a horizontal model of public or cultural diplomacy.

One does not have to look hard to find the other possible models of organization.  Any search for news stories on the Chinese martial arts will quickly turn up dozens of nearly identical accounts of Wushu tournaments being held in various countries across the global South, inevitably sponsored by either the local Confucius Institute or directly supported by the staff of the local Chinese embassy.

Other stories will focus on martial arts exchange programs where promising local students, often from Africa, are sent to China, or Chinese instructors are brought on tours of regional schools. The English language press releases that chronical these events will inevitably contain quotes from local officials or consular staff explaining the positive social values that the study of the Chinese martial arts creates, and the strength of the transnational networks which are created.



Nor is China the only country interested in promoting their traditional fighting systems as a means of branding themselves within global markets, increasing their reserves of soft power.  States like Japan and Korea were quick to note the utility of the martial arts in building up one’s soft power reserves.  Both of these states have been perfecting kung fu diplomacy for decades.

Yet how effective can these efforts really be, and what sorts of strategies are most likely to be effective?  The PRC’s current efforts are doubly blessed in that Bruce Lee almost single handedly built the sort of name recognition for Kung Fu that most commercial brands can only dream of.  Further, China is now a wealthy country that can devote immense resources to promoting its public diplomacy strategy.

But what about less developed states like Indonesia or Brazil?  What can they hope to accomplish with fewer resources and perhaps less well-known practices? Can this typeof cultural diplomacy be an effective tool for a wide range of states, or is this something restricted to the Great Powers.  And how effective can the martial arts ever be as part of a global branding strategy?


Guoshu and the Olympic Spirit

While China’s current situation might not be the best guide for smaller states contemplating a similar strategy, I think that we will find a surprising amount of insight if we instead examine its first experimentations with these policies back in the 1920s and 1930s, many decades before Bruce Lee would make Kung Fu a household term around the world.  Prior to WWII China itself was a developing country in a hostile security environment.  The popularity of the Japanese martial arts in the pre-war period suggested to the financially and militarily struggling Nationalist government that it might enjoy more success in shoring up its international position by cultivating the “soft power” of its martial arts and making them part of the state’s public diplomacy strategy.

In order to address these questions, I would like to review two, closely linked, historical cases from this period.  These instances are important because they remind us that the notion of cultural or public diplomacy is not a new thing. While the academic literature on these topics only became fashionable after 9/11, these are diplomatic tools that nations have sought to use throughout the modern period, and they need to be studied in a historical as well as a theoretical context.



Second, these two observations struck me as interesting as they contrast with one another in important ways. One campaign focused on images that were largely civil in nature. The other emphasized the military, and militant, associations of the martial arts.  One set of images was designed to appeal to the Western middle class and emphasize the modernization within Chinese society, while the other focused attention on its traditionalism.  In one case a public campaign was constructed around somewhat problematic images that were already popular in the West, attempting to recast them in a heroic light, while in the other considerable resources were dedicated to shifting foreign perceptions on a much more fundamental level.  Lastly, while one of these strategies gained something of a foothold in the West’s public imagination, despite that great expense and effort, the other was quickly forgotten. I expect that even in this room few of us will remember the full story of Wushu’s first appearance in the Olympic games, or why it was that Hitler instructed his Ambassador in China to present special swastika adorned commemorative medals to two of China’s top martial arts authorities in 1936.

Perhaps this, our first Kung Fu Diplomacy case study, must begin by introducing the Western educated Chu Minyi (1884-1946), the most prominent civilian supporter of martial arts diplomacy within the Nationalist government during the 1930s.  He believed quite deeply in the necessity of spreading the practice of the martial arts within China, and their fame abroad.  In fact, he saw this as a necessity for national survival.

In many ways Chu was the ideal figure for such a mission, despite the fact that he never studied the martial arts in his youth. Like many young men from prominent families in his generation, he was sent abroad to acquire an international education. His global exploration began in Japan (where he studied politics) before he moved on to Belgium (where he earned a degree in medicine) and France. He was eventually awarded a doctorate from the University of Strasburg.  Chu was quite comfortable in the West and he possessed a modern, urbane and worldly outlook.

He returned to China and took up permanent residence in 1925. Rather than practicing medicine, the now middle-aged Chu received a variety of educational and political appointments from the government and he would move in and out of government circles for a number of years. Following the Japanese invasion in 1937 Chu Minyi would go on to hold important positions in Wang’s Nanjing puppet government including Foreign Minister and Ambassador to Japan, before being arrested and executed for collaboration in 1946.

I mention all of this as Chu’s Western education and modernist credentials were central to his understanding of the martial arts, and beliefs about what the government should do with them. While living in Europe Chu practiced various types of calisthenics and came to view the global order through the lens of Social Darwinism. These notions pepper his writings. Chu’s publications suggest that he was convinced that the Chinese state could only prosper if its population was strengthened, militarized, and welded into the same sort of “body politic” that was believed to be propelling the fortunes of fascist states like Italy, Germany and Japan.

It should be noted that in the 1930s this view was not rare within China’s physical culture community. While Chinese policy makers were sickened by the Nazi party’s theory of racial hierarchy, Andrew Morris has noted that Chu, in his writings, adopted the same notions of immutable national characteristics which were the foundation of the era’s racial politics.  He, and others, sought to use some of the the “scientific methods” of the fascist states in their attempts to strengthen China.  Chu’s earlier writings also suggest that he wished to forge closer ties with Japan, a nation that he saw as logical pan-Asian partner in ongoing global struggle.



Still, Chu Minyi was a relative late-comer to the Chinese martial arts community and only began to practice Wu-style taijiquan in middle-age.  What he lacked in martial experience he made up in enthusiasm. In his later writings Chu would describe himself as a “Taiji addict.”  This was a vivid image at a time when opium and heroin addiction were crippling public health epidemics in cities like Shanghai and Guangzhou.  As his many shirtless pictures and frequent public demonstration could attest, Chu kept himself in top physical shape.

A distinguished lineage notwithstanding, Chu’s approach to the martial arts was anything but traditional. His speeches and essays suggest a deep belief that these arts were not so much an instrument for individual improvement, self-defense or excellence.  Rather, they could only properly be understood as a communal exercise intended to strengthen the body politic of the Chinese nation as a whole. Properly reformed and framed, they were a means by which China could win respect throughout the global community. Individual martial arts practice was simply a means by which individual citizens might experience and become part of this great work.

