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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.

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.




If you enjoyed this article you might also want to read: Research Notes: Han Xing Qiao Opens the “Internal Arts” to the West, 1934


Through a Lens Darkly (58): Contesting Wushu




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

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

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

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


Social theory as meme…



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

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

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

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

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







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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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


Swords, Visuality and the Construction of China

Chinese soldier photographed by Harrison Forman. While part of a series of issues distributed in 1938 captions indicate that these images were probably taken in the early 1930s. Source: The Forman Collection in the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee Digital Archives.


Deciphering an Icon

Recently I came across a few of Harrison Forman’s wartime photos, probably taken in the early 1930s, but circulated to newspapers and (re)published in 1938.  While his photos of militia groups following the 8th Route Army (discussed here) remain less well known, these particular images have gained a quasi-iconic status. I suspect that they, and other similar images, helped to define popular Western notions of China’s struggle during the late 1930s. This also makes them of interest to students of Martial Arts Studies as they prominently feature swords and what appears to be a display of China’s traditional military culture.

Still, as I reviewed these photos I found myself wondering what was really going.  Were these images actually taken in the field?  Or were they composed by Forman himself?  And if latter, how were such images of martial masculinity meant to be read?  Why do so many of Forman’s photographs, as well as other images from the period, go to such great lengths juxtaposing the coexistence of “modern” military weapons with “traditional” martial culture, squeezing both elements into ever more complex symbolic frames?  Lastly, what does this suggest about the ways in which the Republic era revival of the martial arts was used to shape China’s image on the global stage?

To fully answer these questions, we may need to compare Forman’s photos to some less well-known images of Chinese soliders collected and distributed in the late Qing and early Republic period.  Doing so suggests the existence of certain key symbols which quickly gained a remarkable degree of stability in the popular imagination. Yet while the image of a Chinese soldier or martial artists holding an oversized blade has been stable, its social meaning has varied greatly. Many players, both within and outside of China, have deconstructed and contested these images. Controlling the visuality of the martial arts has been a key tool in a series of debates about the nature of the Chinese state and nation. A few of the ideas of the theorist Rey Chow may help to launch this investigation.


The Eternal Swordsman

Few images within the Chinese martial arts have proved more durable than the traditionally trained swordsman openly practicing his trade in the age of the gun. He can be seen everywhere, from Japanese postcards to Hong Kong kung fu films. But what sort of “person” is this individual?

Thomas Taylor Meadows, a British officer stationed in China during the Taiping Rebellion, was among the first to reflect on this question as he observed numerous skirmishes and battles.  In one section of his best-known work, The Chinese and Their Rebellions, he sought to rebut the commonly held Western beliefs that 1) all Chinese individuals have similar personalities 2) that as a group they are more cowardly than Europeans and shied away from combat.

In an attempt to negate both views he relates to his readers a curious incident of “War Dancing” (what we would term the performance of a solo martial arts set) in the middle of a fire fight which he observed as both rebel troops (who held the city) and imperial soldiers contested control of a graveyard outside of Shanghai. Meadows set the scene by describing the artillery and armaments of both sides. By this point in the war both parties were armed primarily with Western cannons, state of the art European made muskets and a surprising number of revolvers.  He described the order of battle as being similar to that seen in the Crimean War with heavy volleys of fire being exchanged between groups of soldiers who were either sheltered behind the city’s walls, or moving between “rifle pits” and the sorts of cover that the graveyard landscape afforded.  All of this was very similar to what one might have observed in a European conflict of the time.

Yet similar should never be confused with identical. While playing no part in the actual siege, Meadows notes that “cold weapons” were evident on the battlefield.  One Imperial spearman, having nothing to contribute to an exchange of gun fire, took shelter behind a building with Meadows and other Chinese onlookers.  Another soldier, armed with a sword and rattan shield, approached the battle differently.  He walked out into an open area (where a companion was firing a musket at rebel forces) and proceeded to demonstrate his sword set, all while shouting insults at the enemy, slashing at imaginary opponents and tumbling over his shield.

On a substantive level he contributed little to the battle.  Indeed, one suspects that most such skirmishes were actually decided by the artillery. Nor was this individual the lone exception.  Meadows told his story because he believed it would convey something about the nature of the conflict to his readers back in the UK.  Very similar reports were also lodged by British soldiers involved in the First and Second Opium Wars in Southern China, and much later by units participating in the costly march on Beijing during the Boxer Rebellion. It is an often overlooked fact that by 1900 the Imperial Chinese troops had weapons just as advanced as any of the Western nations that came to save the Legation.  Yet battlefield martial arts displays, usually attributed to “possessed Boxers,” remained fairly common. All of this seems to bear an uncanny resemblance to Forman’s much later photograph.

Accounts such as these are why so many Westerners became obsessed with the image of the sword wielding Chinese boxer, soldier or pirate. The basic image might be labeled in a variety of ways. Yet in each case it seems to have invoked the same combination of fascination and disgust. It would be more difficult to think of a better example of Rey Chow’s critique of “visualism,” in which modernity functions by reducing people or ideas into two dimensional depictions, than the early 20th century explosion of photographs of Chinese men wielding swords.

Such images facilitated the mental, and then political, classification of China, justifying its imperial occupation. A close reading suggests that many of these classifications rest on seeming contradictions. While focusing on men, their subjects are emasculated through an association with obsolete technology, poverty or backwards superstitions.  Chinese territory is potentially dangerous, yet in need of Western protection and guidance.  And when modern weapons occur in an image, rather than focusing our attention on the breakneck speed of social change, the existence of traditional tools subconsciously reinforces the notion that China is somehow eternal. A land without history can never change.  It is a country without a future.


Late Qing portrait of the Changtu Prefect and his personal guard. Photographer unknown (at least by me).


Such notions would likely have been projected onto this image by early 20thcentury Western viewers as well.  Once again, notice the prominent juxtaposition of modern (Western) weapons with their traditional (Chinese) counterparts.  Judging from the legible inscriptions in this photograph, Douglas Wile has concluded that it is a portrait of the Prefect of Changtu (now part of Liaoning Province) and his personal guard. Obviously, such an image would have been taken prior to the 1911 revolution.

