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"through a lens darkly"

Through a Lens Darkly (52): Taijiquan in Communist China and the United States in 1972

A press photo of a Taijiquan practitioner in China, 1972. AP photo by Faas. Source: Author’s collection.

 

The First of Five Photos by Horst Faas to accompany story on the practice of Tai Chi Chuan.

An older Chinese man practices the calisthenics called Tai Chi Chuan, sometimes called shadowboxing by Westerners, in the city of Shanghai recently.  The calisthenic is done voluntarily and often alone. (AP Newswire 1972)

 

Taijiquan on a Cold Day in 1972

 

Occasionally you get lucky.  You might find a photograph of the Chinese martial arts that distills a lot into a single image.  That is what Horst Faas, the famed German war photographer, was known for.  His photographs of the Vietnam war came to define the public perception of that conflict.  Those images were complex and politically challenging.  Perhaps we should expect nothing less from his photos of Chinese martial artists?

This particular photo, one of a series that ran along side an AP newswire article in 1972, managed to capture the complexity of the traditional martial arts in mainland China during the closing years of the Cultural Revolution.  It also hints at the contradictory attitudes of Americans towards them on the eve of the eruption of the Bruce Lee/Hong Kong film inspired “Kung Fu fever” of the later 1970s.  Every photograph captures a moment in time, but this was a particularly important one.

In the foreground we find a male martial artist dressed in a hat and mittens to stave off the cold.  He strides purposefully, advancing through a set of movements described to the Western audience as “Tai Chi Chun”, a Chinese form of calisthenics often practiced “alone and voluntarily.” (We will return to the significance of this last clause shortly).

Nevertheless, the dynamism of his movements seems to be swallowed up by the sheer scale of the setting.  Rather than the groups of martial artists that inhabit so many of China’s pubic spaces, here we see only a single individual in an impersonal space, dwarfed by an oversized propaganda poster in the background.  What mere traditional practice could stand in the face of such a “heroic” message?  The mythic worker in the background stands unmoving with his arm aloft, yet it is his ideological call that dominates the frame.  Undeterred and alone, a single martial artist carries on in the shadow of “the Revolution.”  This was Taijiquan in 1972.

 

The Thing vs. the Idea of the Thing

What are we to make of this image?  How should we explain it?  What dimensions of information has it captured, and what has it excluded?

The very composition of Faas’ photograph suggests a method for its interpretation.  In the foreground we see an embodied practice.  A man practicing Taijiquan is, in some ways, a very concrete thing.  His practice is a result of technical transmissions and historical processes.  We might study his movements and master his techniques. If interviewed he could tell us about his teacher and students.

Yet this scene derives its visual tension from the immense propaganda poster in the background. That is not simply paper and ink.  It is the tangible representation of a powerful set of ideas being consciously projected into the nation’s shared public spaces.  In this photograph it is actually these ideological facts that construct and give meaning to the man’s embodied practice, not his personal history or embodied skill.  They are also present.  The two seem to exist in a powerful dialogue between that which is individual and peculiar, and that which is collective and universal.  Nothing gives a slightly subversive subtext to an “individual and voluntary” activity quite like doing it in front a call to collectivist and revolutionary action.

This is a critical point whose utility is not restricted to this photograph.  Scholars construct the object of their study in very specific ways so that we can gain analytical purchase on a variety of theoretical problems.  The Chinese martial arts are typically treated as either objects, a sort of cultural or embodied artifact, best understood in technical terms, or as an idea, a collection of images, texts and concepts that evolve through time.  

 

Another image of Taijiqan (this time being performed domestically) that appeared in the American Press in 1972. Source: LA Times, March.

 

 

For the purposes of any individual project we might choose to focus on one or the other of these approaches.  In a paper on Huang Fei Hung in Hong Kong cinema I might be much more concerned with the ways in which this southern art is presented to the audience rather than in how it was actually practiced “on the street.”  Likewise, most of our historical discussions of the origins of Shaolin Boxing ignore more modern legendary stories attributing the art to Bodhidharma or some other legendary figure.  Instead they focus on a vision of the art that arrises from contemporaneous historical documents or the careful reconstruction of physical training methods.  And there is certainly much room in martial arts studies for both types of projects.

But what does it all mean?  Taking a step back, it becomes obvious that it is impossible to understand what a martial art means to the people who practice it in a cultural sense if we systematically ignore the stories that they tell (or consume) about their own practice.  Likewise, if we cannot appreciate the technical practice of Hung Gar we will miss the social significance of something like the “ethnographic turn” in the early Wong Fei Hung films.   

We may occasionally bracket the study of the martial arts as object/practice or idea/media discourse.  Yet we cannot understand much about their development or place in the modern world if at some point we don’t struggle to bring these perspectives together.  Ideas motivate and give meaning to practice.  New types of practice lead to new ideas.  This cyclic relationship, as much as anything else, dictates the fundamentally interdisciplinary nature of martial arts studies. 

Lets reconsider this image from first a technical and historical perspective.  Daniel Amos has noted that we are mistaken when we assume that the Chinese martial arts reemerged on the mainland only after the conclusion of the Cultural Revolution in 1976.  Indeed, we are also largely mistaken when we assert that it was the Cultural Revolution that led to their disappearance in the first place.

To simplify a complex paper, Amos argues that in fact most (non-professional) individuals gave up the martial arts at a much earlier date than is generally assumed.  The far reaching social reforms enacted by the new Communist regime meant that the old social institutions that supported boxing (and gave people an incentive to promote it), were basically wiped out by property and community reform programs by the end of the 1950s.  Once it became clear that it was local party officials and the state that ensured one’s safety, not voluntary social networks of traditional practitioners or secret society members, most people very quickly gave up the martial arts.  The world in which they had previously existed had simply vanished, cutting off the demand for these practices.  

In a perverse way the Cultural Revolution may have actually saved the practice of the Chinese martial arts on the mainland.  Many important texts and weapons were destroyed by over-zealous Red Guards or those who feared their wrath.  But as it became clear that the local party officials had lost control of the situation and could no longer protect individuals from the Red Guards, former practitioners and “reformed” secret society members once again started to rebuild martial arts networks as a form of private protection.  

Seeing public Taijiquan practice in the early 1970s is, in some ways, less surprising than what one might assume.  Further, David Palmer has suggested that individuals turned to activities like Qigong and Taijichuan as a way of dealing with the psychological trauma and repression that was inflicted on the population by the excesses of the Cultural Revolution. And both of these scholars have noted that the trends which began in the 1970s only accelerated in the 1980s.  

Seen in this light our lone martial artist is neither an aberration nor an illustration of the futile nature of trying to bring modernity to the Chinese people.  He is a pioneer who suggests what the future of the Chinese martial arts will be, as well as the political subtext that will accompany these activities.  After all, as Faas notes, these are voluntary and individual exercises which served to purposefully set people apart from the mandatory and collective daily exercises that were practiced by pretty much every work unit in the country.

This turn towards the question of ideology brings us to the second half of our interpretive equation.  What did such an image suggest to Western readers about the nature of Chinese society and martial arts?  Few Americans knew that much about what was going on inside the globally reclusive Chinese state during the Cultural Revolution.  And why is it significant that pictures like this, and so many other discussions of Taijiquan, begin to appear in the press in the years 1972 and 1973?

We know that the popularity of the Chinese martial arts exploded in the mid 1970s.  The release of Enter the Dragon in August of 1973 catapulted Bruce Lee to superstardom and ensured that the public would have a healthy interest in the Chinese martial arts.  But other factors must also be considered.  While Bruce Lee would set the match to the powder, other forces had been laying the groundwork for this explosion of interest in Chinese culture.  Nor did all of these actors share the same vision of the practice or meaning of the traditional arts.

The politics of the Cold War played a large part in this.  Note for instance that in February of 1968 Black Belt magazine ran a historically important feature on the martial arts of “Red China.”  Readers of Kung Fu Tea may be interested in its brief discussion of Wing Chun and the early photo of Ip Man which it published.  But if we take a step back and read the entire issue its interesting to note how the discussion of the Chinese martial arts is repeatedly framed within a larger political discussion of Chinese Communism and whether it should be seen as threatening in a global context.  Indeed, the article makes an effort to try and understand the CCP’s ideological stance towards the martial arts and cites books published by mainland presses earlier in the 1960s.

In 1972 President Nixon provided the ultimate answers to these geopolitical questions when news of his historic opening to China became public.  This tectonic political shift dominated public discussions at the time and it continued to reverberate throughout the early 1980s.  Intensive media coverage during the era of “Ping Pong Diplomacy” ensured that there was a growing interest in many aspects of Chinese culture.  

