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Through a Lens Darkly (55): Taijiquan and the Soft Power Paradox



As previously noted, I have been taking a couple weeks off from the blog to focus on another writing project that needs my attention. Nevertheless, I ran across an image that I wanted to share. As I did a bit of research it occurred to me that this photo suggests a theoretical dilemma that may be relevant to that project as well. It seems that I just cannot stay away from Kung Fu Tea. But in this case that might actually be for the best.

Let us begin with the photograph that tempted me out of my blogging vacation.  It is an eight by eleven-inch glossy print showing three Chinese martial artists with swords (jian) in a Beijing park.  This particular photo was previously part of the Houston Chronicle’s photo archive before I purchased it at auction.  The stamps on the back indicate that it was published on December 26th1984, and that it was provided by the Financial Times’ newswire service. Unfortunately, the digital archives for the Houston Chronical begin in January of 1985, so I am not sure what article this ran with.

The image itself speaks volumes.  In my opinion it is one of the best photographs of the folk martial arts in China that I have seen from this period.  Taken on “Jade Flower Island” in Beihai Park, the image features both architectural and martial points of interest.  The composition of the picture mirrors the conventions of traditional Chinese painting where we see human figures in the foreground dwarfed by the enormity of their environment.  The eye is naturally drawn upward from our elderly martial artists towards a tiled roof, and then to the distinctive outlines of the White Pagoda.  That seems to blend into the surrounding sky.  Our swordsmen wield wooden blades and move in slow circles that balance the vertical sweep of the image. It goes without saying that the entire scene projects a carefully calculated image of timelessness.

This allochonistic element is probably the key to understanding the photograph’s appeal.  The more western cut of the trousers and shirts worn by the men strongly suggest that this image post-dates the Mao era, but I have a feeling that the average Western viewer would have a difficult time estimating the age of this image. It exudes the same timeless aesthetic that seems to draw so many to the Chinese martial arts.

Still, 1984 is hardly the distant past and Beihai park remains full of retired Taijiquan practitioners. Knowing this I set out to do what any self-respecting martial arts blogger would do. I began to search the internet for recent pictures of more contemporary martial arts students practicing in this same spot. The juxtaposition would have been lovely, but unfortunately my search turned up nothing.

What I did manage to locate, however, were dozens of mentions of Taijiquan in major American newspapers during the year 1984. Specifically, Proquest Historical Newspapers came up with 35 mentions of “Tai Chi” for that year in its sampling of national and local newspapers. If one were to rerun that same search for a more recent year you would simply be inundated with references. But given that fewer stories about China and the Chinese martial arts were produced in the mid 1980s, it was possible to examine every reference to “Tai Chi” that showed up in the search.

This exercise (while not entirely scientific) proved to be heuristically useful. The first thing that became apparent was that by 1984 it was not at all difficult to find a decent beginner’s class if one lived in any good-sized city in America. The vast majority (70%) of the references were advertisements for instruction.  The local advertisements in one Boston newspaper were really quite interesting.  While there was a single advertisement for a “Wushu” school, and another for a “Ving Tsun” studio, at least eight other teachers and schools listed “Tai Chi” instruction, making it the most commonly available Chinese martial art at the time. While the activity in the Houston Chronicle photograph may have struck the average American as “exotic” or “mysterious,” it seems that many readers would have known exactly what they were doing.

Indeed, by 1984 so many Americans were familiar with “tai chi” that it could simply be mentioned in passing without any additional explanation being necessary.  A number of articles in the Proquest sample did just that.  One Chinese-American dancer noted with ambivalence that people simply assumed that she must have studied taijiquan simply because she was of Chinese decent (she did not). Ronald Reagan’s trip to Beijing in in 1984 also provided an opening for a number of reflections on Chinese culture or society which contained passing references to Taiji. In one such essay the noted humor columnist Andy Rooney reminisced about visiting China while in the Army and advised President Reagan to “skip the Tai Chi” as “the television cameramen are bound to get shots of you doing it and you could look pretty silly.” Indeed, the underlying premise that ran throughout Rooney’s essay was that somehow China hadn’t really changed that much from the 1940s and that much of life in “the real China” (something that Nancy Reagan had noted that she wanted to see) was bound to make an American president appear either uncomfortable or foolish.