At that time the long Mauser rifles with WWI era “roller-coaster” sights seen in this photo would have been state of the art.  And having a couple of guys with halberds standing at a door or gate would also have made a lot of sense. Yet one suspects that rather than a well-armed bodyguard, post-Boxer Rebellion viewers would likely have seen one more piece of evidence of a nation incapable of change.  In certain quarters such images (invoking fears of beheadings for minor offenses) were taken as powerful justifications for the preservation of Western legal privileges (such as extra-territoriality) and even colonial “guardianship.” The observation and dissemination of images of the “traditional” martial arts was often coopted by the forces of imperial discourse.  That is vital to remember as it strongly suggests that there was nothing inevitable about the reemergence of similar images in the post-WWII era as anchors of the post-colonial discourse. Bruce Lee probably would have played quite different to audiences in 1901.

The production and widespread dissemination of such images in the early 20thcentury opened Chinese society to conflicting social pressures. On the one hand there was immense pressure to “modernize,” making the nation equal to the Western powers. This would mean discarding much or all of China’s traditional culture.  Yet Chow has also warned her readers of another danger in these situations. As “ethnic” individuals in colonial situations grapple with the meaning of their identity, perhaps by trying to find domestic sources of pride or strength necessary to resist imperialism in their own autobiographies, they risk internalizing the dominant critique of their culture and performing an increasingly two dimensional act of what was once an authentic culture as they respond to a set of critiques that were likely based on (malicious) misunderstandings.


A vintage Japanese postcard showing images (likely taken in the late teens or twenties) of “Big Sword Units training their bravery.”


Perspective matters. And it is interesting to think about the role of both bodily experience and cultural expectations in shaping one’s perspective. Meadows wrote in an era when it was increasingly evident swords had little utility on the battlefield, but they were still very much part of Western 19thcentury military life. By the Republican era that had changed. The Japanese situation was more complicated.

Our next image was taken from a Japanese postcard, probably produced during the 1920s, which shows Chinese soldiers, dressed in smart civilian clothing, demonstrating their sword forms.  We have already read numerous accounts of demonstrations such as these (particularly those staged by General Ma), but it is interesting to see that Japanese publishers decided that there was an market for such an image at home.

The Japanese discourse towards China in the 1920s and 1930s was much more belligerent than anything seen in the West. One need not carefully analyze their literature or trade practices for hints of imperialist discourses. You only needed to watch where their armies marched or read their formal diplomatic declarations.  This is not to say that their popular culture was not of immense interest.  Japanese youth literature of the period tended to portray China as a land of adventure where adventurous boys could not just serve the nation, but prove their worth. And the increasing militancy of government mandated martial arts practice in Japanese schools helped to ensure that the nation’s youth would be prepared to do just that.

It goes without saying that within this internal nationalist discourse the sword (or more properly, the katana) meant something entirely different from what it signaled on the pages of the North China Herald or New York Times.  While a traditional symbol, it did not denote national backwardness.  Rather, it was a symbol of national identity.  And it became the vessel for much more positive cultural content.  It represented the notions of sacrifice, spiritual determination and individual physical strength placed in the service of the nation.  It represented that aspect of primoradial Japanese identity that both made it distinct, but also well suited for global competition among its national peers.

One byproduct of mandating years of state sponsored kendo or judo training was the creation of a large number of individuals who were bound to be at least somewhat curious about Chinese martial practice.  One suspects that the young men who collected these postcards may have been intrigued by images of solo-forms practice (rare in modern kendo), and the different sabers favored by the Chinese. Yet it is highly unlikely that such an image would have struck them as a symbol of national backwardness.  Indeed, the Chinese soldiers in this image were dressed much more “progressively,” and in a more Western manner, than Japanese Kendo students.

Such an image, while highlighting differences in national martial practices, likely would have suggested the existence of the sort of cultural affinities that supported the logic of Japan’s desired “co-prosperity” sphere.  Once again, images of the Chinese martial arts might be used to undermine notions of China’s national independence, but now for very different reasons. Rather than pointing to the backwardness of these practices, the Japanese could instead claim to be best positioned to promote their future development.


A second angle of Forman’s iconic photo, this time with an improved and more dynamic composition. Source: The Forman Collection at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee library.


All of this may be part of the answer to our initial question.  Yet we still have not considered the evolving Chinese interpretation of this key image, or what they might gain from cooperating in its reproduction and global distribution.  The Japanese postcard is important as it suggests that such images did not actually undermine one’s claim to modernity, or legitimacy within the nation state system, in an absolute sense.  Even more important than the production of these images was how their interpretation was negotiated, destabilized, contested and claimed on the world stage. This was a project that an increasing number of Chinese reformers would turn their attention to in the 1920s and 30s, re-entering a space that had been largely dominated by outside voices since the Boxer Uprising.

Much like the Japanese architects of Budo, Chinese social reformers carefully searched their history and culture for the tools to resist imperialism.  Part salvage project, and part nation building exercise, such impulses had given rise to the “self-strengthen” movement in the late 19thcentury which saw in the martial arts strategies for resisting the West through “Yin power.” Later (in the 1920s and 30s) similar impulses would be promoted by the “national essence” and guoshu reformers.

Yet just as Chow warned, the harnessing of Yin power was first premised on the acceptance of often skewed externally inspired narratives of national weakness.  It is well worth remembering that it was Chinese journalists and intellectuals who harped on the image of “the sick man of Asia”, not their counterparts in New York or London. The promotion of China’s “traditional” martial arts seemed a ready-made cure for this self-imposed cultural syndrome.

Many of China’s more liberal reformers disagreed with these prescriptions.  Accepting that superstition and backwardness were at the root of China’s weakened state, the May 4th Reformers favored a much more enthusiastic embrace of Western social, economic and cultural institution.  They were inherently suspicious of attempts to save China’s future by reimagining what its past practices had been. The disastrous events of the Boxer Uprising were still too fresh in their minds to embrace Jingwu’s (or later guoshu’s) promises of a modernized and reformed martial art placed at the disposal of the nation. Chow’s work on the various strategies involved in the construction of “ethnic images” would seem to be a fruitful place to begin to untangle the debate between these two factions as to what role (if any) the martial arts should play in the creation of New China.