Once the table tennis was over, the Chinese government staged martial arts demonstrations for dignitaries (and journalists) on both sides of the Pacific.  Who can forget the pictures of a young Jet Li visiting the White House in 1974? In many ways this was the beginning of the modern era of Chinese “Cultural Diplomacy,” and it was clear from the start that the martial arts would play a major role in these efforts.  Indeed, the Communists seemed to be picking up right where the Nationalists had left off in the 1930s.  Americans remained curious about Chinese martial arts, and the government was eager to show off the achievements of the newly reformed wushu system.

What did American readers see when looking at this photograph in 1972?  Generalizations are difficult, but I suspect that most individuals probably felt an anticipation of change.  Clearly this photo was intended to capture a moment of social transition.  But the political atmosphere of 1972 probably led a great many readers to assume that it was the collectivist and revolutionary ideology in the background (represented by the Maoist propaganda poster) which was about to recede into history, while the “traditional” yet voluntary practice in the foreground represented China’s hope for the future.    

 While not immediately obvious, this reading of the photograph does something interesting.  Rather than leaving Taijiquan as an unchanging relic of “ancient China,” it acknowledges that it is a practice caught up in the churn of geopolitical events.  As such, it has a real history.  We might even be able to understand broader patterns of change within both Chinese and global society by studying this fighting systems.  Such a reading also brings the historical and technical discussions of scholars like Amos and Palmer into close alignment with trends that were emerging from Western media discourse.  Rather than an artifact of the allochronistic past, the reemergence of Taijiquan was proof that the long prophesied “New China” was finally on the horizon.

 

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If you enjoyed this essay you might also want to see: Inventing Kung Fu

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Through a Lens Darkly (51): Early Kendo in California

Boy Scouts practice Kendo in California, 1928. Source: Vintage Press Photo. Author’s Personal Collection.

 

Of Boy Scouts and Kendo

A recent post focused on the role of the global scouting movement in promoting the spread of the Asian martial arts during the first half of the 20th century. In that essay I mentioned a photograph of Japanese-American and Caucasian scouts practicing Kendo together in California during the 1920s. Yet observant readers may have noticed I did not actually include that photo in the post.

Sadly I had misplaced that particular photo so it didn’t make it into that piece. But it recently resurfaced as I was shuffling through my collection. Better yet, I came across another related item which also helps to add detail to our understanding of Kendo in America prior to 1941.

I quite like the first of these press photos. In it we see two figures seemingly locked in a bind. Both boys wear a complete set of kendo gear over western clothing and shoes. While Kendo is traditionally practiced barefoot, the shoes are probably necessary in this case as the boys are practicing on an asphalt rooftop. While the publisher’s caption doesn’t say where the photograph was taken, our young combatants are framed by a well-developed cityscape in the background. The composition of this photograph is excellent, and it lends a real sense of drama to this moment of martial exchange.

The publisher’s complete caption (pasted to the verso of the photograph) reads as follows:

AMERICAN BOYS ADOPT JAPANESE GAMES

Japanese Boy Scouts of the Pacific Coast have taught white scouts some of the sports of ancient Japan. Here are a couple of the scouts practicing the ancient Samurai sport of sword play with bamboo swords.

April 17, 1928

While brief, this caption is quite revealing. It is likely that any Boy Scout of this age would have been born in the United States, yet the author seems unsure as to whether they should rightly be classified as “Americans” or not. If one were to read this description too quickly it might be possible to assume that it is discussing the visit of scouts from Japan to California, when in fact this was an exchange between two local troops, both comprised of US citizens. This same sense of self-inflicted confusion as to the actual identity of Japanese-American citizens would bear tragic fruit following the commencement of hostilities in the Pacific.

The irony is that whoever organized this activity likely believed that throwing scout troops from the white and Japanese-American communities together would lead to a greater sense of understanding and civic empathy. That sort of bridge building has long been a core function of the Boy Scouts. Yet rather than simply educating the public about their community, practices such as Kendo could be interpreted as markers of the “indelible strangeness” of the Japanese American community.

Nevertheless, the popularity of Kendo expanded rapidly on the West coast after the 1920s. Anyone interested in an overview of this period should be sure to check out Joseph Svinth’s 2003 chapter “Kendo in North America, 1985-1955” in Thomas and Svinth’s Martial Arts in the Modern World. This chapter is an excellent example of the ways in which a focused study of martial arts communities can make important contributions to our understanding of local and regional history. Svith’s comparison of the ultimate fate of the pre-war Kendo communities in the USA and Canada is also a nice case study in the politicization of the martial arts.

As Svinth notes, during the late 19th and early 20th century American kendo was mostly dominated by visiting elites from Japan rather than local immigrants. The expense of establishing schools, hiring instructors and importing gear from Japan was more than struggling local communities could bear. Yet by the end of the1920s things start to change. The growing economic security of the Japanese American community, as well as the immigration of a handful of instructors from Japan, set the stage for a kendo boom. By the middle of the next decade there were dozens of clubs up and down the west coast of Canada and the US, most of which were led by local instructors. The following photograph, also collected from a newspaper archive, records this moment in history.

 

T. Shimada leads a Kendo class in Los Angeles, 1933. Source: Vintage Press Photo. Author’s Personal Collection.

JAPANESE FENCING

Los Angeles.

[A] new sport gains vogue in America, Kendo, the Japanese art of fencing with bamboo swords finds enthusiastic devotees in Los Angeles, under T. Shimo who is said to conduct the only class in the ancient sport outside of Japan. Young American born sons of Japanese residents are his pupils but so many occidentals have been attracted by the spectacular fencing that Shimo may break the traditional president and initiate a class of Americans, anticipating future international competition. Heavily padded headgear, gloves and breastplates are used to prevent injury in the sword duels which call for a high degree of skill and physical endurance. These young Japanese fencers, shown with Shimo. Have been studying under the fencing master for two years at Los Angeles.

1/18/33

One of the basic questions that Svinth attempts to tackle in his chapter is the actual popularity of Kendo on the West Coast. Certain sources indicated that more than 10,000 people were studying Kendo by the end of the 1930s. Svinth, however, is unconvinced that a handful of clubs could support such numbers. He views such reports as a self-reinforcing cycle of over-enthusiasm on the part of ambitious Kendo instructors and latent “yellow peril” fears on the part of Western reporters and government officials who were predisposed to worry about the growing strength of the Japanese American community.

The caption that circulated with this photo seems to touch on many of these same issues. It is certainly true that the practice of Kendo in America expanded rapidly between the time of our first and second photographs. At the same time there is an air of self-serving exaggeration in all of this. If Shimo’s class really started in 1931 it was far from the first Kendo class in Southern California, let alone “outside of Japan.” Still, it would be interesting to know if his plans to expand instruction to the local Caucasian community ever came to fruition.

Svinth notes that by the middle of the 1930s local merchants had started to stock Kendo gear and this dropped some of the economic barriers to participation. Proud parents, eager to use Kendo as a means of preserving their national identity, were quick to take formal photos of their children in Kendo gear and send them to relatives in the US and Japan. Unfortunately, between the internment of these citizens in North America, and the firebombing of Japanese cities, few of these photos now survive. Thus the newspaper photographs discussed here are an important visual record of what is largely a lost era of martial arts history.

While Kendo has a healthy following on the West Coast, Svinth notes that in the US the entire art had to be re-introduced and re-organized following the Second World War. While young students during the 1930s may have viewed their practice as a way of competing, winning trophies and making friends, their parents tended to associate these practices strongly with Japanese cultural identity. It was this sort of identity work that inspired the community to throw its support behind the rapid expansion of the practice in the first place.

After the attack on Pearl Harbor this became the source of an immediate crisis. All of the West Coast kendo schools were shut down and many of their instructors were detained by both the Canadian and US governments. Faced with a crisis of identity, many Japanese-Americans responded by destroying anything too closely linked with traditional Japanese culture or militarism. This included the burning of Kendo gear, photographs, books and the destruction of ancestral swords. While some individuals continued to practice Judo in the internment camps (which was deemed permissible as the art was adopted as part of American military training in 1943), Svinth notes that Kendo was largely shunned except by those seeking a form of passive resistance.

Such a path was not that popular in the American camps, where large numbers of young Japanese-Americans enlisted to fight in the pacific. As a result Kendo largely faded as part of the community’s identity. Its popularity in the second half of the 20th century was due to its re-introduction by returning veterans who had studied the art in occupied Japan, or later immigrants. Interestingly the path of peaceful resistance proved to be much more popular in the Canadian camps. As a result much of the pre-War Kendo community managed to survive in that country.