Only a handful of articles took “Tai Chi” as their central object of inquiry. These were inevitably profiling new martial arts classes or Chinese teachers. Their descriptions of the art emphasized that it was best understood as a type of “moving meditation” that was beneficial to one’s health. Indeed, moderate exercise and stress relief were the main draw.  One woman who had recently started a career as a computer programmer decided that “Tai Chi classes” were just the thing to help her destress after a long day of writing code. Gone were the modernist and scientific explanations of taijiquan that Chinese reformers had promoted in the 1920s and 1930s. In their place readers found references to profound philosophical ideas and mysticism. A few intrepid reporters even tried to figure out how all of this related to “Tai Chi’s” ability to convey actual self-defense skills with little success.


Another press photo capturing a larger group of Taijiquan practitioners in Beijing in 1984.


Just as interesting were the elements absent from these discussions. In the entire sample of articles, I did not come across a single refence to Chinese action films, Bruce Lee or even other Chinese martial arts. Indeed, there didn’t seem to be any sort of reference to modern visual media at all. Likewise, the pre- and post-war experience of China’s many martial artists was entirely absent.  “Tai Chi” was portrayed as an entirely timeless art that was known only through embodied practice. It didn’t seem to exist in relation to any outside reference points at all.

Whether any of that is true is highly doubtful. It is likely that the people signing up for all of those beginners’ classes had some sort of expectation as to what they would be getting.  And it is very likely that those expectations were shaped by films, television and popular publications in some way.

Perhaps the strangest omission of all was the wall of silence separating the discussion of taijiquan as a cultural practice from the realities of life in China in 1985. President Regan’s upcoming trip ensured that there were many profiles of the state of both Chinese politics and society.  Yet these tended to carry a notably different tone than the largely positive (if unabashedly orientalist) discussions of “Tai Chi.”  American readers were informed that China remained a largely impoverished country. Few individuals could afford cars and even a black and white TV set was a luxury beyond the means of most families. In 1985 bicycles remained the nation’s dominate mode of urban transport and hand-drawn wagons could be seen transporting bulk goods on practically any street.  As the title of an April 26tharticle in the Hartford Courantput it, “Poverty Ridden China Struggles to Catch Up With the World.”

By 1984 taijiquan had come to be seen as a positive and desirable past-time, enthusiastically embraced by middle class students across the West. Yet few other elements of Chinese society shared that honor. What a close reading of this year’s newspapers suggests is that while Americans were increasingly willing to embrace Taijiquan, by in large their attitudes toward China remained ambivalent.  Indeed, it is useful to look back at the press coverage of the mid 1980s to remind us of not just how rapid China’s economic growth has been, but also the degree of cultural respect that it now commands. The rise of China’s social standing within the global community has been every bit as rapid as its economic ascent.

Political scientists developed the concept of “soft power” as a way of theorizing these moments of transformation.  Joseph Nye coined the phrase in an attempt to capture the force of cultural attraction that some leading states (though not all) are able to exert in international politics.  It refers to the degree to which citizens of other countries come to regard another state’s cultural products, norms, political institutions or modes of social organization as desirable and worthy of emulation.  We might think of soft power as a nation’s charisma.

Both large and small states can cultivate soft power resources and employ them as part of a public diplomacy strategy.  Yet Nye theorized that its especially important for the leading, or hegemonic, states of the global system to command this sort of cultural respect.  Simply put, even the most powerful states (say, the USA at the end of WWII) have finite resources. Yet the actual costs associated with maintaining a peaceful and cooperative international order are almost limitless.

If every diplomatic action, or the establishment of every international organization, were to require costly negotiation no state could afford to play a leadership role in global politics.  Yet through the spread of soft power citizens in other countries might decide to accept certain shared norms, cultural standards or expectations that naturally advantage the hegemonic state. This outward flow of domestic cultural acceptance lowers the cost of global leadership and actually helps to stabilize the creation of a cooperative and peaceful international order.  It goes without saying that in the current era China’s leadership has become obsessed with cultivating its soft power within the global system.  Its current support of the traditional martial arts through various cultural diplomacy programs is just one aspect of a much larger effort.