Throughout his career Chu would seek to place both “national strengthening” efforts and martial arts on a firm scientific footing. He devised a number of mechanical training devices which could be used in Taijiquan practice when no training partners were available. But none of this innovation would be at all useful unless China could broadcast its newly discovered source of strength to the world. So he was always on the lookout for opportunities to do just that.

In 1930 Chu headed up China’s educational display at the “International Exhibition” in Liège.  He brought a number of his Taiji devices so that he could demonstrate their use to a global audience.  In doing so he hoped to prove that China had both a unique ancient system of physical education, but one that could be rationalized, taught and reproduced through mechanical and scientific means.  In an era when China strove to catch up with the West, he desperately wanted to argue that his nation also had something that to contribute to modernity.

After returning to China in 1931 Chu published a manual on a modernized practiced of his own creation called “tai chi calisthenics.”  Andrew Morris notes that in 1933 he had his exercises translated into English and French so that they would be more accessible to a global audience.  He even dropped the somewhat intimidating term “tai chi” from their titled and renamed them simply “circular exercises” for the benefit of Western readers.  These translated exercises were then presented to a global audience at the 1934 Brussels International Exhibition.

Yet some of Chu’s smaller scale initiatives were even more significant. In 1936 Chu personally led a martial arts demonstration at the International Arts Theater (a Western club) in Shanghai. It was judged to be such a success that a regular Taijiquan class was organized, led by one of Chu’s assistants from the original demonstration. This event is important as it suggests that at least some exhibitions staged during this period were able to convince Western audiences to take up the Chinese martial arts.

The growing enthusiasm for “Chinese boxing,” whipped up by press coverage the fast approaching 1936 Olympic games, may have also inspired the members of the IAT to take a closer look at these practices. English language treaty port newspapers (most notably The China Press) had run numerous stories on the government’s plan to send a martial arts exhibition team to Berlin, and even reported on the details of its selection and training.



The Berlin games were an international public diplomacy opportunity that Chu and the KMT’s foreign ministry simply could not ignore. This would be their best chance to display the vast strides that had been made in modernizing and rationalizing the Chinese martial arts (and by extension, Chinese society) before a truly global audience. The pageantry of the games offered a microcosmic stage on which the competitive reality of global politics played itself out.

China entered this arena with two distinct goals.  The first goal was simply to demonstrate that they were a member in good standing within the family of nations. Secondly, figures like Chu were desperate to prove that their national culture had intrinsic value, that it could be reformed for the modern age, much as the Japanese had done with bushido.  Chu was well aware that the best way to get your message heard on the global stage is to repeat it.  And repeat it he did, loudly and often.

The nine members of the martial exhibition team were selected on May 13th and English language press releases and newspaper articles began to appear as soon as the 14th.  By the 15th a feature article in The Chinese Press noted that martial arts squad, along with Ma’s newly selected track and field team, had been invited to a special event hosted by the German diplomatic delegation and local Chinese dignitaries.  While the Chinese track and field team dutifully listened to political speeches and watched propaganda films extolling Nazi Germany’s Olympic virtues, the newly formed demonstration squad was expected to entertain the international dignitaries with a martial arts exhibition.  Chu narrated the entire event in both Chinese and French, and translation was provided for those speaking other languages. This was only the first of the team’s many martial arts exhibitions designed to entertain and inform crowds about China’s unique athletic prowess.

Chu also sought to burnish the modernist credentials of the Chinese martial arts by employing the latest technology in his public relations campaign.  He commissioned a German language film titled “Our Nation’s Ancient Tiyu Styles” to be entered into the 1936 Olympic Sports and Physical Education Film Contest.  This project featured Chu personally demonstrating taijiquan, shuttlecock and traditional archery.  For good measure he included a fair amount of footage of his own, undeniably “modern,” mechanical training apparatuses.

When the time for the actual exhibition came, Chu ensured that the event would begin with a display of his own system of modernized tai chi calisthenics. As the demonstration progressed more traditional styles and two-person weapon sets were displayed before a capacity crowd. The action was prefaced by a prepared statement on the history and character of Chinese boxing read over both the public address system and broadcast on the radio. Chu Minyi also prepared a 28 page program for the spectators.  The taijiquan writer Martin Boedicker noted that the pamphlet contained identical texts written in English, French and German.



This was a very good night for China’s early Kung Fu diplomacy efforts. The assembled crowd of 30,000 spectators greeted the exhibition with enthusiastic applause.  The lightning quick performance of the two-person weapons sets made a lasting impression. Hitler was so impressed with one individual’s trident work that he actually refused to shake his hand when awarding a special trophy as he suspected that he may have called on supernatural powers.

With no Olympic veterans among its athletes or coaches, and only limited experience in international competition, China’s actual performance on the playing fields of the 1936 games was lackluster. Yet glowing accounts of its martial arts demonstration quickly made their way into the global press. It should be remembered that in 1936 Germany was still China’s most important economic and military alliance partner. At the time the Nazi regime was supplying the Chinese military with both weapons and advisors to assist in their conflict with the Japanese. Other German experts advised the Chinese government on economic reforms and social policy. Thus, the success of China’s “new army” in the 1930s was thus seen as a litmus test of Germany’s own efforts.

In this way the Nazi regime had a vested interest in China’s first Olympic outing being remembered as a success.  Their entirely propagandistic Trans-Oceanic Newswire service spread positive reviews of the martial arts demonstration. As late as 1938, Julius Eigner, a German reporter representing Trans-Oceanic in Shanghai, was producing English language articles on the Chinese martial arts.  And in June of 1937 Hitler blessed the success of these efforts when he instructed his ambassador in China to award both Zhang Zhijian and Chu Minyi special Olympic medals in light of their recent accomplishments. At the time it must have seemed that the investment in martial art diplomacy was finally paying off.

The end of the Berlin games did not signal a slowdown for Chu’s or the exhibition team.  After the closing ceremony they undertook an extensive public diplomacy tour.  The guoshu team demonstrated China’s unique physical culture. They traveled to a variety of German cities as well as Denmark, Sweden, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Austria and Italy. They also visited a number of ports of call in South East Asia on the journey there and back.



The Rise of the Big Sword Troops

Despite the foregoing government led efforts of the 1920s and 1930s, of which Chu’s bid for Olympic fame was only the most visible manifestation, the Chinese martial arts failed to gain any traction in the West. Nor did they ever succeed in establishing a progressive and middle-class image outside of their homeland. The various international tours and publicity campaigns pursued by figures like Chu always seemed to generate enthusiasm in the moment, but they were then quickly forgotten. In any event, the Japanese invasion in 1937 would render much of China’s prior public diplomatic strategy moot.