 

Conclusion

Its comforting to think that the more two communities learn about each other the less likely conflict becomes. This hope often functions as an implicit assumption within many discussions of value of the global spread of the Asian martial arts. It is simply one more facet of the ever-popular paradox of the “fighting arts” functioning as a pathway for peace.

Political scientists, however, have known for quite some time that greater empathy does not always lead to more peaceful outcomes. Sometimes additional information just ends in more finely calibrated attacks. Simply put, the exchange of knowledge (embodied or otherwise) never happens in a vacuum. Structure matters, and so does discourse. One must think carefully about the larger frameworks surrounding martial exchanges to understand likely outcomes.

The case of kendo’s rapid expansion on the West Coast in the early 1930s is an interesting case study. While press coverage of these clubs may have created a more informed reading public, it probably wasn’t a more sympathetic one. Perhaps things would have been different if greater efforts had been made to racially integrate classes. Indeed, both of the photos discussed above hint hopefully at that possibility. But in an era when Kendo itself was being promoted as a way to reconnect with one’s Japanese roots, and American life was dominated by the institutions of segregation, such an outcome was unlikely. Still, the visual record of these historical moments lead us to wonder about what might have been?

 

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If you enjoyed this essay you might also want to see: Conceptualizing the Asian Martial Arts: Ancient Origins, Social Institutions and Leung Jan’s Wing Chun.

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Through a Lens Darkly (50): Catching Up With A Group of Chinese Archers, and a Few Soldiers

A Group of Chinese Archers, Fujian Province. Circa 1900. Source: USC Digital Collections.

 

Old Friends

One of the more rewarding things that I have been able to do with this blog has been to showcase previously unseen, or rare, images of Chinese martial arts.  I have tried to keep these photos, engravings, paintings and other visual representations within a single series for ease of future study and reference.  And a number of these images are worthy of further thought and meditation.  Some reveal interesting information about the practice of the martial arts, while all of them speak to the ways that these practices have been framed and understood within the global system.

Yet contextualizing these photographs has been a problem.  While ephemera (postcards, newspaper engravings, etc…) reach a wide audience, they do so at the expense of any depth of descriptions.  Images of specific individuals, each with their own practices and ideology, are inevitably flattened and repackaged as generic “cultural types.”

While always present, the advent of the Boxer Rebellion (1899-1901) accelerated this process to an almost comical degree.  Ironically, an explosion of public curiosity about the new threat in northern China led to a proliferation of popular images which, when you scratched the surface, had little to do with the topic at hand.  In the summer of 1900 it seems that the American public was ready to accept practically any image of a Chinese person as a revealing portrait of a dreaded “Boxer.”

 

Another version of the previous image featured on an Ogden Cigarette Card. Source: Author’s Personal Collection.

 

This isn’t to say that some of the photographs that circulated during this period were not interesting.  They certainly are.  Yet it can be difficult to figure out what one is actually seeing.  A few years ago I discussed the preceding cigarette card in a previous post. Published by the Ogden Cigarette company it sought to cash in on “Boxer mania” with a photo (circulated in both wide frame and a more tightly cropped version), of a group of individuals holding bows.

The fact that such a large number of men would stop and pose for a group portrait strongly suggests that these individuals were not actually “Boxers.”  As a group the Yi Hi Boxers tended to have a violent dislike of both western individuals and photography in particular.  At the time I speculated that we might be seeing a photograph of a local defense society, or possibly even a group of archery students who were preparing for the military exams (note the presence of a heavy knife and saddled horse).  But I also lamented that without some sort of lucky break it would probably be impossible to know where or when this photo was really taken.

Good fortune, it seems, is on our side.  A few weeks ago Joseph R. Svinth sent me links to the original version of this image.  Best of all, we are now one step closer to solving the riddle of this group of archers.  The image itself is housed in the digital collections of the USC Libraries.  It is one part of a much larger collection of images generated by a group of Presbyterian  missionaries working in Xiamen (Amoy), Fujian Province.  This particular photograph was taken sometime around 1900.

A close examination would seem to suggest that this isn’t exactly the same image as what we see on the Cigarette card.  In the USC’s copy the small boy in the front is holding what appears to be a bird cage.  This is missing in the commercially circulated copies.  Nor are all of the individuals in the same positions.  Still, we now know where and when this group of photos was taken.  Rather than showing a band of northern, anti-Western, radicals, it actually featured a local group from Fujian who were on good terms with a protestant mission.  Best of all, the copy at USC has been scanned in high enough resolution that you can see some interesting detail of their gear.

 

A Group of Chinese Soldiers. Fujian Province, circa 1900. Source: USC Digital Collections.

 

Boxer Rebels or Loyal Soldiers?

Nor was this the only photograph from the mission’s collection to find new life in the commercial realm.  One of the most memorable photos to emerge from the period of the Boxer Rebellion was the July 14th cover of the Navy & Army Illustrated magazine.  According to the popular press this was a photograph of a “Boxer Chief” and his men armed with “horrible jagged knives.”  Once again, the implication was that readers were seeing forces on the ground in Norther China.

The reality of the situation was slightly different.  Rather than a “Boxer Chief” what we actually have is a local government official and his personal bodyguard.  The weapons in question were part of his (officially mandated) ceremonial regalia.  As the allied forces around Beijing were learning (much to their dismay), by the summer of 1900 the Chinese military was armed with rifles just as advanced (and sometimes more so) than anything in their inventories.  Still, tridents and huge halberds really make an impression on the crowd when parading through the streets.  Rifles are efficient, but they aren’t crowd pleasers.

 

 

Joseph Svinth did us a great favor by locating the original source of these two iconic images.  Their transformation within the climate of 1900 helps to sharpen our understanding of how that crisis distorted popular views of both Chinese soldiers and martial artists in the West.  Still, both of these are images that we have discussed previously.  I would like to end this post with something totally new, also drawn from the mission’s collections.

 

A Weapons rack outside a guardhouse in Quanzhou. 1912. Source: The Digital collections of the USC library.

 

This last photograph dates to 1912 and was taken by someone visiting the mission’s activities in Quanzhou.  While the image is a little dark it clearly shows a rack of weapons (including forks, spears and crescent knives) in front of a local guard house.  It would be hard to overstate how much had changed within Chinese society between 1900 and 1912.  The period had been a rough one for China’s traditional fighting systems and the popular revival of boxing that would sweep through society (leading to efforts to include it within the national school curriculum) was still half a decade off.  Still, it is good to see that this group of weapons was weathering the storm.

 

 

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

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Through a Lens Darkly (49): Kung Fu at Springfield College, 1917

“A Sword Fight.” 1917, magic lantern slide showing Wang Wen-lin and Wang Shhh-Ching. Source: The Digital Collections of Springfield College.

Introduction

When we think about the early history of the Chinese martial arts in the United States we tend to focus our discussion on either San Francisco or New York. Los Angles, Chicago and Honolulu also make the short-list of important cites for martial arts innovation. Yet few of us would put Springfield College in Massachusetts on that list.

That is an oversight. Still, such mistakes can be instructive when they highlight larger, more systematic, flaws in our understanding of the world. A closer look at some of the Chinese students who attended Springfield suggests that efforts to familiarize the American public with the traditional martial arts in the early 20th century were more widespread than is generally appreciated. Further, these arts were being championed not by the sorts of working class individuals that inhabited the Chinatowns of California and New York, but by relatively affluent and highly educated students. Their vision of wushu was shaped by the modernist Jingwu movement and early 20th century efforts to reform and introduce these arts to the body politic via the national curriculum reform movement championed by Ma Liang and others.

Before going further a bit of background is necessary. During the early 20th century Springfield College served as an important YMCA training school. In addition to a large number of missionaries, it also produced the athletic directors who would bring notions of “muscular christianity” and “modern athletics” to clubs in cities like Shanghai, Beijing and Guangzhou. Interestingly, this exchange of students was a two way affair. By the second decade of the twentieth century a notable number of Chinese students, educated in local missionary schools and already dedicated to the Western athletic model, were headed to Springfield College for both Bachelors and Masters degrees. After gaining their credentials they would return to take up teaching posts in both YMCA’s and Universities across China. My impression is that by the 1930s most of the individuals who held these posts were Chinese (rather than Western missionaries) though a large number continued to seek graduate training outside of China.

 

A solo sword dance. Source: The Digital Collections of Springfield College.

 

Being deeply steeped in the debates surrounding the physical education reform movements that were then raging in China, it was only natural that these students would bring those same concerns with them to the United States. And as we have already discussed elsewhere, one of the most critical disputes of the late teens and early twenties was how to mandate wushu training and make it available to Chinese middle and high school students.