In some ways the concept of soft power seems to explain a lot about the global spread of the Asian martial arts. Why were Westerners so interested in Judo during the 1910s and 1920s, while a concerted public relations campaign by the KMT to promote Chinese boxing in the 1930s was largely ignored? Simply put, Japanese culture captivated the West in ways that Chinese culture never did in the pre-war period. Japan’s rapid modernization and victory over Russia in 1905 convinced many individuals that it possessed some sort of cultural secret that led to this victory, and Japanese martial artists loudly advertised that this secret could be found in judo, kendo and jujutsu. In contrast, China suffered a string of military defeats and seemed to fall ever further behind Japan’s benchmarks for economic modernization.

Americans were not, for the most part, hostile towards the Chinese state during the 1920s or 1930s.  But they saw little that was worth emulating.  This would seem to explain why the efforts of Chu Minyi or Zhang Zhijiang were bound to fail when it came to popularizing the Chinese martial art.  China lacked soft power during the era’s critical public diplomacy battles.

This is an attractive narrative, and it has the virtue of being relatively parsimonious.  Unfortunately, our discussion of the state of taijiquan in the mid 1980s complicates things. In the 1970s-1980s we see the popularity of this martial art skyrocket prior to the improvement of China’s image on the global stage.  Kung fu and taijiquan both began their ascent into popular consciousness at a time when China was largely viewed as an impoverished state and a negative example.

Clearly Bruce Lee and the popularization of Southern Chinese action films have something to do with this.  Though it is interesting that neither of those factors were ever discussed in any of the “Tai Chi” articles that found their way into my sample set. It has been widely theorized that America’s disastrous loss in the Vietnam War may also be linked to the growing popularity of the Chinese martial arts in this period as a wounded American popular culture struggled to appropriate the forces that had caused it so much pain. That certainly seems plausible. But then again, there is very little discussion of any sort of foreign policy (let alone the Vietnam War) in the era’s taijiquan literature.  And in any case, a survey of articles in Black Belt magazine suggests that curiosity about Chinese hand combat was growing within the American martial arts community well before the end of the Vietnam War. I suspect that the popularity of karate in the 1960s (which came to replace judo as the most commonly available martial art) may have been even more important in planting the seeds of kung fu’s eventual rise.

What is striking is that most of the newspaper discussions of “Tai Chi” in 1984 focused on the personal needs and growing discontents of the American students who were taking up these practices.  They felt unhealthy and stressed about work. They were aware that they were out of shape. It was a personally driven search for wellness in the face of growing levels of social stress (and a perceived need to resist or subvert these trends through individual action) that drove individuals towards the practice of taijiquan.

On the surface this might seem like a facile finding.  Yet its important as it reminds us that no single model can account for the global spread of the Asian martial arts.  The factors that explain Western interest in judo in the 1900s-1910s (growing admiration for, and fear of, Japanese society) were quite different from the individually experienced anxieties that attracted middle class Americans to taijiquan in 1984.

The growth of a nation’s soft power can clearly aid in the popularization of its martial arts or combat sports.  Yet the case of Taijiquan reminds us that it is not a necessary condition.  Put simply, not all practices in all times and places are easily interchangeable. The fact that various arts might perform a variety of social functions suggests that we should not expect so see all styles following the same linear pathway towards social acceptance and respectability.  Indeed, it was entirely possible for Americans to discover much to admire in taijiquan at a time when they could find very little else that attracted them in Chinese society as a whole.



If you enjoyed this discussion you might also want to read: What is a lineage? Rethinking our (Dangerous) Relationship with History


Through a Lens Darkly (54): Preserving a Fading China

Daoist priests perform a “traditional dance” on Hua Mountain in the 1935. Source: Photo by Hedda Morrison, Harvard digital archives.