Yet the Chinese martial arts were not totally forgotten as the globe lumbered towards the Second World War. Rather, the sensational images of “boxers” and soldiers wielding immense blades which had first been popularized in the wake of the Boxer Rebellion reemerged and evolved (with the help of a new generation of journalists and propagandists) to dominate the Western imagination.

Some examples of this wartime transition from civil to martial themes might seem frivolous, yet they speak to the popularity of these images.  In 1938 Gum Inc. of Philadelphia began to distribute its now infamous “Horrors of War” trading card series. Whether their shocking portrayals of graphic violence (much of which focused on Japanese atrocities in China) actually succeeded in the stated aim of promoting pacifism among the nation’s youth is debatable. What is not debatable is the immense popularity of this series which, at one point, had more than 100 million cards in circulation in the United States.

One of its most popular images (No. 2) was titled “Chinese Big Sword Troops Resists Jap Forces.” The front of the card showed a pitch battle in which Chinese troops, wielding their signature dadaos, overran a Japanese machine gun nest while being strafed from the air.  At a time when the mood of the country was largely isolationist, the back of the card sought to inform American children about the role of “Big Sword Troops” in the battles around Beijing.



By the late 1930s North American adults were also becoming acquainted with the exploits of China’s military martial artists. We often forget that mainstream English language newspapers had been reporting on Chinese “Big Sword Troops” since the late 1920s, and these accounts became more dramatic in wake of Japan’s 1937 advance.  China’s foreign language treaty port press also spread the global fame of these generally poorly equipped units when they made improbably heroic stands against the invaders. Later accounts of their (inevitable) setbacks also found their way into the Western press.

There had always been militaristic undercurrents within China’s official martial arts circles during the 1920s-1930s. Yet when the nationalist government and individual reformers attempted to promote the traditional martial arts on the world stage, they tended to focus on civilian practices and solidly middle-class aspirations.  No bayonets were thrust in the 1936 Olympic demonstration, and no dadao’s wielding troops were seen in any of the other internal good-will tours that the KMT staged.

Yet it was these images of the dadao (or big sword) that became more prominent in the West during times of upheaval or crisis. On June 7thof 1939 newspapers around the United States distributed a photo showing a female militia leader hoisting her sword against a stark sky. The item’s caption (marked Hong Kong, China) informed readers that this “Chinese Amazon…has achieved fame through her skills with the famous Chinese broadsword against Japanese invaders.”

Such images were all the more potent as they were no longer confined to the headlines or the occasional newswire photograph. Starting in the late 1920s, newsreel footage of Chinese martial artists became increasingly common in both Europe and North America theaters. Unfortunately, many of these films (particularly those that were distributed within the United States) no longer survive as American studios didn’t make much of an effort to preserve these sorts of archives.  But the remaining collections (especially those housed in Europe) are sufficient to give us some idea of how the martial arts were being presented to a popular audience.



A few of the surviving films captured images of civilian martial arts demonstrations. A feature from 1937 titled “Traditional Sports Still Enjoy Some Popular Appeal” showcased classic examples of China’s martial art culture while contextualizing it against the rising popularity of Western sports in China. These were the precisely the types of images that Chu Minyi was attempting to capitalize on with his own 1936 entry into the Olympic Film festival.

The dadao, China’s dramatic counterpart to the Japanese katana, seemed made for the silver screen. The civil disorder that accompanied the Northern Expedition in 1928 ensured that images of military police officers and executioners armed with big swords would begin to appear in global theaters.

Tensions with Japan in 1929 brought more images of the Chinese military in Western theaters.  In one set of clips, a well-equipped Chinese military unit is shown practicing martial arts drills with pudaos. As the situation worsened in 1933, big sword troops again gained prominence in Western newsreels.  One carefully staged recording showed a large group of soldiers performing a martial arts set with their swords. Another newsreel instead focused on a military unit performing a “dadao charge” for the edification of a group of wealthy western tourists who were visiting the great Wall of China.

While visually gripping, these newsreels reinforced certain tendencies that were not entirely compatible with the images that Chu was attempting to promote in the West.  Whereas he had emphasized the modernity and potentially universal appeal of the martial arts, these films inevitably dwelt on the threatening, peculiar and strange. While strongly nationalist, and suggesting that Chinese soldiers would not shy away from a fight, they also reinforced a Western tendency to see China as perpetually backwards.

This tension came to a head with America’s entry into the Second World War after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.  Policy makers in Washington turned to Hollywood to explain the necessity of the coming battles in the Pacific theater to a still reluctant public. Frank Capra’s 1944 “Battle for China” accomplished this by arguing that the values of the Chinese people were essentially the same as those held by Americans.  Japan was painted as a common enemy, and as an existential threat to the survival of both China nations.  At one point, Capra even showed new recruits in the Chinese military practicing a martial arts routine in between shots of other callisthenic exercises that would be much more familiar in a western context.

More importantly, 1944 also saw the release of Clifton Fadiman’s wartime documentary “Here is China.” While not as visually brilliant as Capra’s “Battle for China,” American audiences may have found this film to be even more memorable. The project was funded by United China Relief, a cooperative organization under the control of Henry Luce, the publisher of Time, Life and Fortune magazines. It should be remembered that Luce had grown up in China and was a longtime supporter of the Nationalist Party’s struggle against both the Japanese and the Communist Party.

Luce’s United China Relief sought to inform the American public about the situation in China and encourage good relations between citizens. Yet its approach to these goals in a wartime environment tended to move beyond education and into the construction of intentionally misleading arguments about both the Chinese and the Japanese situation. Indeed, their effort fell more squarely into the realm of propaganda rather than pure public diplomacy.  This tendency was on display in Fadiman’s documentary and could be seen in the brief discussion of youth culture that occurred just prior to the narrator’s discussion of the Japanese invasion.



This scene plays out as we first see images of classroom instruction, followed by a group of smartly dressed young boys in school uniforms going through the complicated movements of a sword routine.  The camera lingers on their movements as they execute challenging stances, cuts and turns.  Narrating the film Fadiman notes:

“China was building strong minds and strong bodies, aware of the importance to the nation of a vigorous and informed youth. Here is a young fellow who means business.”

The camera then cut to a contrasting shot of university aged youth diving and swimming in a luxurious western style pool.  Here the audience was informed that: “The life of young people in the large cities [prior to the Japanese invasion] was much like ours here in America.”[1]

These directly contrasting scenes, viewed widely in America’s wartime theaters, require some unpacking. In some ways Fadiman had finally accomplished what Chu Minyi had never managed.  He had turned to physical culture, and the reformed martial arts, to demonstrate that China was a progressive nation that had much in common with the West. Yet Fadiman’s effort reached western audiences on a scale that Chu could only dream of.