In this paper (presented in at the martial arts studies conference in Korea) I discussed the role of Ma Yuehan in introducing this discourse to America. While completing a MA at Springfield College in 1926, he wrote a thesis (erroneously catalogued as a translation) which is the first English language work on Xingyiquan. This manual, complete with a naive historical discussion and numerous original photographs, is both the earliest English language volume on the Chinese martial arts that I have found, as well as the first English language work on the subject by a Chinese scholar. Martial arts studies, it would seem, might also have a more complicated history than one might assume. Anyone interested in learning more about this source should check out my paper here.

Given Ma Yuehan’s fame as a public intellectual and Olympic track and field coach, its doubly interesting to discover that he too took part in the 1920s debate regarding the role of wushu in Chinese physical education. Yet it would be a mistake to focus on him exclusively. Some recent additions to the digital collections at Springfield College illustrate that he was neither the only, nor the first, Chinese student to bring kung fu to the institution’s hallowed halls.

In 1917 two students, Wang Wen-li and Wang Shih-ching, enrolled as freshman. That same year the two were photographed presenting a demonstration of some sort in one of the university’s gymnasium. Its hard to know whether these photos were intended for publicity or posterity, but in either case they are quite interesting. My personal guess would tend towards the former as the images were subsequently printed as glass magic lantern slides which could have been displayed for larger audiences. 

 

In this shot our intrepid martial artists are joined y Walter David Owl, a Cherokee who would spend much of his career working with the Iroquois of New York state. Source: The Digital Collections of Springfield College.

 

In these photos we see both gentlemen dressed in the type of black tunics that were quite popular with martial artists at the time. Both individuals are also shown with double swords. The doubled Dao are always popular, but it is also nice to see an early, dated, photograph of hook swords in action. In another photograph we see the two joined by a Native American (Cherokee) student named Walter David Owl. He would later go on to become a prominent minister working with the Iroquois community of New York State. Sadly their uniforms do not have any identifying insignia, but they must have gone to some trouble to bring both specialized clothing and full size weapons in their steamer trunks from China.

While figures like Ma Yuehan, and others whom I discussed in my paper, were well known, Wang Wen-lin and Wang Shih-ching have not left much of an imprint on the historical record. The University’s 1917 year book includes references to both freshman, but around campus they were better known for their musical abilities than boxing. One of the two was even an accomplished amateur magician. As America entered WWI the yearbooks ceased and we lose a valuable source of information. We do have a yearbook for 1921, which is when the pair should have graduated, but neither is listed. Still, foreign students commonly finished their studies on an expedited schedule.

Perhaps it is just as well that we do not (yet) have all of the details on the Wangs. They serve to remind us that individuals like Ma Yuehan were not singular outliers. As the martial arts became an established part of China’s physical education curriculum it was only natural that they would begin to make appearances on university campuses abroad. While the search for the early history of the martial arts in North America has tended to focus on basement Chinatown schools in San Francisco, Los Angeles and Honolulu, these photos remind us that this is only half of the story. During the 1920s America’s colleges and elite universities also became home to martial arts activity. While the Chinatown schools tended to reflect more traditional (and working class) folk styles, the open and progressive currents that were then sweeping across China made themselves felt within these institutions.

 

College yearbooks note that Wang Wen-Li and Wang Shih-ching were known on campus for their musical and performance skills. Source: The Digital Collections of Springfield College.

 

 

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A special note of thanks must go to Joseph Svinth who passed these photos on to me.

 

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If you enjoyed this post you might also want to read: Martial Arts Studies – Answering the “So what?” question.

 

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Through a Lens Darkly (48): Opening the Stone Lock

Vintage Newspaper Photograph. Source: Authors’ Personal Collection.

 

A Quick Update

My other writing projects are continuing well, though weekends are never quite as productive as one might hope.  But my loss may be your gain in the shape of some fresh material here on the blog.

It seems that among martial artists there has been renewed interest in “stone locks” and other types of traditional Chinese strength training equipment in the last few years.  I have already covered this topic once before.  Nevertheless, I now feel compelled to share a recent find with the readers of Kung Fu Tea (see above).  This photograph ran on the UPI news wire service in 1961 and I was lucky enough to snag an original copy of the image in an auction.  Its caption reads:

Exercise is the order of the day-every day-for most of the 670 million people of communist China, and the Red regime stresses psychical fitness to produce better workers and tougher soldiers.  Upper: An elderly peasant on an agricultural co-operative in Liaoning province lifted two heavy blocks in one of the two daily calisthenic sessions which are required of all communist workers.

Its a very nicely composed image, though upon closer inspection one suspects that we are actually seeing a scene from a public demonstration rather than a typical daily exercise session.  There are certainly more people standing around applauding than one might otherwise be able to account for.  And if you look carefully at the lower right hand corner of the image it appears that there is another strongman lifting a set of stone wheels that are obscured by the individual in the center of the frame.

The Cold War rhetoric in the caption is quite interesting and it reminds us of what was once a common context in which the Chinese martial arts were discussed.  Of course, all of this has long since vanished from our collective memory and been replaced with more recent images of figures like Bruce Lee, Ip Man and the ubiquitous Shaolin monk.  At some point in the future I hope to delve further into the Cold War inflected images of the martial arts in “Red China” that frequented the pages of Western newspapers between the 1960’s and the 1980’s.  Hopefully this photograph will serve as down payment on that conversation.

Still, it is always fascinating to see a vintage image of stone locks in use.  Those interested is seeing more great images (or reading about their use) may want to check out a short interview that I recently did for the Red Pagoda gallery.  Its a quick read, and the blog’s photography and design is really excellent.   Click here to read more:

Stone Locks: Source:https://www.pagodared.com

 

 

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If you enjoyed this you might also want to see: Through a Lens Darkly (25): A Sawback Dadao in Hangzhou

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

The sign of a shop selling swords in Beijing during the 1920s. Photo by Sidney Gamble. Source: http://beijing.virtualcities.fr/Photos

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

The sign of a shop selling swords in Beijing during the 1920s. Photo by Sidney Gamble. Source: http://beijing.virtualcities.fr/Photos

 

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

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

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

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

A martial artist and street performer in the 1920s. Note the three sectional staff in the foreground. Photo by Sidney Gamble. Source: http://beijing.virtualcities.fr/Photos

 

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

 

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

A young female martial artist performing with a jian in the Tianqiao market. Photo by Sidney Gamble. Source: http://beijing.virtualcities.fr/Photos

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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Through a Lens Darkly (46): Two Scenes of Early 20th Century Muay Thai/Muay Boran

 

Thai Boxing. Vintage postcard, circa 1910s. Source: Author’s Personal Collection.

 

As a researcher who focuses on the martial arts in modern China and North America, I do not claim any special expertise in the rich fighting traditions of South East Asia.  Still, one of the gratifying aspects of running a blog like this is being able to share the thrill of new discoveries. In this case they related to late 19th and early 20th century Thai kickboxing.

 

While searching for vintage photographs of Chinese martial artists, I happened to run across the following postcards.  After doing a bit of preliminary research I have not located too many other examples like them.  Still, it is impossible to say at this point whether such images were rare at the turn of the century, or if their survival rate was just not as high as photographs of Japanese and Chinese martial artists.

 

The first photograph is more the more interesting of the two as it is labeled.  These inscriptions appear to have been applied directly to the negative, and were not added to the postcard later.  This suggests that the item was manufactured in Thailand for domestic consumption.  This makes it quite different from many of the Chinese postcards that we have previously reviewed in this series as these were almost always printed in Europe and destined for a Western audience.

 

The inscriptions themselves are quite simple.  I do not read Thai, but a colleague at Cornell translated them as:

 

Mr. Bang Malikham         6th Pair                  Mr. Tian Hemasidon
(Ubon)                                                                    (Phra Nakhon)
Blue                                                                         Red

 

Here we have each fighter’s name, their place of origin and their identifying color in the match.  It would also appear that the pair were the sixth fight on whatever “card” this series was meant to commemorate.

 

Careful observers will also note a few other items.  A crowd is just visible around the far edges of the postcard.  Further, neither fighter wears gloves.  One is bare handed while the other’s fists and forearms are wrapped in hemp rope.

 

The next postcard also features fighters with “rope gloves.”  These combatants appear in a roped off, elevated, boxing ring whose floor appears to be made of wide wooden planks covered with some type of a mat.  While there was only the suggestion of a crowd in the previous image, here the spectators are much more visible.  While the VIP seating in the front is empty, the fight appears to have drawn an enthusiastic audience.