You may not know her name, but if you have any interest in modern Chinese history, it is almost certain that you have seen her photographs. Hedda Morrison (1908-1991), while not acknowledged as a leading artistic photographer during the prime of her career, had almost unprecedent opportunities to explore and photograph what she considered to be vanishing aspects of Chinese culture during the 1930s and 1940s.  Images of traditional handicraft workers, and portraits of women and mothers, have proved to be among her most popular subjects. Since the 1980s (when many of her most iconic images were finally published in two important collections) they have increasingly come to define “traditional” Chinese life in the popular imagination.

Best of all, the occasional martial artist, street performer and weapon smith all make appearances in her photographs.  Morrison did not actively seek out these more sensational themes.  In fact, soldiers and other “martial” subjects make relatively few appearances in her catalog.  Still, she did photograph these subjects when she encountered them leaving us with not just an invaluable collection of images, but also important clues as to the social context of these practices.  Yet who was Hedda Morrison?


Daoist priests perform a “traditional dance” on Hua Mountain in the 1935. Source: Photo by Hedda Morrison, Harvard digital archives.


Life and Career

Hedda Hammer was born in Stuttgart in 1908 and it was her German heritage that first inspired me to take another look at her catalog of images. While researching the global understanding of Chinese martial arts during the Republic period, I became interested in the work of both private citizens and agents of the German government in shaping the image of China on the world stage. While few of Hedda’s photographs tackled explicitly political subjects, the turbulent politics of the period certainly shaped her career.

At the age of three Hedda was struck with Polio, then a common childhood disease.  Despite an operation as a teen she would walk with a limp throughout the rest of her life. This is an important piece of background information as it illustrates something about the texture of a life spent in exploration. After completing high school her parents sent her to the University of Innsbruck with the hopes that she would take up the study of medicine.  The subject proved to be uninteresting to her and, being an avid amateur photographer, she eventually transferred to the Bavarian State Institute for Photography in Munich.

Following her graduation in 1931, Hedda took jobs as photographic assistants in studios in Stuttgart and Hamburg.  However, she felt hemmed in by a lack of economic opportunity and was alarmed by the rise of the Nazi regime.  Looking to make a personal change she accepted an offer to direct the German run Hartung Studio in Beijing.  She explored and photographed the city until the Japanese invasion in 1938. Her German passport proved valuable during the early years of the occupation, but due to the deterioration of the situation in the capital she decided to leave and take up work as a freelance photographer.  This choice initiated a seven-year period (1938-1946) of almost constant travel which must be considered among the most fruitful phases of her career.  Most of the photographs discussed in this post were actually produced between 1935 and 1945.


A sign for a shop selling swords in Beijing by Hedda Morrison. Source: Harvard Digital Archives


Rather than attempting to capture the rapid social and economic transformation that was already underway in cities like Beijing, Hedda trained her lens on “vanishing” aspects of traditional Chinese life. Many of her photographs have a strong ethnographic flavor, and they often treat their subject with a degree of sympathy or respect.  At times this seems to border on romanticism. Indeed, Hedda’s empathy as a social observer grounds her approach to photography. Perhaps that is why her portraits are always more powerful than her numerous landscapes or architectural collections.


A “Sword Dancer” by Hadda Morrison. Source: Harvard Digital Archives.


In 1940 Hedda met the British ornithologist Alastair Robin Gwyn Morrison and the couple were eventually married in 1946. They initially planned to live in Hong Kong, and some of Hedda’s best images of market and street culture were taken during this short interval.  However, Alastair accepted an appointment in the British Colonial Service and the two were transferred to Sarawak where they would spend the next 20 years.


Patent medicine seller of body-building ointments flexing a bow in front of a crowd at Tianqiao Market. Photo by Hadda Morrison. Source: Harvard Digital Archives.


Hedda continued to work and go on personal expeditions throughout this period producing thousands of photographs, but those are more likely to be of interest to students of the South East Asian Martial Arts. Eventually she retired to Australia where she remained active in the photographic community until her death in 1991. Many of her most important Chinese images where not published in collections until the 1980s.


The construction of a traditional Chinese bow in a shop in Beijing. Photo by Hedda Morrison. Source: Harvard Digital Archives.