Still, not everything about this film was quite as it seemed. Like Capra, Fadiman was acquainted with the technique of parallel editing. He also sought to reframe specific instances of fascist propaganda in an effort to better reach the American public.

The schools seen in this clip may not have been Chinese institutions. The raw footage for this scene was originally circulated as part of a Japanese propaganda film which was subsequently captured by the United States government.  That film had noted that the school in question was actually a charity orphanage in Guangzhou run by the Japanese military.  Their original narration for the scene was quite different.

“This is an orphanage in Canton for unfortunate children who have lost their parents. They are being raised to become respectable Chinese under the gentle and merciful hands of the Imperial Army. The number of children housed here numbers 240. They commit themselves to study, and they show a determination to rapidly grow into respectable men who will benefit their society. China has traditionally had large numbers of underprivileged children who then turn into delinquents that corrupt society. Under the magnanimous eyes of the Japanese, these deep-seated [tendencies] are now close to being eliminated.”

It is remarkable that by the 1940s neither American or Japanese audiences required any sort of explanation as to what the children were doing on screen. They were familiar enough with Chinese martial arts practice that they were recognizable on sight. Yet both wartime Japan and the United States sought to contest the symbolic meaning of these practices.

The Japanese military sought to justify their occupation of Southern China to a domestic audience by arguing that only they could act as the true guarantors of Chinese culture and social order. In paternalistic tones they assured audiences that only they were capable of bringing progress to China. This political guardianship was visually legitimated by their efforts to ensure that the Chinese martial arts would be properly taught to the next generation.



In the hands of Fadiman this exact same sequence of film was used to emphasize the independent and progressive nature of Chinese society. They had been responsible for ensuring the education of a vigorous youth prior to the Japanese invasion, and the inclusion of the martial arts in the nation’s primary schools suggested to American audiences that the Chinese had been making progress. While the actions in the primary school sequence might initially seem strange, Fadiman’s narration made it quite clear that the fundamental cultural values behind the Chinese martial arts could already be found in any small town in the American Midwest.



The Second World War represents an important inflection point in the West’s engagement with all sorts of Asian fighting traditions. In the case of the Chinese arts, it marked the end of the period of “Kung Fu diplomacy,” in which the Nationalist government sought to use its traditional cultural resources in an effort to build a rapport with the West.  Those efforts largely ceased with the onset of Japanese aggression in 1937. Yet that does not mean that the Chinese martial arts were forgotten. Press coverage of big sword troops, and propaganda efforts like those crafted by the Harmon Foundation, United China Relief and other Hollywood directors ensured that Americans continued to be exposed to images of the Chinese martial arts.

Yet in this second, more successful case, it was foreign (American, Japanese and even Germans) actors who defined the image of the Chinese martial arts. They used these practices to further their own policy and fund-raising goals.  Some of these efforts normalized the idea of martial arts practice, while others continued to show it as a desperate or backward pursuit. In some cases, as we just saw with the Japanese film of the Guangzhou orphanage, they even discursively contested the social meaning of these practices.

In any event, the nature of the military situation dictated that the voice of the Chinese government would remain largely inaccessibly and beyond the range of American audiences during the late 1930s and 1940s. Still, Fadiman’s treatment of his captured Japanese footage suggests that the efforts of China’s many martial arts reformers had not been totally in vain.  A foundation had been established that others would build on.  We would see much more of this following the end of the Cultural Revolution and Nixon’s opening to China in the 1970s.

So what have we learned?



For my concluding point I would like to return to our first case, that of Chu’s Olympic efforts, and ask what it suggests about the promise and limitations of cultural diplomacy in the current era. What lessons might current states learn from these early efforts?  And what do they suggest about the ability of smaller states to build a distinctive brand on the world stage through public or cultural diplomacy.

Public diplomacy is in some ways a form of political advertising, and it is always easier to sell customers an item that they already want, rather than to attempt to convince them that they should really be wanting something else. Images of heroic “big sword” wielding troops were easier to absorb and repurpose in the 1930s than Chu’s more nuanced points about the fundamentally modern and progressive nature of the Chinese martial arts.

The first of these images probably appealed to a subconscious desire for exotic adventure and danger.  Even after writing quite a bit on the subject, I am still unsure as to what sort of visceral desire Chu Minyi’s “Tai Chi Callisthenic” might have appealed to.  Certainly, some middle-class Chinese students took to it because of its claims to represent a distinctly Chinese vision of modernity, but that wasn’t an insecurity that needed to be addressed by the sorts of individuals who might travel to Berlin to watch the Olympic games. What they found exciting about the Chinese martial arts was probably something else, something that may have been less immediately useful to the Chinese government.

This brings us to major issue within the literature on Public Diplomacy.  Is this exercise best understood as strategy by which officials in one country attempt to speak directly to, and change the values and desires of global consumers? Or should it be understood as diplomacy of and by the people, in which social groups in both countries form networks through the exchange of practices, images and performances that already have some mutual appeal?



One doesn’t have to read far into current newspaper stories to see the Chinese government struggling with this very phenomenon.  The Kung Fu Fever that Bruce Lee ignited is still globally present.  Indeed, those images continue to generate the first impressions and basic cross-cultural desire that bring most individuals to the Chinese martial arts, making them a potentially useful tools of public diplomacy.  Yet sorts of images, values and practices seen within those films, or the folk martial arts schools that spread to the West in the 1970s and 1980s, are often very different from the practices, images and values which the Chinese state so desperately wants to promote in places like Latin America and Africa today.  Much of its current Kung Fu Diplomacy seems to be premised on the supplanting of these images and structures with other organizations and values over which it exercises more direct control.

And so, we often find government led efforts competing with, and often failing to best, images that are deemed to be less proper, but which are genuinely organically popular.  This suggests that both in the 1930s and today, public diplomacy is most likely to work when it accentuates preexisting market trends that are useful to governments. Yet attempts to treat them as public education campaigns designed to create patterns of cross-cultural desire for goods and practices that no one really wants, tend to be less successful.

One might object to this by saying, “What good is soft power, that unique species of cultural desire that Joseph Nye hypothesized, if it can’t inspire citizens in another country to want to change their fundamental values.  Isn’t this what happened when America exported blue jeans and rock and roll around the world in the 1950s and 1960’s.”  Or, more on topic, when the Japanese managed to export Judo both in the early 20thcentury and then again in the post-WII period.  Why couldn’t Chinese government backed programs do that in the 1930s?