All of this suggests a new perspective from which to view Forman’s original photograph.  KMT officials and the guoshu reformers embraced the traditional martial arts because they saw in them a chance to disrupt Western expectations about Chinese society. Yes, domestic unity and nation building were their primary goals.  Yet the KMT constructed a public diplomacy campaign around guoshu (foreshadowing in significant ways the PRC’s current wushu strategy) because they perceived an opening to demonstrate-through staged spectacle and newspaper story-that China was in fact strong, courageous, and modern.  Better yet, it possessed a unique culture capable of making important contributions to global discussions.

It is interesting to read Forman’s photograph within the framework of that ongoing contest of ideas. The old and new are contrasted not just within the right and left side of the frame, but even within the two halves of the swordsman’s body.  In one hand he holds a dadao, China’s now iconic sword.  In the other we see Mauser 88 rifle (either a Chinese produced copy or an imported German model).  While it is often claimed that the dadao was issued only because the Chinese were too poor to produce modern rifles, this photo problematizes such statements.

While genetically descendent from the Mauser rifles carried by the private bodyguards seen above, it should be noted that these examples have been altered in significant ways.  The barrels are shorter, carbine length, conversions and the complex WWI era sights have been replaced with something simpler and lower profile.  In short, the Chinese small arms seen in this photo are more or less identical to the modified bolt action rifles then being issued by countries like Japan, Germany, the USSR and the UK.  Clearly this soldier does not cling to his dadao out of sheer necessity. In this photograph it serves another purpose.

The fact that this image exists in two forms (one with two soldiers, the other with three) confirms our initial suspicions that the composition is an artificial one arranged by Forman, rather than a spontaneous display of Chinese martial culture.  As such we must begin to consider how its creator meant for this image to be read by the public.

The University of Wisconsin Milwaukie archives (which holds the original version of this image) have also preserved three of the original captions that it was distributed with. Editors who bought the image through a newswire service were free to choose any of these when they ran the photo. Interestingly, each of captions reads slightly differently.  The first view is the most negative, placing the sword within the symbolic realm of backwardness and superstition.  In many ways it is a continuation of press traditions from the turn of the century.

Caption 1: “The ‘big sword man’ as the symbol of the warrior of traditional China.  He was brave, agile, and fought his enemy hand-to-hand. He lasted into the twentieth century, gradually accepting the rifle as a weapon for modern warfare.  The Japanese invasion of China in 1931 finally convinced the Chinese to discard the outmoded ‘big sword,’ even as a secondary weapon as here shown in the invasion of Manchuria.”

These observations notwithstanding, the dadao remained common throughout WWII. Produced in large numbers by innumerable small shops, they were issued both to second line militia units as well as to fully equipped professional troops who carried them as the Chinese answer to the Japanese Katana or the British/Indian/Nepalese Kukri (a topic near and dear to my own heart).  Given that American newspapers were full of headlines about China’s “big sword troops” in 1938, I am not sure how many editors would have decided to run this caption.

The second possibility reads as follows: “’The Spirit of Ancient China.’ Big Swordmen -great hand-to-hand fighters, in the old traditional manner – with a modernly equipped trooper of Chiang Kai-shek’s famed 88thDivision. (Photographed in North Station).”

This caption is interesting as it begins the process of presenting the dadao to the Western reader in a “spiritualized” fashion.  Yet it is still fit within the Western motif of romanticism for “vanishing China.” Regardless, it is difficult to accept that this individual is fully representative of that past as he too carries a rifle identical to that possessed by the “modernly equipped trooper.”

Finally, the third and most interesting caption reads: “The Spirit of Ancient China! – The fellow with the big sword.  In the crook of his arm is modern China – the trooper with the steel helmet and modern rifle. Together they oppose Japan.”

Here we begin to see what Forman may have intended with the curious composition of this photograph. Rather than invoking the historical memory of accounts like that by Meadows, his meaning was more symbolic.  One soldier, representing the national essence, spread a protective arm (holding a highly symbolic weapon) over the head of his comrade busily taking aim at an (imaginary) opponent.  This photography was never intended to be a historical, let alone an ethnographic, document.  Rather it was a symbolic argument about the relationship between the Chinese nation and the state.  In the great debate over the shape of “New China,” Forman was making clear his sympathies with the national essence position.


Soldiers demonstrating a dada set before a crowd celebrating the donation swords and helmets to the war effort.



This global rehabilitation of the Chinese sword in the Republic era suggest that the government’s “Kung Fu diplomacy” efforts paid off. Once a symbol of backwardness within an imperialist discourse, by 1938 it was at least possible to see a sword wielding soldier as a symbol of national strength. Of course Westerners were also fascinated with the Japanese katana, and that seems to have provided a mental map for bringing the dadao back into the political lexicon.

The fact that three possible captions were circulated with this iconic image is an important reminder that symbols are never self-interpreting.  Each image holds many possible meanings, some of which overlap, while others may even contradict.  While the Chinese swordsman has proved to be surprisingly resilient, his meaning has been far from stable.  Various political and social reformers (not to mention martial artists) have attempted to destabilize, contest and renegotiate this figure.  While the reproduction of “ethnic images” was conserved, the political implications that they have carried over the 20th century has varied drastically.

Likewise, the meaning, values and goals of the martial arts are not set in stone. While certain bodily techniques may be stable over a period of 100 years or more, their social function and meaning has changed.  They too have been subject to successive rounds of destabilization, negotiation and interpretation.  If surveyed over a period of one or two centuries, a wide variety of period practitioners would likely agree on the appearance of the Chinese martial arts, but would hotly debate their meaning or purpose.  Chow’s theories of ethnicity and visuality suggest some of the reasons why that would likely be the case.