Hedda Morrison’s long career produced a veritable mountain of important historical, artistic and ethnographic material.  Her final catalog of tens of thousands of photographs and over 60,000 undeveloped negatives (most of which were medium format) were donated to Harvard and Cornell.  The Harvard library has digitized much of this material and made it freely available online.  They seem to have gotten the bulk of the material produced in China during the 1930s and 1940s.  Cornell’s collections have not been as extensively cataloged or digitized. The library catalog suggests that most of her work in Special Collections pertains to her period in Sarawak and other travels in South East Asian (Vietnam, Thailand, the Philippines). Sadly, I have yet to find the time to pull this collection and go through the various albums, but I am sure that the exercise would be fascinating.



The construction of a traditional Chinese bow in a shop in Beijing. Photo by Hedda Morrison. Source: Harvard Digital Archives.



Given the vast size of her catalog, this post will introduce only a small selection of Hedda Morrison’s work. In 1935 she traveled to Hua Shan, an important mountain in Daoist tradition, yet one that was remote enough that it was (until recently) relatively free of tourists.  However, it did possess multiple Daoist sanctuaries complete with priests and students. Hedda recorded two of these individuals carrying out a “traditional dance” in which one participant armed with a jian attacked another with a fly whisk.  Hua Shan has been associated with a number of martial traditions since at least the Ming dynasty.  Unfortunately, the catalog contains no additional information about these individual’s affiliation or practices.  Perhaps a deep dive into her papers and notebooks might reveal more information about this incident.  But in any case, visitors to the Harvard digital collections can see the complete photo album of the expedition which includes some stunning landscape photography.


Making arrows in a Beijing archery shop. Source: Harvard Digital Archives.


Hadda also took some significant images while in Beijing, including a few that we have previously seen on this blog.  Readers might recall the shop signs of the city’s swordsmiths, designed to function as a catalog of the arms that they carried. On the internet photos of these signs have sometimes been erroneously attributed to Sidney Gamble, an important sociologist and amateur photographer of the period.  I mistakenly accepted that attribution in this post.  Further exploration has shown that they are definitely the work of Hadda Morrison.


A display of newly forged knives and cleavers, Beijing. Photo by Hadda Morison. Source: Harvard Digital Archives.

Hadda also photographed marketplace performers and martial artists, as well as traditional craftsmen who were involved with the martial arts.  One individual can be seen with hooked swords, while another demonstrated his ability to pull heavily weighted bows in one of the era’s many marketplace performances. This was a standard feat for Chinese strongmen which seems to have had its roots in the imperial military examination. This last photograph is particularly interesting as it also includes a glimpse of the table of patent medicines that the performer is selling.


A warrior performing a dance in Sarawak. Hadda Morrison. From the Cornell Library.


Also important is an extensive series of photographs showing the construction of traditional bows and the fletching of arrows by Beijing’s Republic era craftsmen.  Again, I have selected only a few of the best images from this series, but all of them will certainly be of interest to archery students.  Other images show blacksmiths and knife makers hard at work, including one great photograph of a rack of finished cleavers. Finally, the last image in this set suggests that anyone with the patience to go through boxes of notebooks, photos and negatives in the Cornell achieves may also turn up interesting material related to the South East Asian martial arts.  I have not yet attempted this feat, but the one image included here is a reminder of the rich resources that Hadda’s keen powers of empathetic observation bequeathed to future generations.





If you enjoyed this post you might also want to read: Doing Research (8): Taking Seriously the Mundane, or How I Learned that a Choke is Never Just a Choke


Through a Lens Darkly (53): Traditional Weapons in China’s 20th Century Militia Movements

Member of the Min Ping militia in Yan’an with sword. Photo by Harrison Forman, 1944. Source: University of Wisconsin Milwaukee, AGSL Digital Photo Archive. This is probably my favorite image by Forman in this series.


They say a picture is worth a thousand words.  If true this will be a weighty essay.  Yet that was always the thing about Harrison Forman, the renowned photo-journalist, writer and explorer.  As a correspondent he was a double threat, capable of producing both beautiful images and the narrative that went along with them.