The answer, I think, lies in understanding the limitations of “soft power” as a conceptual framework.  This notion maybe a useful way of speaking about the political relevance of cross-cultural desire.  Yet within global politics it is very rare for soft power to arise in isolation from more traditional forms of “Hard Power” such as military dominance or economic wealth.  So yes, we can understand the global spread of Judo in terms of “soft power,” but we must also remember that this basic cultural desire came from someplace.  The first period of spread happened in the wake of Russo-Japanese War, while the second corresponded roughly to the rise of the post-war Japanese Economic Miracle.



China in the 1930s faced a much more difficult situation.  It sought to claim some of the cultural appeal of Judo for its own wrestling, boxing and fencing traditions.  Yet China lacked Japan’s military strength or economic modernization.  Individuals began to study Judo in the early 20thcentury because they were in awe of, or simply a bit afraid of, Japan’s military accomplishments.  Yet China simply could not generate that same level of enthusiasm no matter how many demonstrations they staged.  After all, why should you pay much attention to the Chinese martial arts when they could do little to stop the Japanese military advance?  Questions of modernity aside, who really wants to study an art that isn’t at least a little dangerous? In this instance the Soft Power of cross-cultural desire compliments traditional modes of Hard Power, but it does not replace them.

All of this suggests that minor powers seeking to turn to public diplomacy as an alternative to conventional military, economic or institutional types of power should temper their expectations.  These tools are most effective when they encourage the growth of organic networks connecting communities in two countries. Governments can clear the way for this process, but if they become too visibly involved, they risk either imposing a set of values that there is no desire for, which can lead to the end product feeling like unwanted propaganda.

Still, it is clear that in many cases public diplomacy can increase levels of mutual understanding and transnational cooperation. In that way Yu Chenghui’s desires may come true.  It is possible that the spread of Kung Fu Diplomacy, and maybe even the emergence of a new vision of the Longsword, to the extent that it succeeded in generating new transnational communities of practice, may become a pathway towards increased global understanding and peace.



[1]“Here is China.” Clifton Fadiman. United China Relief. 1944. 27 Minutes.




If you enjoyed this keynote you might also want to read: The Cultural Translation of Wing Chun: Addition, Deletion, Adoption and Distortion


“Glory Days” and the Twilight of the Guoshu Movement

Wang Zi Ping with Jian.


***My last update hinted at a couple of sources that I will be addressing in my upcoming keynote for this years (quickly approaching) martial arts studies conference.  But there is never enough time to get through everything you want to discuss.  As such, this post tackles a couple of figures, and one really great article in the NY Times, that I just won’t have have time to discuss.  Luckily I have plenty of room to tell the full story in my manuscript chapters….***



“Soft power” and “public diplomacy” are closely linked, yet distinct, concepts. Perhaps the easiest way of understanding this distinction is that the first is a power resource that political actors might call upon. The second concept describes a body of strategies by which policy makers attempts to turn the raw cultural attraction (or curiosity, or even envy) that defines “soft power” into distinct political outcomes.

But even these basic distinctions can dissolve if we begin to poke them. The arena of politics is unique in that at times the raw materials of identity and desire can actually be called into being by attempting to employ them. Successful “political discourses” seem effortless precisely because they manage this trick of transmuting their basic materials. Thus in some exceptional circumstances, it may be the efforts to employ public diplomacy that sparks a sense of curiosity about, and desire for, another actor’s culture (soft power).

Nor have these efforts ever been restricted to the halls of government. While Washington may be able to call bits of “soft power” out of the ether with well-timed arguments about democracy and human rights, their efforts pale in comparison to Hollywood’s yearly onslaught of fantasies of wealth, excitement and longing. Of course these images are a major source of America’s “soft power” on the global stage.

And there is no reason why private actors might not decide to employ their own reserves of soft power to create an international discourse that will advantage their efforts in the future. Hence Hollywood is always at the forefront of lobbying efforts having to do with free trade in the entertainment industry and the protection of intellectual property. Sometimes these efforts have benefited the larger policy goals of the United States government, but there is no theoretical reason to assume that the demands of every industry or politically motivated group will always align with that mythical beast known colloquially as the “national interest.”

In some ways the academic literature on Public Diplomacy is much like Martial Arts Studies. In both cases we have subjects of sufficient complexity that interdisciplinary approaches are almost inevitable. Further, both are niche literatures dominated by scholar-practitioners. Just as MAS conferences are full of people trading training stories, the pages of collected volumes on Public Diplomacy tend to be dominated by articles that have been produced by career diplomats or individuals with the title “Ambassador” before their names.

To the extent that this keeps our focus on real world policy problems, it can be a great advantage. And when you read the early literature on Public Diplomacy there does seem to be an almost granular focus on the role of consular officers in promoting musical concerts or traveling museum exhibits at very specific moments in history. As they say, “Write what you know.”

However, to the extent that this focus leads us to forget that the vast majority of “soft power” is not produced with the help of diplomats, or that the global environment is full of NGO’s and private actors who have their own ideas about what public diplomacy looks like, it can be a weakness. Nor does such a perspective do a great job of focusing on an even more important set of questions. What is the subjective experience of the global audience who encounter these trans-cultural messages? How do their preexisting narratives and understanding condition the government’s efforts to marshal a set of symbols in the pursuit of a given foreign policy goal?

For the most part I have avoided these more theoretical concerns when discussing my ongoing research on the intersection of the TCMA and public diplomacy here on this blog. But that doesn’t mean they are ultimately unimportant. Indeed, “Kung Fu Diplomacy” is interesting precisely because it forces us to think quite carefully about the ways in which government actors (CCP diplomats) exploit the previous efforts of private actors (Bruce Lee) and vice versa.

Still, we cannot measure the success or failure of public diplomacy (and the efforts of either private or public actors), without establishing a baseline understanding of the global public’s familiarity the area in question. This is particularly true with regards to the Chinese martial arts. We are only starting to comprehend the process by which the global public became familiar with these fighting systems. And to mirror the problem I noted above, most of these studies are written from the perspective of the small minority of people who actually became dedicated practicers of kung fu, judo or kali. This is simply another manifestation of the “practicer bias,” and it leads us to make grand pronouncements about how the Chinese Martial Arts were “unknown in the West” prior to the 1970s or Bruce Lee.