 

There are a few other differences of note.  Both fighters in the second image appear to have adopted a more upright stance.  Both have also been outfitted with foreign style groin protectors.

 

This last observation gives us a few clues as to how to date these images.  The second postcard appears to be the younger of the two.  Both cards have a split back, and the photographs themselves lack any border.  While I am not an expert in Thai ephemera, this generally seems to indicate a postcard that was printed between 1915 and the early 1920s.

 

It is interesting that the second image features a mix of old and new features.  Here we see rope bound fists juxtaposed to something that looks like a modern boxing ring and modern groin protection.  This suggests to me that this photo was taken during the transitional period in the early 1920’s as modern safety gear was being phased in.

 

The first image not only appears to be more “traditional,” but the card stock it is printed on is also physically older.  My best guess as someone who is not an expert in the development of Muay Thai, but who deals with a fair amount of vintage ephemera, is that the first image would be from approximately 1915 and the second closer to 1923.  Of course, those initial guesses are subject to revision.

 

Thai Boxing, circa 1920s. Vintage Postcard. Source: Author’s Personal Collection.

 

Written Accounts

 

What might a traditional Thai boxing match have been like in the late 19th or early 20th century?  Luckily, we have some decent period sources that can help to bring these images to life.  Herbert Warington Smyth (1867-1943) was a British mining engineer (and later travel writer) who spent a great deal of time working in the region and was eventually employed by the Kingdom of Siam.  In 1895, he published the following account of a journey up the Mekong River as part of a travelogue (at the time, one of the best-selling genres of popular literature).  Following the death of an area’s governor he had the chance to observe multiple rounds of boxing that seem to have been part of the funeral ritual.

 

It is interesting to note that one of the fighters in the first postcard was from a neighboring region to where this account was collected.  Smyth also does a masterful job of describing the social milieu and atmosphere that surrounded the events that he observed.

 

“The Chow Muang here was lately dead, and just before we left the creation ceremonies began in the big square before the principal wat.  At night the place all around the funeral pyre was lighted with candles; three or four of the head monks were reading in a kind of chant from their Pali manuscripts from the tops of temporary bamboo pulpits, and among the booths standing round; the people squatted in their cloaks, listening to music or hearing descriptive songs and stories, which now and then produced roars of laughter.  In the day sports were going on, and there was some very good boxing between the champions of neighboring villages, who at the end each got three rupees, victor and vanquished alike.

The men strip, and their names and places they hail from are given out.  They then salute the master of the ceremonies in the ordinary Laos fashion, touching the ground with their foreheads on bended knees, raising the clasped hands to the head, and proceed to business.  For some moments they warily watch one another, stepping and dancing round with a good deal of attitudinizing of an alarming description, by the extravagance of which we can generally tell the best man.

The blows are rather round-armed, it is true, and kicking is allowed; but it is wonderfully quiet and masterful, and when they warm to it, very hard rounds are fought.  The umpires squat round ready to separate the men, call time, and generally see fair play, and at the end of each round the two men squat down, and are offered water out of silver bows, the bearer respectfully on his knee handing them the ladle.  The keenness of the onlookers is tremendous, especially when the men are well matched; but what produced most enthusiasm was a fight between boys of ten years old.  The little fellows showed, I must say, a great deal of pluck and more science than most of us did at that age at school; they kept their tempers well and at the end of each round their seconds, stalwart fathers and uncles, were besides themselves with delight, stroking their heads and dancing round them with tears of laughter running from their eyes.

There were some sword and sword-and-spear dances by two men in slow time to music, with silver-handled weapons, and accompanied by the gestures in which all these nations take such pleasure…

 

Herbert Warington Smyth. 1895. Notes of a Journey on the Upper Mekong, Siam.  London: The Royal Geographical Society. pp. 39-40

 

Through a Lens Darkly (45): Creative Collages and Dueling Mythologies of the Chinese Martial Arts

A collage-type postcard made in China between 1901-1907. Source: Authors personal collection.

 

 

Romanticizing the Chinese Martial Arts

 

Vintage postcards or other ephemera may be interesting to students of martial arts studies for a variety of reasons.  When assessing this material, we are often drawn to photographic images that might reveal lost details of how things “were really done.”  I have come across a few truly useful ethnographic images in this series, but in most cases even the best of these antique photographs suggest more about the ideas and the intentions of the individuals who captured them than the actual lived experience of China’s many martial artists.

 

The current post attempts to tackle this question from the opposite point of view.  What sorts of fantasy images of the Chinese martial arts were being produced and consumed at the turn of the 20th century?  What can these intentionally Orientalist images teach us about the public’s perception of the Chinese martial arts?

 

In practice photography, which always seems to be “realistic,” was often used to create mythological images of these fighting systems.  But this essay will focus on the commercial distribution of other sorts of images.  Specifically, we will briefly discuss the rich history of hand painted postcards as well as paper-cut and “macerated stamp” collages produced in China.  Freed from the constraints of realism these genres of commercial art gave both consumers and producers the freedom to imagine a starkly romanticized vision of the Chinese martial arts that stood in direct contrast to the often-bloody images of the Boxer Rebellion period and the Yellow Peril literature it inspired.  In some ways they even reflect the idyllic and vaguely spiritual values that current students still seek to find as they turn East.

 

Vintage postcard circa 1898-1901. Authors personal collection.

 

Painted Postcards

 

Many of the most striking late 19th or early 20th century images of the Chinese martial arts were circulated on delicately hand painted postcards.  Produced in handicraft shops such images could be purchased at hotels in cities like Shanghai or Hong Kong and mailed back to friends and family in the West.  In a few cases Western consumers simply added their own visual impressions to blank cards before mailing them off.

 

Hand painted cards are now a sought-after collectors’ item and their price tends to vary with the condition, quality and subject matter of the card.  As such it will come as no surprise that I have never managed to add one to my collection.  Prices for these cards are often in the hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars.

 

However, there is a related class of images that are more commonly encountered.  These are mass produced printed cards designed to look as though they are hand painted.  One of the best examples of this genre that I have encountered was distributed by the Soy Kee & Co. curio shop located at 7 and 9 Mott Street in New York City’s turn of the century Chinatown.

 

Soy Kee & Co. was one the neighborhood’s better-known establishments.  Located just beneath the landmark Port Arthur restaurant, they did a brisk business importing everything from porcelain to silks, and their wares were sought after by both tourists and designers decorating some of New York’s more luxurious homes.

 

Soy Kee & Co. advertised aggressively in many mediums.  Collectors sometimes encounter early cards distributed by the store that are almost a hybrid of the old Victorian tradition of collectible “trade cards” and new developments in the world of postcards.  When added to a collection such ephemera could function as a uniquely durable form of advertisement.

 

Most of their “painted” cards showed civil scenes, but this image is the exception.  In it we see a young man performing some sort of spear set.  He is dressed in red and green and wears a blue urban.  The shaft of his spear is painted red (which was common during the Qing) and has a red tassel.  The image itself contains an interesting sense of movement and flow.

 

We can date the production of this postcard with some confidence, even though it was never mailed and lacks a postmark.  On the reverse we read “Private Mailing Card: Authorized by Act of Congress 1899.”  This label was required by law on privately produced postcards between 1898 and 1901.

 

Half of this time frame overlaps with the Boxer Uprising, which was a major media event within the United States.  Perhaps this card was produced to capitalize on the sudden ubiquity of Chinese Boxers in the press?  Or maybe the image was produced on the cusp of the crisis as a stroke of good luck?  One must wonder how the Boxer Rebellion affected the market for Chinese art and porcelain in New York City.

 

Beyond the question of timing there is also one of artistic influence.  The posture of the spearman, his weapon and the stark background, are all highly reminiscent of other sorts of export painting produced in China during the middle of the 19th century.  These watercolors were beautiful but very delicate. They were exactly the sort of item that a shop like Soy Kee might be expected to carry.  One wonders whether the store’s owner just commissioned a reproduction of an image that they already owned.  If so, this postcard represents an important image of the traditional martial arts, produced by Chinese artisans, on the cusp of the Boxer Uprisings that was then mass produced for American consumers.

 

 

Mixed Medium Master Pieces

 

Between the turn of the century and the 1940s collage-type postcards were also hand produced in workshops in China.  These mixed medium artifacts took many forms.  A background landscape was first applied with pencil, ink and watercolors.  These could be either lushly produced or relatively simple and tended to feature 3-6 colors.  These cards were both sold in China and produced for export.  Their backgrounds tended to feature exotic and idealized landscapes reminiscent of Willow Ware patterns.