This essay, which features a number of his photographs (all of which are housed in the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee’s digital collection) is something of a departure from my normal posts.  It is more of an photo essay than an academic discussion.  Still, I think that Harrison’s image can help us to come to terms with a critical historical point.

It is all too easy to create simplified accounts of the Chinese martial arts.  This is true at any point in time, but our discussions of comparatively recent, 20th century, events seem particularly prone to this.  When faced with the very forceful modernizing and nationalizing argument of the Jingwu movement, it is easy to forget that more traditional schools existed across China.  Often located in secondary cities or more rural areas, they typically wanted nothing to do with these approaches.  Indeed, both the Jingwu and Guoshu movements struggled to succeed outside of China’s rapidly growing urban centers.  As I explored at length in my volume on the history of the Southern Chinese martial arts (written with Jon Nielson), instructors in places like Foshan resisted these pressures and continued to explore the ways in which regional fighting traditions could reinforce local power networks and modes of identification.

Likewise, when we focus only on the lineage histories of Southern Kung Fu schools, it is possible to forget that certain professions, from armed escort services, to itinerant doctors, to opera troops, had their own reasons for pursuing martial arts training.  All of this existed in a different social sphere from General Ma Liang’s efforts to introduce his New Wushu into national school curriculums, or the efforts of Chu Minyi to create a middle class system of “Taiji Calisthenics.”

We have recently explored these efforts, and our post on the 1936 Guoshu Oympic exhibition team reinforced our understanding of the modernizing trends within the world of Chinese physical culture.  But it would be a mistake to assume that this was all that there was, or even that it captured the texture of most individuals’ interactions with the martial arts.

The modernizing groups are comparatively easy to study as they had a coherent ideology and left a trail of documents that consciously framed and situated their efforts within Chinese history.  Yet while the Guoshu movement, at its height, could claim tens of thousands of members, it is easy to forget that China’s self defense societies, crop watching groups, and village militias counted their collective memberships in the many millions.  These groups were omnipresent in the countryside during the chaotic years of the 1920s, several survived the comparative calm of the mid 1930s, and they erupted back onto the scene as China was dragged into war by the Japanese at the end of the decade.

It is difficult to generalize when it comes to these sorts of local self-defense groups.  Many did hire local martial arts instructors as trainers.  This was generally a good idea as the expense of buying rifles and handguns meant that traditional weapons, including spears and swords, continued to be seen in large numbers through the end of WWII.  While it might seem as though such weapons had no place on a modern battlefield, they were ideally suited to controlling small civilian population centers located across China’s vast landscape. “Protecting” the civilian population, rather than directly fighting the Japanese, was a typical mission for many of these groups.

The amount and type of training that any group received varied tremendously.  And some of the most successful movements, including the Red Spears, also drew on ritual practices and invulnerability magic in addition to more mundane weapons training.  That movement was especially important during the Warlord period as protecting village resources from both hostile neighboring towns and predatory tax collectors became a priority.

It is ironic that we have so few good photographs given the millions of people who actually served in Chinese militias during the 1920s. However, the globalized nature of conflict during the 1940s guaranteed that the final incarnation of these militias would be better documented.  In many ways this was the last great hurrah of the traditional Chinese village militia.  But thanks to the photographs of individuals like Harrison Forman, we not only have a better idea of what mass peasant mobilization looked like in the 1940s, but can hazard a guess as to what similar formations of Red Spears might have looked like a decade or two earlier.  It is also important to note that while such images have largely been absent from academic discussions of Chinese martial arts history, they were widely circulated in newspapers throughout the 1930s and 1940s.  As such they likely helped to shape period notions of traditional Chinese hand combat methods in the West.


A sea of red tasseled spears. Photo by Harrison Forman, 1944. Source: University of Wisconsin Milwaukee, AGSL Digital Photo Archive.


A collection of sword wielding militia members. Photo by Harrison Forman, 1944. Source: University of Wisconsin Milwaukee, AGSL Digital Photo Archive.