If you enjoyed this essay you might also want to read: Yim Wing Chun and the “Primitive Passions” of Southern Kung Fu



Political Extremism, Violence and Martial Arts


A Preamble

Everyone knew that the situation was deteriorating, and recent events had sensitized government officials to the growing threat of extremist groups within the area’s largest martial arts networks. Local immigration and a shift in the neighborhood’s religious complexion had brought tensions in one community to a boiling point.  Groups of previously reliable citizens were protesting outside of a newly constructed place of worship shouting both racial and religious epitaphs.

Law enforcement wasn’t sure whether to move against the protesters or to just try and keep the groups separated until their anger burnt itself out. From their perspective it was difficult to know if either side actually deserved any sympathy at all.  The supposed “victims” of these violent abuses had been filling the local courts with petty crimes and nuisance lawsuits for years.

Still, the public safety officials all agreed that it was a bad sign when a group of aggressive martial artists appeared right at epicenter of trouble just to conduct some “public workouts.” The group had recruited a new leader, a regionally famous fighter with a reputation for protecting “the people.” They claimed it was all necessary. Someone had to protect the community from these “outsiders.”  That is when the torches were lit.



The Problem of Violence


The still fledgling field of martial arts studies has recently turned its attention to the problem of extremist political violence and its potential connections to the martial arts. Given that so many groups train explicitly to deal with the reality of violence (either to prevent it, or to enact it more efficiently), its odd that this topic is only now gaining visibility.  In the 2017 Martial Arts Studies meetings in Cardiff my good friend Sixt Wetzler delivered a paper laying out a carefully constructed framework for considering the intersection of these issues.  And pointing to the rising prominence of public groups training for violent street battles within the West’s increasingly polarized political atmosphere, I ended my own keynote with a plea for more scholars to take up these issues.

That is not to say that this is easy subject matter. In many cases our research reflects our personal interests and backgrounds. People write papers about embodied training in their favored styles, or address discursive issues in popular films or TV programs. And it is generally good advice to “write what you know.” Yet in moments of social upheaval that advice can lead to a strange myopia.  Few of us are members of extremist organizations, on either the right or the left. And only a handful of martial arts studies scholars have any direct experience in law enforcement or intelligence work. I suspect that (with a few notable exceptions) studies of the intersection of martial arts training and social violence in the modern world lagged behind as it was a research topic without a sizable audience within the field.

It was the appearance of multiple news stories linking the spread of white nationalist hate groups and certain MMA training facilities, fashion labels and fight promotion companies which finally broke this stalemate. Little of what these outlets printed was actually “breaking news.” In February of 2018 Mother Jones published an article titled “The Terrifying Rise of Alt-Right Fight Clubs.” So as to not undersell the story the editor helpfully subtitled the piece (authored by Bryan Schatz) “White nationalists are learning martial arts to prepare for race war.” Much of the same material would later appear in an extended piece in The Guardian titled “Fascist Fight Clubs: How white nationalists use MMA as a recruiting tool.

The implication of elements of the ever growing MMA community in these recruitment efforts inspired some sustained engagement. This unfolded on Facebook groups and blogs, and Paul Bowman has provided a nice summary of these debates here and here. Following the lead of the reporters in these pieces, much of the discussion has so far focused on how we should conceptualize the mixed martial arts and their connection to these efforts.  Are they truly violent sports?  Is there something about them that makes them particularly useful to extremist groups at this moment in history? And perhaps most intriguingly, is there an inherent conceptual connection between the sorts of “violence” that one sees in the octagon, and that which has appeared on the streets.

These are all interesting questions.  Yet in this essay I would like to outline another set of concerns that is likely to take this discussion in several different directions.  And that leads us back to the account of a single violent encounter in the preamble to this essay.  When and where did this happen?  And in what respects is knowing the answer to that question important? What aspects of community violence are historically and culturally bounded, and when do we cross over into the realm of institutionally or structurally determined behaviors?




It would not be hard to come up with several historical incidents that fit the events I outlined above. Some could be as old as the classical world, while others might appear in the headlines of a contemporary European paper. In point of fact, the “regionally famous martial arts teacher” in my account is none other than Zhao San-duo, a late 19thcentury Plum Blossom master who, while not directly involved in the Boxer Uprising, helped to light the fuse of anti-foreign and anti-Christian violence that would bring Imperial China to its knees.

This is not to say that the sort of xenophobia that was seen in late 19th century China, and the Western ideology of racial supremacy seen within groups like the California based Rise Above Movement (RAM, a violent extremist group profiled in both of the previously cited newspaper articles) are in any way identical. While both sets of ideas focused on the need to “protect” a community from perceived racial or religious threats, the historical, cultural and social framing of these ideologies are quite distinct. That is critical to remember, especially as government or local communities seek to address the spread of violent ideologies.

Yet the ease with which one might fit this outline to several cases suggests that there may also be structural and institutional issues that need to be taken into account. The association of martial art training with political or social extremism is not a new phenomenon.  Nor is it restricted to only one side of the political spectrum. For every alt-right MMA club that one finds in California, I suspect that one will be able to locate a Marxist boxing gym in France or Italy.

Nor, when examined in historical terms, does there seem to be a very strong correlation between the sort of martial art being practiced and the probability that it will be radicalized by an anti-systemic group. In Japan it has always been the traditional Budos, with their strong associations with a (mostly imagined) Samurai past, that are the most likely to appeal to both violent ultra-nationalist groups and organized crime syndicates. Yet I doubt that many American MMA practitioners would look at these judo, kendo or aikido schools and find their practices to be notably “violent” by the standards of televised UFC bouts.

One challenge that we face is that since many of us are directly involved in the practice of the martial arts, it can be difficult to see beyond the boundaries of our own experiences and communities. In effect, we have a difficult time perceiving our communities as an outsider with different goals might. This is a distinct disadvantage when it comes to understanding why a particular extremist group might be interested in infiltrating a practice or what their goals might actually be.

To gain some clarity on these issues we might begin by taking a step back from the martial arts themselves and considering what we know about the ways that violent extremist groups typically operate. This is a subject that has been studied extensively by both social scientists and law enforcement personal. While students of martial arts studies have a unique perspective to bring to the table, we should note that there is already a well developed body of empirical observation and theoretical literature that we can draw from.