 

A main figure was then applied to the card that was equally Orientalist in its appeal.  These collages might be constructed out of macerated stamps, carefully cut strips of money or layers of decorative paper.  Occasionally features like hands or faces would be painted directly on the card giving the image a greater sense of depth or texture.

 

The postcard at the top of this post is a collage constructed from various bits brightly painted and inked paper.  The warrior’s body, face and hands all seem to be made of separate applications.  The blade of his jian, however, is inked directly onto the card.  The white sections on the back of his armor and leg are areas where the bare card stock has been allowed to show through.

 

The back of the card is somewhat interesting.  Because it is an undivided back with no space for a message we can confidently date this image to sometime between 1901 and 1907.  However, postcards of similar construction continued to be produced through the 1940s.  They will have split backs, with a space for both a mailing address and a message.  This example was apparently used as a hand-delivered Christmas card.

 

 

Vintage postcard made in China of macerated stamps, 1901-1907. Source: Authors personal collection.

 

 

The next example is a mixed medium piece utilizing a hand colored background and a figure crafted from carefully trimmed postage stamps.  The swordsman’s face, and the feathers on his cap, have been hand painted.  The rest of the figure is constructed from overlapping layers of stamps.  The back of this card is undivided as well suggesting an early 20th century date.

 

It is interesting to compare these two swordsmen.  The armor, helmet and face of the paper-cut figure seem to invoke the sturdy heroes of the Water Margin or some other classic martial novel.  Set against the rustic stone bridge viewers would probably guess that they are looking at a legendary or even mythic figure.

 

The landscape of the final card is more stylized, and the reclining flowering tree in the upper-right hand side of the card adds a touch of sophistication.  But I find the overall effect of this card to be quite different.  Or perhaps it would be better to say that it invokes a distinct set of Orientalizing myths.

 

In contrast to the rugged features of the first figure, the round face, spectacles and thin mustache (as well as the feathered hat) all suggest that this is an image of a very different sort of figure.  He appears to be a government official or military officer of the Qing regime rather than an ancient hero.  Whereas the paper-cut figure invokes the strength of China’s past, its counterpart creates a sense of unease as it emphasizes the degree to which the nation’s government, and even its military, are out to step with the modern world.

 

 

 

 

Dueling Mythologies

 

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about these three postcards is that they were all produced and consumed within a few years of the Boxer Uprising.  This crisis had a marked impact of the way that China was imagined in the West, and neither newspaper accounts or Yellow Peril novels cast Chinese martial artists in a positive light.  We have already reviewed several postcards produced in the aftermath of the Boxer Rebellion that focused on scenes of massacres, where individuals with swords butchered Christian converts. Other cards attempted to mock Chinese martial artists as backwards and delusional.

 

Those postcards were produced in the West for Western consumers.  While the three cards presented here also sought an occidental audience, they were produced in China.  And the involvement of Chinese artists seems to have made a substantial difference in their vision of the martial arts.

 

Rather than the bold nationalism that would come to dominate Republic era thinking during the 1920s-1930s, these images still painted the Chinese martial arts in quaint and antiquarian terms.  But gone are the overtones of sadism and ignorance that anchored so much of the popular art to emerge from the Boxer Rebellion.  In its place, we have the subtle reminder that China’s heritage can be a thing of both wonder and beauty.  At minimum, it is something that Western consumers might be interested in investing in.  That heritage is seen to live on in its martial artists, both the heroes of mythic stories and the more prosaic (and bespeckled) figures that one might encounter in the late Qing.

 

Andrew Morris, Brian Kennedy, Judkins and Nielson, Douglas Wile and Stanley Henning have all discussed the ways in which Republic era martial arts reformers sought to re-imagine these practices as repositories of national strength and identity.  Indeed, the Chinese government is still attempting to promote its soft-power agenda by cultivating an interest in these practices.

 

The existence of these postcards suggest that this basic strategy may have emerged earlier than one might suspect, almost directly from the ashes of the Boxer Rebellion itself.  Likewise, in the hands of Chinese publishers and artists the traditional fighting systems could be made attractive to Western consumers even while sensationalist images of horror and gore were still easy to come by. This suggest the early circulation of not just one mythology of the Chinese martial arts, but many.

Through a Lens Darkly (44): Martial Arts in Pre-War Japanese Schools

Kendo at Ina Middle School, probably late 1930s. Vintage postcard. Authors personal collection.

 

 

Introduction

 

Today’s post is the result of a happy coincidence.  As regular readers will be aware, I occasionally collect and share vintage images of the Chinese martial arts.  Many of these come from the sorts of ephemera (postcards, advertisements, old newspaper clippings, newsreels) that contain interesting data on the social place of the martial arts, but are too easily lost to history.

 

From time to time I also run across images of other sorts of martial artists.  While not directly related to the TCMA, these are important as they remind us that all of these practices, images and ideas existed as part of a complex web of global interaction.  That is true even of some images with solidly nationalistic pedigrees.

 

These other postcards and photographs come from a variety of sources.  French Savate proved to be a popular subject for a time.  The American occupation of the Philippines resulted in a many images of knives and other traditional weapons that are of interest to martial artists today.  I recently ran across a couple of older images of traditional boxers in Thailand that I hope to share at some point.

 

Yet most of the imported early 20th century martial arts imagery originated in Japan.  Pictures of Chinese sword dancers, or Thai boxers, were occasionally captured by Western photographers seeking to capitalize on an interest in “Oriental” places and practices.  The martial images that they produced, while recording some interesting ethnographic data, tended to be only a small percentage of their total catalog.  They also seem to suggest more about the state of Western, rather than Chinese, culture.  That is probably to be expected when we remember that individuals within early 20th century China did not send postcards to each other, and were never the intended audience of such images.

 

The Japanese did use postcards, and they produced them in large numbers for domestic consumption.  And because a great many Japanese reformers were interested in promoting the martial arts (both domestically and internationally), these fighting systems tended to find their way into all sorts of contemporary media.  Martial postcards from the 1920s-1930s usually focused on Kendo or Sumo, probably the most popular pursuits at the time.  But occasionally images of other practices (including Judo, archery or more traditional forms of swordsmanship) also turn up.

 

Such postcards also served a social purpose.  Some might commemorate an important moment in the history of the local branch of the Butokukai (such as the completion of a new training center), while others turned their gaze towards the reconstruction of Samurai practices from a previous era.  All of them seem to have aided and reinforced the creation of a specific vision of community.  And (as Benedict Anderson might suggest), this community was often imagined along specifically nationalist lines.

 

 

 

Budo in the Ina Middle School

 

 

This brings us back to the happy coincidence that reunited the two postcards discussed in this essay.  I ran across the first image about a year ago and did not think very much of it at the time.  The scene showed students practicing Kendo in a typical Japanese middle school during the pre-WWII era.  While always interesting, such images are not terribly rare.

 

Then, a few months ago, I had the good fortune to come across another image.  This example caught my eye as pre-WWII Japanese postcards showing Judo (or any form of unarmed combat) are harder to come by.  While students in the West came to see Judo as the preeminent Japanese martial, in truth Kendo was vastly more popular in Japan itself.

 

As I was placing the new find in an album it just so happened that there was an empty spot in the sleeve that also held the preceding image of the kendo class.  I caught my breath as I looked at the two images side by side for the first time.  Both pictures had clearly been taken in the same classroom.  Note for instance the details of the chalk board and door.  Its also interesting to see how the hardwood flood of the kendo class has been covered with movable matting before the commencement of Judo training.  And judging from the shadows on the floor both images were taken at approximately the same time of day.  Yet to my (admittedly fallible) eye, the Judo and Kendo instructors appear to be two different individuals.   I had inadvertently run across two images that may have been part of a larger set of postcards.

 

At this point I contacted my friend Jared Miracle (be sure to check out his new book).  Jared was kind enough to translate the captions of both cards.  He noted that both were written in a traditional character set and said “Ina Junior High School Kendo Club Practice” and “Ina Junior High School Judo Practice.”  Given the rather short length of the training uniforms seen in both photos (much shorter than those favored in the post WWII period), and the American GI inspired haircuts, Jared tentatively concluded that both images may have been taken in the late 1930, just as Japan’s nationalist fervor hit its peak.

 

Other scholars (such as Alexander Bennett, Denis Gainty and G. Cameron Hurst) have noted that the pedagogy of the Japanese martial arts underwent rapid reforms in the immediate pre-war period.  As conflict loomed on the horizon martial arts such as Kendo were reworked to move them away from a sporting basis and to emphasize basic battlefield skills.  Training was increasingly conducted outside so that students would be accustomed to charging across “live terrain” when they found themselves in China or on the islands of the Pacific.