This is, of course, utter nonsense. What such assertions actually mean is that Chinese martial arts were not widely practiced in the West prior to the 1970s. Further, Bruce Lee created a level of cross-culture desire for these practices that had not previously been seen. Yet the Western reading public had all sorts of ideas about the Chinese martial arts which may have impacted their imaginations of China itself. Sensational and highly publicized events such as the Boxer Rebellion, the civil wars between “Hatchet Men” in San Francisco and New York, or the heroic stand of the “Big Sword Troops” in WWII, meant that everyone probably had some notion of what Chinese boxing was. These latent memories and images were the raw material that later reformers would work with and push back against.

Still, pointing to the image of the Boxer Rebellion isn’t very helpful. A more interesting question might be whether the American public saw the Chinese martial arts as something ancient, primitive and intrinsically “Chinese,” or if they were instead capable of discussing them as being part of a modern and evolving world. Did they know that the Chinese martial arts changed in response to government policy? What did they actually know about the individuals who promoted and administered these systems?

Admittedly very few people in the West were probably concerned with these sorts of questions in the 1930s and 1940s. But what sort of information was generally available? If, for instance, one was interesting in both boxing and “the Orient”, what sorts of information might you encounter in the popular publications of the period that brought these topics together? To put the matter in more specific terms, did the American public ever learn about the Guoshu movement?

The following articles are interesting as they provide English language discussions that bookend the Guoshu experience. The first, published in the English language China Press in 1936, provides a glimpse into the Guoshu movement at its peak. Here we see strong efforts to not just promote the martial arts, but to make them a compulsory aspect of physical culture throughout the various strata of Chinese society. While these fighting systems were always the most popular among young working class males, this article highlights the creation of a new martial arts club that focused instead on older government employees and officials.

As a side note, in my book I discuss efforts to establish a very similar organization in Guangzhou in the late 1920s. It is clear that in 1936 these efforts enjoyed the backing of elite circles in Chinese society and within the KMT.

Our second discussion paints a very different picture. This New York Times article is based on a 1947 interview with General Chang Chih-chiang (Zhang Zhijiang), the leader of the Guoshu movement. It is immediately clear that the intervening decade has not been kind to the Chinese martial arts. Through the General’s report we learn that the once proud organization is now financially crippled and unable to host events or even repair its former headquarters. The membership of the once massive organization had been reduced to under 400 individuals. Further, due to changing attitudes within the government and educational circles, efforts to promote the Chinese martial arts as a universal practice had been abandoned. By the end of WWII it was clear that boxing would once again survive only as a hobby (or employment skill) of the few.

The Guoshu movement was slipping into the twilight.

Obviously these two articles are far from exhaustive. But they do represent the sorts of information that was increasingly available to English language readers regarding developments within the Chinese martial arts. The actions of key political figures and reformers (including Chu Min-yi and Chang Chih-chiang) were known and reported in the press. The exploits of certain martial arts masters (note the references to Wang Tze-ping) even got some coverage. Nor was boxing always treated as something fixed, ancient and distant. In these reports it had a history that could be understood in terms of both policy debates and sporting metaphors.

Still, one suspects that these articles were not a product of random journalism. The work of Chu Min-yi is highlighted in the first piece. Throughout his career Chu worked hard to ensure that knowledge of the martial arts would be broadcasted to the West through mediums as diverse as foreign language publications, films and even an exhibition at the 1936 Summer Olympics.

Chang Chih-chiang was also a tireless promoter of the martial arts as well as an astute politician. It is probably not a coincidence that when facing an existential funding crisis he called in a reporter from a prominent Western publication. He may have believed that the appearance of such an article would help to remind the KMT of the importance of “shadow boxing” to China’s public image. In 1947 China needed both global aid and sympathy, and highlighting popular aspects of the country’s traditional culture might help. Again, the relationships between the creation of a public diplomacy strategy and the generation of soft power resources can become quite complicated.

The second article is also interesting in that it attempts to provide an English language vocabulary for discussing the Chinese martial arts well before the term “martial art” actually gained popularity. Of course Western boxing remained the standard against which all Chinese practices were understood. This may well have limited their appeal to a global audience. Still, as you read the press coverage of the 1930s and 1940s it is clear that the public discussion of the Chinese martial arts in the West was much more extensive than one might have assumed. At least some of this familiarity was a direct result of the cultural diplomacy efforts of individuals like Chu Min-yi, Ma Liang and Chang Chih-chiang.




Chu Min-yi, “Taiji Boxing Photographed.” Source: Brennan Translation Blog.


Office Workers Have Own Club at Capital City
Chinese Swordsmanship and Boxing Taught to Members

NANKING, Aug. 30—(special)—Under the roof of a side-house inside a compound at 21 Hsiang Pu Ying is a dazzling array of big swords and spears. But there is no sign of a “Boxer Uprising.”

It is the clubhouse of the Public Functionaries’ Recreational Club. Those working in various ministries, yuan or the City Government and its various bureaus, after their day’s hard toll, may find here relaxation.

The club boasts a total of 600 members, all public functionaries from the governmental heads down to the rank and file of the government staff.

Chinese boxing and swordsmanship is one of the things taught at the club.

Those who have a flair for murder things [sic] have a variety from which to choose, cultural discussions, literature and art, music and drama.

Besides the house of semi-foreign style on one side, a two-story building of western mode stands in the center. This is called Chung Cheng Hall, named after Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek. In this hall, all performances in music and drama are being held from time to time for the entertainment of the members and their friends.

The club was founded on January 21, 1934. The Chung Cheng Hall was completed on January 21 this year, at a total cost of $20,000.

The affairs of the club are in charge of a Standing Committee of seven members headed by Dr. Chu Min-yi, as chairman. The six other members are: Dr. Weng Xen-Has, Secretary General of the Executive Yuan; Mr. Hsu Ching-chi, head of the Civilian Officials Department; Mr. Hung Lai-yu, head of the Judicial Officers Training Institute; Mr. Sun Shih-hwa, head of the General Affairs Department of the Ministry of Communications, Mr Lei Chen, head of the General Affairs Department of the Ministry of Education.

Seven secretaries are looking after the daily routine of the club. They are: Dr. Chu Min-yi, in charge of the Athletic Division; Dr. Wang Shih-chieh, Minister of Education, in charge of [the] Cultural Division; Mr. Chen Shu-jen, Chairman of the Overseas Chinese Affairs Commission, in charge of [the] Literature and Art Division, Mr. Tang Yu-yung in charge of Secretarial Division, Mr. Chang Yen-tsun, in charge of [the] Accounting Division.

The club holds a general Conference every year.

August 30, 1936. The China Press (Shanghai).


General Chang Chih-chiang( Zhang Zhijiang).  Source: Wikimedia.