One of the first things that a student of terrorism might point out, for instance, is that we should carefully consider both halves of the phrase “extremist organization.” While we tend to put a lot of mental emphasis on a group’s views or ideology (often because they are horrifying), if we wish to understand what they actually do on a day to day basis we must remember that they are basically a voluntary social organization.  To survive in the short run they must solve immediate problems like generating a funding stream, recruiting personal, managing their public image and coordinating with other actors. Any extremist organization that fails at these tasks will not be a problem for every long.

To better accomplish these basic goals radical organizations occasionally insert themselves into a wide range of social movements, many of which do not appear to have anything to do with violence.  Sports organizations, on-line communities, new religious movements, musical sub-cultures and international charity organizations have all proved to popular targets for ideologically motivated violent groups. Each of these provides opportunities for extremist organizations to craft communities in which they can radicalize members.  In some cases these cover organizations also help to raise money, operate across international borders or improve the group’s “brand.”

When seen in this light it is not at all surprising that violent organizations, either in the current era or in 19thcentury China, would be interested in hand combat schools. Yet I suspect that the actual martial arts skills gained are not the most critical aspect of their organizational calculus. In modern society martial arts clubs are ubiquitous to the point of being almost invisible. Whether an ultranationalist judo club in Japan, or an MMA school in the United States, both organizations provide groups with a chance to cultivate marginal and dissatisfied individuals in an environment that is likely to generate little suspicion.

From a social scientific perspective these recruitment drives are actually quite enlightening. As martial artists we tend to mentally divide our actives into the serious business of physical training and “everything else” that goes along with being a member of an organization. This second category might include such banal interactions as chatting in the locker room, carpooling to a local tournament or meeting up at the gym for strength training.  The friendships we create, the on-line media we consume, the social community that we build, all of these things are typically seen as “secondary” to the serious business of physical training.

Yet when trying to understand the function and social value of a martial arts school, we need to be willing to reverse this way of thinking.  In actual fact, it is within the realm of the secondary where we find these practices’ greatest value. As any martial arts teacher can attest, it is the friendships that are made in a training hall that keep many students coming back week after week. It is there that they are exposed to the media that their fellow classmates consume. And it is largely through these “secondary” social channels that martial arts communities articulate what their practices mean, and hence what their identity actually is.  Embodied experience is never self-interpreting, which is precisely why so many political, national and social groups have found the martial arts to be useful over the last hundred years or so.

Again, trends within the Boxer Rebellion help to illustrate this basic relationship between a group’s seeming primary purpose (to impart individual skills) and its actual social utility (to reinforce group bonding). Historical and eyewitness accounts suggest that relatively few Chinese Christian were killed with the sorts of hand to hand combat techniques that were taught by the local martial arts communities that the Yihi Boxers drew from. Instead we find accounts of execution squads rounding up local Christians, locking them in their own churches, setting the building on fire and shooting anyone who tried to leap out. Paul Cohen noted that fire, rather than Kung Fu, was the Boxer’s weapon of mass destruction. While we tend to fixate on their claims to magical invulnerability in hand to hand combat, it is often forgotten that much of their magic dealt with the control of fire as they sought to burn entire neighborhoods to the ground.

Does this then indicate that their martial arts training was useless on the battlefield?  Not at all. It was on the boxing grounds of Shandong that the Boxers who would terrorize Beijing were welded together into a somewhat cohesive, radicalized, social unit. It was these “secondary” aspects their martial arts training that laid the necessary social foundation for the tragedy of 1900.

Likewise, when reviewing the footage of recent riots that can be found online, it seems unlikely that a few months of BJJ or MMA (or HEMA) training is going to make the average skinhead that much more effective in a messy brawl with Antifa or law enforcement.  I am as much an advocate of martial arts training as anyone, but the most important function that these clubs serve is likely to organize their members into a somewhat disciplined unit, to coordinate with other likeminded cells, and then to get their guys onto the streets. Certainly strength training and a basic familiarity with fighting might help.  But at the end of the day individuals are motived to fight for communities, not training styles.


Diverse students at a kickboxing seminar held in Ithaca NY.




All of this may seem obvious.  I hope that it does. Yet approaching extremist groups from an institutional perspective reveals important strategies for understanding and deterring their spread. Perhaps the first of these is that there need not be any direct ideological correlation between the types of venues that groups use for recruitment and their ultimate political or social goals.  For instance, modern MMA, 19thcentury Plum Blossom and traditional European Longsword are three very different martial arts both in terms of cultural background, social structure and patterns of imagined violence. Yet each has proved to be an attractive target for radical groups looking to recruit members and coordinate their agendas.

We commit a grave error by treating MMA as some sort of “gateway” to the world of social extremism due to its inherently “violent” or competitive nature. While conceptually interesting, debates as to whether we might legitimately call what happens in the octagon “violence” in the same ways as a deadly political street fight misses a critical point.  There is little violence in Scandinavian new religious movements, yet they too have become, at times, a site of extremist recruitment.  There are good reasons why groups might want to recruit members from charities or other organizations that have no visible connection to violence at all. I am sure that if we looked closely enough we would also find some level recruitment happening at Wing Chun training halls, karate dojos and Kali schools. What is critical is the way these activities can be discursively framed and deployed, and not necessarily anything inherent in their embodied practice.

At the current moment MMA is probably attractive to extremist groups simply because it is so popular with young males generally and is aligned with several trends in popular culture. Its most important assets may not be the brutality of its practice, but the fact that it has crafted a fashionable pop culture aesthetic. Indeed, it may simply be the practice’s “soft power” that make it an attractive target for subversion.  Its highly networked structure also make it both commercially flexible and a decent platform for the sorts of networking that extremist groups may seek to engage in.

If these social characteristics make martial arts organizations attractive to extremist groups (on both the left and right), they also suggest some options for deterring their spread. Consider, for instance, the role of social capital in this type of institutional framework.  “Social capital” refers to the decentralized bonds of trust and reciprocity that are created within small communities that can then be applied to larger networks.