 

 

Judo at Ina Middle School. Vintage postcard circa late 1930s. Source: Author’s personal collection.

 

 

 

Imagining the Community

 

One does not see a direct allusion to these more militant reforms in these postcards.  Perhaps this is not a surprise as the intended consumers of images of Ina’s students were probably their own parents and grandparents.  Yet why do we have these specific photographs at all?  What work did such images do?

 

Ina is not a large place.  Located in the mountains of Nagano Prefecture, Wikipedia lists its current population at around sixty-eight thousand individuals.  One suspects that its pre-WWII population was probably smaller.  Looking at the small city (really a town) on google earth reveals a population center hemmed in by a mountain valley and agricultural fields.  Today Ina is mostly known for its beautiful mountain landscapes.  My area of study is not Japanese martial history, but I can find no indication of a previously glorious martial heritage in this small city.

 

One imagines that Ina in the early 20th century might have felt somewhat remote.  While Tokyo may not be far off as the crow flies, the Japanese Alps and winter snows would certainly be enough to create a sense of isolation in a small, primarily agricultural, community.  Certainly, rapid governmental reforms (and military conscription) in the late 19th and early 20th century would have created more of a sense of belonging within “the nation.”  But so would the martial arts.

 

When examining postcards such as these, it is worth noting how many images were produced in middle and high schools, and even occasionally at universities.  Pictures taken at educational institutions, all run by the government, are common.  Those produced by politically well-contented cultural institutions, like the Butokukai, are not far behind.  But I don’t think I have a single postcard (in my admittedly small collection) produced at a private dojo.

 

Obviously, such places existed.  Some even gained great popularity.  Morihei Ueshiba could not have created Aikido without dealing with the problem of finding real estate.  Yet such private endeavors remain under represented in this segment of the visual record, especially during the 1930s.

 

The great story of the Asian martial arts, in both China and Japan, from probably the 1880s-1950s was the effort to take that which had been particular and local, and make it unifying and national.  How better to accomplish these aims than to make the martial arts a standard part of the compulsory education program?  It is this effort (which finally bore fruit in 1911) that is being reflected in the ephemera of the period.

 

In addressing the origins of the notion that the globe should naturally be understood as a series of discrete “nations,” Benedict Anderson noted that this process had more to do with imagination and historical contingency than any sort of shared “primal essence.”  What was important was not so much a thousand years of commerce uniting two locations in Europe, but whether, with the spread of the printing press and the rise of markets for mass produced books, they shared the same vernacular language.

 

If so, then the inhabitants of these two towns might read the same newspapers.  To oversimplify an important argument, by taking part in a common conversation in which certain stories and items of news were related to one another, they would come to imagine themselves as being members of the same “nation.”  They would also come to imagine all of those reading other newspapers in languages that they could not understand as being members of other nations.

 

The spread of shared print vernacular markets allowed individuals to imagine that they were part of a broader community in which everyone one else was caught up in the same collective dream.  Of course, Japanese social elites in the early 20th century did not have the benefit of Anderson’s social theory.  But they had the martial arts, and an extensive nationalist discourse surrounding them.

 

How much more powerful would it be to not just imagine the existence of the nation on a cognitive level, but to gain an embodied feel for it?  What if the existence of the nation could be imprinted on one’s physical habits and movements? What if “the nation” could be a somatic experience?

 

By including martial arts training in the national curriculum, a junior high student knew that when he rushed forward, shinai held high, he moved with hundreds of thousands of identically armed classmates at his back.  It would be hard to think of a more powerful vector for the inculcation of nationalist identity than the combination of somatic experience and discursive indoctrination that would result from making martial arts training compulsory in government run institutions like schools and the military.

 

Dennis Gainty, in his book Martial Arts and the Body Politic in Meiji Japan (Routledge 2013), notes that such concerns both complicated and drove efforts to create a set of universal Kendo kata to be practiced throughout Japan a generation before these photographs were taken.  Discussing one such effort, he notes:

 

“As we recall from Chapter 2, the Kata used a tripartite division under the designation of man, earth, and heaven (jin, chi, ten). By practicing the kata, the practitioner literally embodied and enacted the fluid relationship between earth, heaven and human; through it, he experienced the cosmos.  In this sense, the frameworks suggested by the Butokuai’s meticulous definition of bodies did not call up the atomomized individual theorized by Foucault; instead, they are more readily understood as serving exactly the opposite purpose, offering the individual a physical means by which to express and experience embodied unity with the imperial line, with the Japanese nation, and with the universe.” (p. 130)

 

Of course, this was a view of the universe seen from a very unique perspective.

 

We should be clear that this process was never restricted to just Japan.  While the Japanese state may have been the first to capitalize on modernized and standardized martial arts training, others looked on with great interest.  Various public and private reformers in China, noting Japan’s success, worked hard to integrate their own hand combat traditions into the national curriculum.  Unfortunately, these efforts have not left the same visual record.  As I mentioned at the start of this essay, the Chinese never really adopted postcards to the same degree as the Japanese during the early 20th century.  But we have enough newspaper accounts of local school demonstrations being staged (often by Jingwu or Guoshu affiliated classes) during the 1920s and 1930s to know that substantial inroads were made.

 

One suspects that individuals in Japan bought, mailed and collected postcards such as these to further extend this aspect of the “imagined national community” beyond the physical bounds that a shared martial practice allowed.  A postcard’s most interesting attribute is precisely the fact that it was designed to travel in search of an audience.  As Gainty might argue, in collecting and mailing these images individuals became active participants in crafting their own view of what a modern strong Japanese nation would look like.  Yet as these postcards continued to circulate, both in China and then the West, their underlying meaning evolved to meet the needs of new audiences.  When examining photographs such as these we can almost recapture the moment when a primarily nationalist discourse became something else on a global stage.

 

oOo

 

If you enjoyed this you might also want to read:  Do the martial arts unite or divide us? Kung Fu and the production of “social capital”

 

oOo

 

Through a Lens Darkly (43): Chinese Amazons and the “Weapons of the Forefathers”

"Back to Weapons of Forefathers in War with Japanese." Vintage newspaper photograph. June 1937. Source: Author's private collection.
“Back to Weapons of Forefathers in War with Japanese.” Vintage newspaper photograph. June 1937. Source: Author’s private collection.

Wonder Woman with a Dadao

 

 

In China the realm of social violence, and the martial arts in particular, has been male dominated.  That does not mean that women never became a part of such activities.  After all, they played an increasingly high profile role in the martial realm from the early 1920s onward.  By the time that hostilities erupted between China and Japan in 1937, female martial artists and soldiers were often at the forefront of Western reporting on the conflict, if not the actual fighting.

Nevertheless, locating accounts of these individuals can be difficult.  It seems that within the resolutely patriarchal lineage societies of the martial arts the contributions (and even presence) of daughters, sisters and female students was less likely to be remembered.  Just as serious  an issue is our (in)ability to search through the mountains of historical data that remain.  While many stories have been forgotten, others are hidden in plain sight.

As is so often the case, finding the proper search terms (in both Chinese and English) is half the battle.  To investigate the past, even in one’s native language, is to engage in an act of “cultural translation.”  Ideas, associations, idioms and identities that made perfect sense 60 or 70 years ago might never occur to us today.  Worse yet, they can seem off-putting.

Here is a quick pro-tip.  If you are interested in unearthing accounts of female Chinese martial artists and soldiers during the 1930s-1940s, try searching for “amazons.”  One suspects that the release of the new Wonder Woman film (set during WWI) might refresh some of these linguistic associations within our modern popular consciousness.  Yet as the newspapers of the period will be quick to remind you, the Chinese also had a wide variety of “amazons.”

Students of cultural history and gender studies may find it interesting to note what sorts of activities and identities fell within this category.  I have seen female bandits, soldiers, rioters, politicians and suffragettes all referred to as “Chinese Amazons” by various newspaper reporters.  While at the first cut this may seem like an overly broad label, it is actually a very helpful way of understanding the connotations, connections and inflections that were associated with the idea of female martial artists during the Republic period.

Still, for our purposes, female martial artists and soldiers are the most interesting cases.  The image at the top of this essay is a scan of a eight by ten inch press photo dated June, 1937.  The photograph itself, marked with a wax pencil to increase the level of contrast and detail, is fascinating.  It shows a woman holding either a long handled dadao or a shorter pudao.  The weapon has a tightly braided cord handle with a ring at the bottom.  It is also possible to make out two holes in the spine.  Best of all, the back of the image retains its caption bearing a wealth of information.