China Boxing Chief Mourns Lean Days
Government Fund too Small for Plans to Put the Country at 4,000-Year-Old Sport

By Henry B. Lieberman (Special for the New York Times).
NANKING, Nov. 8—The ancient sport of shadow boxing, which goes back 4,000 years to the reign of Emperor Huang-Ti, has come upon lean and skimpy days.

Gen. Chang Chih-chiang, counselor of the Military Affairs Commission and head of the Chinese Boxing Association, heaved a sigh and observed dolefully: “Because of scientific inventions the people who handle educational affairs are ignoring shadow boxing.”
The Boxing Association still gets a government subsidy from the Ministry of Education to perpetuate the traditional manly art of self-defense, but this is a mere pittance in terms of General Chang’s desire to make the entire nation shadow-boxing conscious.

Lack of funds has kept the association from rebuilding its nanking headquarters building, which was destroyed by Japanese bombing, and the shadow-boxing capital has shifted to Tientsin. Membership has fallen off until it is estimated it is only about 400.

Things have reached such a pass that the national champion, Wang Tze-ping, 50-year-old Shanghai osteopath, has not been able to find a suitable opponent since 1933. Mr. Wang, who has held the championship for thirty years, last defended his title successfully against a Japanese challenger.

Champion’s Jump Stressed

Although the champion is not getting any younger or spryer, General Chang’s thin bewhiskered face lighted up as he described with his hands the titleholders’ square chest, trim waist and artistic grace.

“You should see him jump,” he said. “This high.”

The general raised one hand almost to the level of his chin.

The boxing chief, a wiry type himself, greets each day at the age of 66 with a brisk shadow-boxing session because it strengthens the body, teaches you’d how to defend yourself and is good for national defense.

The General is a Hopeh man. He began his military career and was baptized in the old Northwestern Army as a follower of Feng Yu-hsiang, the “Christian general.” After the defeat of the northern warlords, General Chang received an honorary position here as military counselor and since then has found plenty of time for shadow-boxing.

The Chinese Boxing Association was established in 1928 to promote Tai Chu Chuan—absolute extreme fist. The term shadow-boxing is the Western description of this Chinese sport, which encompasses eurhythmic calisthenics, fancy foot-work, boxing against an opponent, wrestling and what the Chinese call “gymnastics with tools.” The latter refers to fencing with lances or swords.

When the subject of Japanese jiu jitsu was raised during the interview, General Chang waved a deprecating hand.

“They borrowed it from us,” he said.

Monks Developed Sport

Emperor Hunag-Ti is credited with introducing the sport of shadow-boxing to build a strong army. Buddhist and Taoist monks, eager to find a means of defending themselves against bandits, developed the sport until there are a number of schools based on different kinds of dodges, parries, thrusts and body gyrations.

Orthodox practitioners argue that by learning the use of your “inner strength” you can hurt a man without touching him.

The shadow-boxing phase consists of calisthenics in which a person goes through all sorts of twisting, turning and dodging against an imaginary opponent. This is actually a training process, corresponding to Western style training camp sparring and roadwork. But it has become a sport in itself.

A member of the Boxing Association did some shadowboxing this morning to illustrate the fine points of the sport. He cavorted like a Martha Graham dancer, slapping the ground and leaping about the place like a man trying to get a demon out of his system. His footwork and grace were delightful. But he wouldn’t go in Madison Square Garden.

November 2nd, 1947. New York Times (New York City).



If you enjoyed this you might also want to read: Historical Fact vs. Social Discourse in the World of China’s 19th Century Martial Artists


Research Note: Organizing the Women’s Section of the Jingwu Association, 1920.

Two senior students outside Sage Hall at Yenching University, March 1928. Source:

An Unexpected Find

It is basically a truism to say that the Western public didn’t know very much about the Chinese martial arts in the 1920s.  More interesting is the question of why.  Given the global popularity of Judo and Jiu-Jitsu, Chinese reformers, intellectuals and physical education teachers were more than happy to explain to anyone who would listen that China was “true” home of the East Asian martial arts. And given the popularity of these practices in educational and middle-class circles during the 1910s, some of them could even back up those observations with a bit of a demonstration.  Indeed, the Chinese martial arts were exhibited with some regularity on the campuses of America’s top universities throughout the 1920s and the 1930s.

The real problem was not a lack of information.  It was a lack of cross-cultural desire on the part of the Western public.  Japan’s geopolitical fortunes made its martial culture a pressing issue that could not be ignored.  One might seek to debunk the claims of Kano’s various Judo instructors (as members of the sporting press often did), or you could try to appropriate these new martial technologies for one’s self (a strategy adopted by a growing number of Western students).  Yet it was hard to ignore the Japanese martial arts.  They seemed to demand an answer, just as Japan’s growing political dominance in Asia would eventually force the world’s hand.

The Chinese martial arts were in a very different position.  It is not that people were unaware of “Chinese Boxing” or what it might look like. Chinatown celebrations, sometimes including martial artists, made it into the period’s news-reels.  And the tales from the Boxer Rebellion had dominated the Western imagination a generation earlier.  Nevertheless, if Japan’s martial traditions came to represent a geopolitical riddle that must be solved, China’s fighting arts became synonymous with those aspects of Asia that were better forgotten.  Or, if one was of a more romantic disposition, taken off the shelf for the occasional festival, but certainly not taken too seriously.

Reformers thus faced an uphill battle as they tried to win for China a measure of the respect that Judo and even Kendo had brought to Japan’s physical culture.  Again, not all members of the international community within China ignored the martial arts.  A few even seem to have found them worthy of personal study. But it was reporters for China’s many English language newspapers who seem to have really led the way in trying to convince people to discuss them.  Perhaps they were best positioned to understand that the domestic surge of interest in China’s indigenous fighting systems following the 1911 revolution was not, in fact, backwards looking self-Orintalization.  Instead it represented potent trends within China’s growing national consciousness.

It was precisely the links with modernity and resurgent nationalism which made the Chinese martial arts newsworthy, both for Western reporters and local reformers.  This, in large part, seems to have determined what sorts of stories got published during the Republic era.  While there was certainly the occasional piece documenting local practices, the vast majority of stories followed the fortunes of progressive reform movements, such as General Ma’s New Wushu, the famous Jingwu Association, or the KMT backed Guoshu movement.

One might debate the degree to which these groups were representative of what was really going on within China’s martial arts during the Republic.  When we recount this narrative from a unitary national perspective, these sorts of organizations are practically the only thing that is ever discussed.  And its undeniable that each of them made critical contributions to the shape of the Chinese martial arts as they exist today.