All group interactions create social capital to one degree or another.  Yet they do not always create equal amounts of trust, (bonding capital) nor are they equally good at extending this radius of community (bridging capital). When we look at the specific MMA schools and fight promotions implicated in the news articles cited earlier, it becomes apparent that they are in many ways pretty marginal cases.  This makes sense as, once created, communities rich in social capital tend to be somewhat conservative in character (even if very supportive of their members). My prior research looking at religion and terrorism suggested that communities which were rich in social capital were more resistant to radicalization attempts. Relatively disconnected and marginal groups tended to be low hanging fruit for extremist organizations both because they had less to lose, and less ability to resist corrosive social discourses.

This suggests that one important strategy for containing the spread of extremist ideologies in the martial arts is to focus more attention of building healthy communities with many points of intersection, both with other hand combat groups and the community at large.  Such organizations are much harder targets for radicalization. However, containment strategies that focus on state surveillance, or anything else that corrodes trust (and therefore social capital) within the community, might backfire in unexpected ways.  If we weaken the bonds of reciprocity either within martial arts groups or between them, social capital theory suggest that we might actually increase the probability that these movements are captured by anti-systemic actors. [Incidentally, efforts by the late Qing dynasty to monitor and suppress its own hand combat schools seems to support this hypothesis, but that is an argument for a different post.]

The modern martial arts function as a type of social machinery. Like any machine they perform work, the normative implications of which have more to do with the hand at the controls than any inherent property of the practice itself. It is the fundamental amorality of the martial arts that allows them to be co-opted by both nationalist forces and advocates of regional identity, often at the same time.  Likewise, the same embodied experience of kickboxing or rolling might be used to support discursive structures that emphasize a sense of the profound human equality in some circles, or radical hierarchies of difference in others.  What really matters is the supplementary forces that construct and give meaning to these experiences.

An institutional approach to the problem of extremism not only suggests viable strategies for containing these movements (a topic that I hope to return to in a future essay), but it also reveals something critical about modern hand combat groups. It is often the secondary and seemingly supplementary aspects of our practice that have the most profound impact on the community around us.  We neglect them at our peril, both as scholars and concerned martial artists.



If you enjoyed this essay you might also want to see: Government Subsidization of the Martial Arts and the Question of “Established Churches”


General Zhang Zhijiang: Mixing Christianity and Kung Fu

Testing the edge. A Chinese soldier with dadao. General Zhang pointed to the initial success of troops armed with “Big Swords” as proof of the importance of martial arts training throughout his various remarks in the 1930s. Source: Unknown.



A Different Take on an Old Debate


If you study the traditional Chinese martial arts and have spent any time on the internet, you will have heard some variant of these debates before. Do I need to study Buddhism or Daoism to really understand Wing Chun? Are the foundational principals of Taijiquan found in ancient Daoist philosophy, or would one be better served by taking a close look at late imperial Confucian writings? Of course, the current Abbot of the Shaolin temple has been busy promoting the idea that the wushu demonstrations staged by his warrior monks are an ancient type of “moving Chan.”

Anyone interested in the actual relationship between Chan practice and the Shaolin martial arts can probably find all of the answers they are looking for in Meir Shahar’s excellent work on the famous temple. Indeed, the field of Chinese martial studies emerged at least partially out of a desire to debunk many of the historic myths and misunderstandings surrounding Chinese religion and the martial arts. Yet there are aspects of these questions that remain tantalizing unexplored. For instance, does anyone wonder whether Christianity might really be the spiritual or ethical system that sits at the heart of the Chinese martial arts?

The notion that a Western religion might have anything to do with these hand combat practices seems far-fetched.  But that was not always the case. During the 1930s such linkages gained a sort of quasi-official legitimacy due to both the political efforts that the martial arts were caught up in and the personal ambitions of the leadership of the Central Guoshu Institute. General Zhang Zhijiang (1882-1966) went to great lengths to promote both boxing and Christianity with equal missionary zeal, often in the same breath.

Given his many efforts, all of which received glowing coverage in the Chinese (and to a lesser extent global) press, it may be worth wondering why they are not better remembered.  I suspect that this is because Zhang chose to stay in the PRC following the 1949 victory of the Communist Party.  He even continued to promote the TCMA during this extended “retirement.” Those efforts received a certain amount of social recognition.  However, his prior efforts to evangelize the Chinese masses were quickly forgotten.

None of that is really a surprise. We have seen variants of this story many times before. And if one’s interests lay only in the reconstruction of the old Guoshu training regime, it is probably not all that significant.  Yet for students of Chinese martial studies, Zhang’s linkage of the Chinese martial arts and Christianity is actually quite interesting. It signals the ways in which Central Guoshu Institute was attempting to situate these practices within ongoing debates over the nature of society, and how Chinese culture should be leveraged on the global stage as part of the state’s public diplomacy efforts. So why did Zhang attempt to link such seemingly different social movements? And how was all of this received by audiences in China and abroad?


Troops from the 29th Army.


Action Through Faith


Before delving into period media discussions of these topics, some words of background may be in order. As we discussed in a previous post, General Zhang Zhijiang was one of multiple leading martial arts reformers to emerge out of the period of warlordism which consumed the early years of the Republic. Zhang had a well-deserved reputation for personal rectitude that famously complicated his appointment as head of the opium suppression efforts for a government that had no intention of actually suppressing opium.  Before that Zhang had risen to fame as one of the most reliable lieutenants of Feng Yuxiang, China’s “Christian Warlord.”

While Feng was known to baptize his troops, it seems that Zhang discovered Christainity on his own.  While serving under Feng in Sichuan, he encountered communities of Christian converts and was impressed by their revolutionary zeal and what he termed “faith in action.” Like other elites in the period he took up the study of Christianity and saw it as both a progressive and modernizing force. That doesn’t mean that Zhang lacked a spiritual testimony.  Indeed, he would become just as famous as a Christian preacher and speaker in some circles as he is for the promotion of martial arts in others. Yet it appears that Zhang was attracted to both practices at least in part as each promised to transform China’s population from a disorganized mass, victims of both fate and global aggression, into a motivated and revolutionary body capable of making their way in the world.