 

BACK TO WEAPONS OF FOREFATHERS IN WAR WITH JAPAN

HONG KONG, CHINA—Famous among the modern amazon warriors of the Chungshan district near Macao—where Chinese women guerillas are engaging in combat with the Japanese—is Miss Tam Tai-men, who has achieved fame through her skills with the famous Chinese broad sword against the Japanese invaders.  6-7-39

Readers may recall that a few years ago I interviewed Prof. Stephen Chan about his grandmother who was also a swordswoman and militia leader at this point in time (though her village was just outside of Guangzhou).  It is fascinating to find a picture of another female martial artist following a similar career path.  Yet from the perspective of my current research, what is most remarkable is not simply the existence of such women, but that their presence was being actively promoted in the Western press.

In the coming decades western martial artists would show a great deal of interest in the idea of Chinese “warrior women.”  Historically inclined discussions often debunk this as a simple misunderstanding (or naive acceptance) of Republic era folklore. But I think that we should also consider the possibility that this fascination was partially a result of fact that such “amazons” had been the public face of the Chinese war effort for the better part of two decades.

That observation suggests many other questions.  There is something about this photograph that feels not just heroic, but mythic.  I think that images like this resonated with the public because they tapped into fundamental symbolic structures (“myths” in the anthropological sense) which made cross-cultural communication (or at least empathy) possible.  Yet one suspects that they also promoted a entire range of political ideas and ideologies as well (or “myths” as the term is often encountered in cultural studies).

Indeed, everything about this photo, from the reference to taking up the “weapons of the forefathers”, to the almost stark image of a lone female warrior standing against an empty sky, seems calculated to raise awareness of, and interest in, China’s plight at the start of WWII.  Wartime reporting is never without an ideological slant. Indeed, that is a feature of this genre rather than a  bug.

Readers may also recall that Wonder Woman, perhaps the most successful “amazon warrior” of all time, first emerged to fight the Axis Powers on the pages of American comic books in 1941. One cannot help but suspect that the two streams of mythology that would have guided the audiences interpretation of this press photo probably shaped her creation and acceptance as well.

We can delve more deeply into what exactly these streams contained by reading the many articles that accompanied such photos.  I have transcribed a later example of one such piece that explores a slightly different aspect of the Chinese “amazon phenomenon.”  Rather than focusing on the lone warrior (or the improbable leader of a rebel band), this piece tracks the creation of a much larger, all female, fighting force organized as part of a regular military structure.

The story of how the unit came together, and what inspired individual women to enlist, is fascinating.  Yet once again, its hard not to see in these verbal images the creation of a very politically useful set of myths.  The first task facing the Chinese and their friends in the West in 1937 was to convince the American public that the Chinese people were both capable and willing to stand up to Japanese aggression.  The next task was to generate monetary contributions for the war effort.  Readers should note the various ways in which this article accomplishes both goals.

To a large extent these tasks are carried out by manipulating the image of “Chinese amazons.”  Women’s bodies are shown as the sites of both victimization and resistance.  In an effort to generate broad based public sympathy these female soldiers are notably de-sexualized.  Indeed, that task takes up a surprising amount of the author’s overall effort.  Clearly the idea of fighting amazons was somewhat threatening. As a result, great efforts were made to argue that contributions to the war effort would not be supporting anything “unsavory.”  And yet these women had to be seen as at least somewhat attractive to generate sympathy.  This article makes it clear that more than one battle was being fought with/over these women’s bodies.

By the end of the Second World War combat journalism and political propaganda had familiarized American audiences with the image of the Chinese amazon.  The public seems to have been fascinated by her ability to disrupt certain hierarchies in the pursuit of “universal values.”  Yet what exactly those values were, whether the Chinese martial arts were deeply conservative in character, or an aspect of the burgeoning post-war counter-culture movement, would be negotiated for decades to come.  Unsurprisingly many of these conversations continued to revolve around the feminine and the female in these fighting systems.

 

 

AMAZON FORCES AID RESISTANCE

 

About three thousand of Kwangsi’s hardy womenfolk have laid aside the sickle and hoe for the big sword and Mauser rifle and joined their men in resisting the  Japanese penetration in the Southwest.

For 22 months of the war, China’s New Life Movement has carried extensive propagation of the significance of China’s unity to the rural districts.  China’s womanhood has been mobilized under Madame Chiang Kai-shek’s banner in all phases of war work-but in Kwangsai, a province famed for its fighting spirit, it has been the peasant women who have taken the initiative in rallying for the salvation of their country.

Not content with performing the mere domestic services connected with Kwangsi’s armies, they have formed a Women’s Regiment which has been drilled and disciplined under the leadership of Madame Pai Chung-his, wife of Kwangsi’s No. 2 General.

Recent reports from the Southwestern front state that the Women’s Regiment is participating in the defense of the Lingyang Railway in an effort to prevent the Japanese drive on Toishan, Yanping and Hoiping, rich towns in the West River delta and the native homes of many overseas Chinese in the United States and Canada.  Chinese overseas remittances contributed largely to the support of Kwangsi’s valiant army and its Women’s Regiment.

When their men first rallied to Kwangsi’s Commander-in-Chief, General Li Tsung-jen, and then followed him to Central and Northern China at the outbreak of hostilities, the more prominent among Kwangsi’s women, as in most other provinces, organized a Women’s Corp.  They were recruited for service behind the lines and for carrying on agriculture and industry at home.  In this respect, Kwangsi’s women earned the praise of Madam Chiang for their initiative and self-reliance.

But as the months rolled on, the war assumed a new significance for Kwangsi’s women.  The battles of Taierchwang and Hsuchow, in which General Li’s fifth group army won fame, swelled the number of widows and bereaved mothers and sisters in Kwangsi.  In increasing numbers, bands of sturdy women and workers presented themselves at the Group Army headquarters in Kweilin, demanding to be allowed to join their men in the ranks or to be allowed to fight the enemy to avenge the deaths of their male relatives.

It was in the latter part of 1937 that the first really militant sections of the Women’s Corp was formed.

At first it numbered about 700, composed mainly of land workers with muscles as hard as those of their menfolk through years of toil in their mountainous province; but as the spirit spread the ranks of the Women’s Regiment swelled with the recruitment of women from all walks of life-teachers, nurses, store assistants and even housewives.

Now the Women’s Regiment is reliably estimated to number 3,000.

“No stream lined beauties these,” said an executive of an American oil company when he recently returned from a tour of the Southwest, where he came into contact with the women soldiers.” “’amazons’ is rather a shop-soiled term, but it is the only one which describes them.

“Most of them are short and squat and of sturdy build…in appearance they are actually not unlike the Japanese soldiers.  They wear a uniform which is the exact counterpart of the men’s and throw a hand-grenade with the best of the men.

“In fact, I had no idea the detachment I saw was composed of women until I saw them at close quarters.”

“Their code of discipline is of a high order.  They live in the barracks when at their headquarters in Kweilin and are subject to the same military routine as the men.  As a rule they are detailed to rear positions, forming support and supply lines but vernacular reports received in Hong Kong tell of women fighters engaging in actual combat, side by side with the Kwangtung and Kwangsi troops in the West River sector.  They have suffered some casualties and a recent report from Shekki tells of some badly wounded being in hospital there.

Their moral discipline is also of the highest order.  Although they are not completely segregated from the men when at the front, maybe for long weeks of entrenchment, strict celibacy is maintained.

“There’ll be no call for a midwife in the Women’s Army.” Said the foreign oil man,  “The girls are loath to betray any sign of femininity.  I don’t suppose one of ‘em has known the taste of lipstick nor the feel of one of these slit gowns the slim Hong Kong girls wear.  But don’t get the idea that they are without attraction…they are bronzed and healthy, with perfect teeth and the merriest of smiles.

“They are paid about twenty Chinese dollars a month, but money doesn’t seem to trouble them much.  Given their ration of rice and vegetables and a place in the ranks, they are content…but what they hunger for most is a chance to take a smack at the enemy.”

“The vernacular papers in Hong Kong recently published a story of one of the wounded women soldiers. She was formerly a Kwangsi countrywoman.

“My husband has done me the greatest honor in my life by dying for China in the fight in the north.  I have his name and will continue his fight against the enemy till I die.” She said.

The China Critic (Shanghai; 1939-1946). Jun 8, 1939. P. 154

 

oOo

 

If you enjoyed this you might also want to read: Lives of Chinese Martial Artists (15): Fei Ching Po – Professional Gambler and Female Martial Artist in Early 19th Century Guangzhou

 

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