However, as I illustrated in my volume (with Jon Nielson) on the social history of the Southern Chinese martial arts, at the regional and local level, these nationally focused groups often had much less influence than one might expect.  Indeed, the roots of current disconnect between what might be termed China’s official Wushu programs, and its many disparate folk martial arts, can be found in fissures that began to emerge in the 1910s and 1920s.  One only has to consider how even the most optimistic membership estimates for the Jingwu Association simply pale in comparisons to the tens of millions of Red Spear Militia members during the same period to get a glimpse of everything that we typically leave out of “national level” discussions of Chinese martial arts history.

Still, one of the great virtues of the Jingwu, and later the Guoshu, movement was its desire to fight the widely held stigma that martial artists were merely illiterate and uncouth strongmen. If China’s citizens were to be brought into the modern age, their physical culture would have to lead the way. Producing books, newspapers, pamphlets and newsreels not only insulated the newly emerging wushu culture from the scorn of the May 4thintellectuals, it also provided a pool of concepts, practices and images from which one could build a truly national culture on.  These reformers tend to be somewhat overrepresented in our historical studies precisely because they were obsessed with leaving a written historical legacy.

Yet as I read the treaty port newspapers of the 1920s or 1930s, I am struck by how little of our understanding of this period is really a “new discovery.”  It certainly feels new when you first encounter it in the pages of Andrew Morris or Stanley Henning, but that is because we have neglected most aspects of Chinese social history, and not just the bits having to do with the martial arts. A dedicated contemporaneous student, or anyone keeping a scrapbook on “Chinese boxing,” might have been able to construct a remarkably accurate picture of what was going on within these national groups, even if they didn’t speak Chinese.  A remarkable amount of material was being published in English for anyone who wished to follow along.  What is remarkable is that so few readers wanted to try.

All of this was driven home when I came across an article titled “Chinese Girls to go in for Sports” in the February 26thissue of the Canton Times. This relatively short-lived treaty port paper carried some interesting features on the Chinese martial arts, though not to the same degree as something like The China Press.  Still, it was the subject matter of this article that really struck me.

Articles about the Jingwu Association are easily located in English language papers during the 1920s.  Most of these are accounts of public demonstrations, but this piece was different.  It provided a matter-of-fact discussion of the creation of the organization’s women’s group in 1920.

For all of the detail within this piece, one critical name is missing.  That is Chen Shichao.  The sister of the better-known Chen Gongzhe (one of the major organizers and financiers of the Jingwu Association), Chen Shichao did much to advance the cause of China’s female martial artists.  She seems to be largely responsible for Jingwu’s progressive views on gender and the training opportunities that women were afforded within the organization.


A group of female students demonstrating the jian at Fukien Christian University sometime in the 1920s. Source:


Chen Shichao’s achievements were the result of many years of hard work, and they sometimes earned her blistering criticism in the press.  She began teaching women’s classes in 1917. The next year she organized a women’s performance and demonstration team.  In 1920 she would be named the first Director of the Jingwu Women’s Sports Association.

It was the organization of this later group that sparked the article to follow.  However, it does not mention Chen, or any of the other female instructors. Most Jingwu chapters had what we might think of as dual leadership structures.  On the one hand there was a director, board and various officers who were inevitably among the city’s leading citizens and well-connected merchants. These individuals were responsible for raising much of the funding needed to finance buildings, clear bureaucratic obstacles, and to ensure the degree of social and political backing necessary to keep the practice moving.  A second group of officers, generally assigned by the organization’s head-quarters in Shanghai, would then be sent to oversee the actual instruction of the martial arts curriculum, as well as the preparation of newsletters, the organization of cultural events and other sporting endeavors. These individuals were actual employees of the Jingwu Association and drew a salary from the organization. Basically, this was the sort of division between corporate officers and board members that you might see in lots of different areas.

That same division of responsibility is illustrated in this article on the organization of the woman’s group.  The meeting saw the appointment of a President, two vice-presidents, and a seventeen-member board.  These women were very well connected and represented elite levels of Shanghai society.  It is somewhat slow going without the actual characters of their names, but it is possible to identify a number of these women in the historical record and read about their careers and those of their husbands.

Sadly, one of the notable things about this list is how many of these husbands and family members died by assassination during the 1920s and 1930s.  Breaking down everyone’s biography would take us too far away from the Jingwu Association. But even a quick review is enough to remind us of just how perilous life as a political operative was during the Republic of China period.

Still, even though I am hesitant to actually dive into all of this, I bring this list up for a very specific reason. Throughout the 1910s and early 1920s Jingwu claimed to be a non-partisan group whose national aims were, in many ways, above the realm of “mere politics.”  This is often contrasted with the Guoshu movement which was explicitly backed by certain factions within a single political party.  It aimed to indoctrinate its members into loyalty to a specific party and leader, rather than just the nation.

In a sense this is true.  Yet this list also suggests that Jingwu wasn’t actually holding the political world at arms-length. Instead, as you reconstruct the life histories of individuals on this list its possible to get a sense of the sorts of favors that the organization was looking to call in, and the types of political support that it thought it needed.  Again, this is an interesting research project for us now, but one suspects that much of this would have been obvious to newspaper readers in the 1920s.


A photo of female martial artists from the Jingwu Anniversary Book. The woman on the left is Chen Shichao, one of the most vocal campaigners for the equality of female martial artists within Jingwu. She toured China and south east Asia promoting female involvement in the martial arts.


Chinese Girls To Go In For Sports

Shanghai April 20.—Prominent Chinese Women of the city have launched an athletic club to be called the Chin Woo Girls’ Athletic Association which will offer courses in Chinese boxing, fencing, archery, the National Language, hygiene, tennis and basketball.

The Association was organized at a meeting held at the Great Eastern Hotel on Saturday at which time Mrs. Tang Shao-yi, wife of the Chief Southern Peace delegate, was elected President.  Other officers are Mrs. Yao Chuan-pen and Miss Chang Chao-han, vice presidents, and Mesdames Nieh Chi-Kwei, F. C. Tong, Y. D. Shen, C. T. Wang, T. F. Soong, Liao Chung-kai, Ho Shu-hua, Hsu Kwei-lung and Jabin Hsu and the Misses Chang Sian-wen, Chang Shan-soo, Cho Pei-fang, Chai Tsenan, Huang Yuen-shen, Chen Chin, Tong Pei-lan, Sung Guai-yu, Tang executive committee.

The organization will have headquarters at the fires branch of the Chin Woo Athletic Association, Fu Tuk Lee, North Szechuan Road.

“Chinese Girls To Go In For Sports” The Canton Times. April 26th, 1920. Page 3.




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