Zhang would probably not understand our hesitation upon reading about the intertwining of kung fu and Christianity. Our current cultural vision of religion in the West tends to view it as a conservative force oriented exclusively towards the past. Yet that doesn’t really do justice to the progressive Christianity, often dedicated to radical social reform, that Zhang encountered earlier in the 20thcentury.  Likewise, we tend to view the Chinese martial arts through allochronistic and ethno-linguistically essentialist lenses.  Again, it is unlikely that Zhang (hip-deep in a massive modernization effort) would have been sympathetic to such a view.  Like other reformers of the Republic period, he saw the Chinese martial arts (once properly purified and rectified) as a powerful force for the modernization of Chinese society. While his combination of Christianity and Chinese martial arts training may be jarring to modern sensibilities, during the 1920s and 1930s many individuals seem to conclude that the two were headed along the same path.

For instance, we have already seen reports on this blog of western missionary schools adding Chinese martial arts training to their curriculum in the early 20thcentury.  While traditional athletics and ball games were certainly more popular in American and British schools, a certain number of missionaries who were exposed to both the Chinese martial arts and the Western notion of “muscular Christianity” seem to have decided that such instruction was just what their young charges needed. Indeed, the YMCA would become an important force for the promotion of both Western and indigenous boxing traditions in China. It is now also clear that the famous Jingwu Association was built largely in its image.

Jared Miracle has documented much of the ideological interplay between China, the West and Japan on this issue, and his work is well worth reviewing.  Likewise, Scott Phillips has recently coined the term “YMCA Consensus” to encapsulate all of this.  He notes that reformers both in the Chinese martial arts community and in other areas largely agreed on the steps which were necessary to modernize Chinese society. These included a turn away from superstitious practices and beliefs (folk religion and the opera), and often dovetailed quite nicely with the spread of progressive Christianity and other revolutionary philosophies in China.

This is a very useful concept, though one that might be better termed the “YMCA debate.” My 2015 volume on the history of the Southern Chinese martial arts (co-authored with Jon Nielson) looked at how these debates unfolded in some detail in a single location (the Pearl River Delta) where the forces of reform and modernization were soundly trounced by a reactionary local society.  Hence any “consensus” that existed tended to manifest itself at the elite national level.  Of course, this is exactly where most of our written historical sources come from (including the journal and newspaper articles discussed below).

It goes without saying that Zhang was the literal vanguard of such a movement.  When viewed in this context his dual promotion of Christianity and the Chinese martial arts makes perfect sense. We should also remember that many other individuals were coming to very similar conclusions during the Republic period.

A similar logic applies when we think about the KMT’s international public diplomacy strategy. Given the West’s well-established interest in judo and jiujitsu, it did not take a marketing genius to conclude that China’s martial arts heritage could be a great asset.  Still, one would need to show that these were not the same backwards superstitions that had led to the Boxer Rebellion a generation earlier. Rather, the “modern” martial arts were a rectified and scientific practice that could be shared with the world.

In short, individuals like Zhang hoped to demonstrate China’s modernization by sharing elements of a carefully curated “traditional” culture, much as every other major power was also doing during this period of nationalist revival. And what better way to contextualize such discussions than by linking them to the global currents of progressive Christianity, especially in its more “muscular” or sporting forms? The Chinese were not the only ones who appreciated the notion of “action through faith.”

The promotion of this message would monopolize much of Zhang’s career during the 1930s.  While his contributions to the development of the Central Guoshu Institute have been explored by Andrew Morris and others, one of the important aspects of Zhang’s career was his frequent extended good-will tours accompanied both by teams of martial artists and other officials, all designed to promote these messages. These tours were both domestic and international in scope.

In 1933 Zhang and a team of athletes, martial artists and diplomats undertook a long tour of South East Asia. This was a sensitive time as it followed Japanese aggression in Manchuria and Shanghai, and the Japanese were then sending their own teams of diplomats through the region and the West to explain their view of the Chinese situation. In 1935 another year-long expedition was mounted.  This one would cover both the United States and Western Europe before once again returning by way of South East Asia.  Again, Zhang would be accompanied by officials from the Foreign Ministry and martial artists.  In 1936 Zhang undertook a domestic tour across Southern China, a region that the Guoshu movement had trouble penetrating.  This was the same year that Chu Minyi would lead his better known Olympic expedition to Berlin and the subsequent international demonstration tour across Europe.

True to form, Zhang mixed his unique brand of Christian and martial evangelism in many of these stops.  That seems to have been particularly true of this 1935 expedition to the West.  How successful any of this was is another matter.  The Chinese press followed his progress, and the English language papers of Shanghai and Beijing reported that foreigners showed interest in the Chinese martial arts at all of his stops.  Unfortunately, few mentions of Zhang’s tour appear in the major Western papers that I have been able to review. Granted, this sort of search is more difficult to conduct as most local papers that might carry accounts of a multiple-city event aren’t located in a single database.  Still, it is not a good sign that his efforts made so little impact on the major national papers (at least in the US).  For instance, the Washington Post carried only a single notice of his visit to the US.  On page 4 of the October 9th issue there is a short notice identifying Zhang and noting that he would be delivering a talk entitled “Christianity and Peace” at a joint meeting of protestant denominations at the Church of the Pilgrim at 8 p.m.

Chu Minyi’s Olympic expedition seems to have suffered a similar fate the following year.  Both Zhang’s 1935 and Chu’s 1936 tours must have been vastly expensive undertakings. And while both were politely received (note for instance we don’t find any newspaper articles mocking them) they clearly did not generate the same sort of enthusiasm in the Western press that they inspired back home. The question comes down to demand.

It was precisely Japan’s military success in Asia (a “hard power” resource) that made its culture attractive to Western consumers.  So while the “soft power” of cultural attraction may be independently deployed in the pursuit of certain policy goals, it rarely arises in isolation from developments in the realm of “hard power.”  More often than not, the two are linked. Zhang and Chu worked diligently to craft a strategy that would effectively communicate with Western audiences. Yet given China’s weakened military position, selling the desirability of its martial arts was always going be an uphill fight. While various reformers could argue that China was the true of home jiujitsu, Western audiences showed little interest in taking up the argument.

Still, the efforts that Zhang put forward help to remind us that reforms within the Republic era Chinese martial arts did not happen in a vacuum. Chinese officials were very much aware of the notion (championed first by the Italians, then the Germans) that a nation’s athletes should be thought of as “diplomats in track suits.” Further, the 1930s was a decade in which all of the Western powers were showcasing their national physical cultural heritage as well as the latest trends in physical training.  Rather than seeing the development of the Chinese martial arts during this period as something isolated or culturally pristine, it is important to consider the ways that Zhang and others sought to situate them within broader global trends.


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



Leading the Nation in Physical Culture


All of that should be taken into consideration when reviewing sources such as this. On September 15, 1936 the pro-KMT, English language newspaper The China Press, published a long article profiling Zhang.  It reviewed his recent tour of North America and Europe, and promoted his upcoming expeditions through the major cities of Southern China. The article provides us with a nice summary of Zhang’s career, which was no doubt its purpose.  More importantly, it suggests how Zhang and the rest of the Nanking establishment wanted his efforts to be seen and understood by readers in the West.  Interestingly, this piece repeatedly emphasizes the connections between Zhang’s attempts to proselytize the Christian message and his efforts to save the nation through teaching the martial arts.  Both were seen as an aspect of the same basic mission.


Nanking General Will Lead Nation in Physical Culture


Chang Chi-chiang, foremost exponent of Ancient Physical Arts, to Take to Road with Staff of 20 Instructors


The day of inter-provincial wars in China is no more, and those warlords who rose to power, ruling a particular slice of conquered territory for various periods have either retired been pushed out of the picture or passed on to another world.

One of the few emailing military leaders, however, is General Chang Chi-chiang, a man of no mean ability, and who in his time had under his command no less than 300,00 men and fought in some 10 wars.

He has since written “finis” to a career of war, and is now engaged in a battle of quite a different sort. He is, in other words, seeking to win the hearts of China’s millions through serving his country in an entirely peaceful endeavor.

Airplanes, field guns and other military equipment have their place in the upbuilding of the country, the general concedes, but his task lies in building up the morale and physique of the people.

Today General Chang is Director of the Central Institute for National Culture [Guoshu] and concurrently Commander-in-Chief of the Leauge of Ten for [the] National Salvation of China through the faith and works of Chinese Christians.

To Lead Lectures

In the name and interest of both organizations, General Chang will soon lead in the future an expedition of more than 20 men in a round-the-country lecture and demonstration tour, urging every one of the four hundred millions of this country to prepare body and hearts against the eventuality of a great national crisis.

General Chang speaks forcefully when he talks of the thing which he thoroughly understands and in which he has put the deepest of faith and enthusiasm. Let each of our fellow-countrymen be thoroughly trained and drilled in the national physical art that our forefathers have left to use so that our body will be like iron and steel in times of great trials that may come, then no aggressive foreign power will be able to conquer China.”

General Chang mentioned with great pride what he considers to be the historic battle of Hsifengkuo in Northern China. He cited reports that the other country involved in those battles [Japan] has been busily searching for Chinese in Northern China versed in the use of the Big Swords. These Chinese, ignorant of what it means to their own country, have been bought to become instructors for the army of the nation concerned, General Chang said.

“If a foreign country has seen the need of training her citizens in a physical art that belongs to China, how much more should China be aware of the need herself?” General Chang asked.

Urges Physical Development

“So, ye four hundred millions, rise up like one man in intensified physical training.  Take lessons in boxing, in the use of swords, spears, arrows, each according to personal tastes.” That will be the clarion call which General Chang is going to make to the nation on his future round-the-country lecture and demonstration tour.

At the same time, General Chang, in his capacity as the Commander-in-Chief of the League of Ten for National Salvation of China, will urge all people, especially the Christians, to join that organization so that the entire force of 500,000—odd Christians will form a formidable strength in the campaign of saving China by purging the hearts of the four hundred millions of their sins.

This will not be the first time that General Chang has traveled extensively in the interest of the promotion of the ancient physical art and the heart-purging cause. He made a similar trip covering more than 14 countries in America and Europe last year.  “The people of all these countries showed considerable enthusiasm in the Chinese arts.” He said.

With General Chang, it is a case in which a real and worthy career began at the age of fifty.  For he was at that age when he was first made Director of the Central Institute for National Physical Arts in 1928. This organization had as its founders all the government executives including Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, Mr. Tai Chi-tao, Marshal Feng Yu-xiang, General [illegible] Lieh-chun, etc., who are still serving on the Board of Directors.

One-Man Job

But these founders have left the huge task of pushing the campaign entirely in the hands of General Chang so that it has been a one-man game for him for six years. Within this period. Branch institutes have been established in [illegible] and municipal centers as well as provincial capitals throughout the whole country, excepting Tiber and Mongolia.

The Central Institute at Tou Piao Hsiang has more than 20 instructors, each a specialist in one of the multiple sorts of Chinese boxing and swordsmanship. They have under their tutorship 120 students including 30 girls.

This organization with its auxiliaries throughout the country, according to General Chang, has had a hard time financially. A monthly subsidy of only $5,00 can hardly be enough to finance such a great undertaking. But General Chang has a spirit of determination that cannot be swerved by financial difficulties. He has incurred debt totaling $100,000 on account of the institute, he said.  General Chang is also president of the Central School of Physical Culture at Hsiaolingwei with a total of 300 students.

It is a marvel to see how the General has given himself up to the cause.  He rises at 5 o’clock and does a physical drill until 10o’clock every morning.  Even while talking with friends he moves his arms and hands every now and then as does a boxer.

The League of Ten for National Salvation of China was organized in 1933 mainly due to the inspiration which General Chang gave to a group of his Christian friends including Mr. David Young, pastor of the Advent Christian Church, Dr. Handel Lee, President of the Nanking Theological Seminary and Dr. Li Tien-lu, professor of the same institution.

General Chang was one time Chairman of the Opium Suppression Commission and later Pacification Commissioner for Kiangsu Province.

“Nanking General Will Lead Nation in Physical Culture.” The China Press. September 18, 1936, 4.



If you enjoyed this post you might also want to read: “The Professor in the Cage”: Can Gottschall Bring Science to the Study of Violence?


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