Who was Harrison Forman (1904-1978)? Born in Milwaukee, he was trained initially as an artist and later graduated from the University of Wisconsin (1929) with a degree in Asian languages.  Flying was an early passion, and Forman first travelled to China to sell American aircraft.  However, a career in sales was quickly derailed by his adventurous spirit.  Forman became an early explorer in Tibet and quickly earned the title of “the modern Marco Polo.”  Like his predecessor he came to be known to the public through his talent as both a travel writer and the producer of popular newsreels.  It was as a journalist that Forman would be best remembered.

Critics might contend, however, that Forman’s reporting was flawed.  While often richly descriptive, he seems to have had a disturbing habit of trading access to hard to access locations for positive coverage.  Of course this was an era in which all foreign journalists were subjected to heavy censorship.  Still, one cannot help but notice that when embedded in KMT controlled areas Forman wrote glowingly reports of the Nationalist government.  After convincing Japanese administrators (during the early stages of WWII) to allow him to photograph the interior of Taiwan, he produced highly complimentary articles about their administration as well.  And later in the war, when he was posted to the Eighth Route Army, he wrote very positive assessments of the Communist Party and its leadership.  Indeed, his rose-colored assesment of this last group ensured that he would be criticized and marginalized as the debates over “who lost China” heated up in the domestic American political arena after 1949.  I personally suspect that Forman was, at heart, an adventurer and explorer, and may have been a bit too eager to say what needed to be said to “get the story.”


Member of the Min Ping militia in Yan’an with sword. Photo by Harrison Forman, 1944. Source: University of Wisconsin Milwaukee, AGSL Digital Photo Archive.




Member of the Min Ping militia in Yan’an with dadao and an older rifle. Photo by Harrison Forman, 1944. Source: University of Wisconsin Milwaukee, AGSL Digital Photo Archive.


Still, the stories he got were often marvelous.  Of particular interest was his time following the Communist Eight Route army with a group of Min Ping (or People’s Militia) members in Yan’an in 1944.  All of the photos in this post are drawn from that particular expedition.  Nor have I even scratched the surface of the visual record that Forman captured.  He literally took more pictures of these groups than I could count, and he produced many thousands of images of the war in China.  But all of this is really a footnote in his career.  In most circles he is best remembered for his newsreel footage of the Japanese bombing of Shanghai in the opening stages of the conflict, as well as the many special reports that he produced for the National Geographic Society (of which he was a life long member) and the New York Times.  After his death his papers (including many volumes of hand written diaries and tens of thousands of photographs, slides and undeveloped negatives) were donated to the University of Wisconsin.  Much of the collection has now been digitized and made publicly available.  I would suggest that anyone who is interested in the period take a look at the collection. But be warned, fully exploring all of his writings and images will be a long term project.  I have only scratched the surface over the last few days.




More spearmen of the Min Ping Militia in Yan’an. Photo by Harrison Forman, 1944. Source: University of Wisconsin Milwaukee, AGSL Digital Photo Archive.




Children, both boys and girls, training with the Min Ping Militia in Yan’an. Photo by Harrison Forman, 1944. Source: University of Wisconsin Milwaukee, AGSL Digital Photo Archive.

Not surprisingly I found myself especially drawn to Forman’s photographs of martial artists, soldiers and militia members.  A number of his shots recorded rallies and meetings of huge groups of militia members that seemed to fill entire valleys.  These incredible images give one a real sense of what it must have been like to see a group of thousands of Red Spears preparing for a skirmish a decade earlier.  Yet Forman never seemed to lose sight of the individual story, either as a journalist or photographer.  These group shots were juxtaposed with carefully composed portraits, some of which could easily hang on a gallery’s wall.

Readers should not assume that the small group of photos that I used in this post are entirely represantitve of his body of work.  Obviously I was more interested in the images of militia members armed with spears rather than those featuring rifles or machine pistols, yet both types of soldier could be found in abundance.  Forman also took many shots showing militia members at work.  One group of photos recorded individuals carving wooden cannons (used as primitive mortars), while another series of photographs showed militia members boobytrapping furniture as a village was abandoned ahead of a Japanese advance.  Other photos showed soldiers laying landmines or carrying equipment.

Collectively Forman has left us with a remarkable visual record of a Chinese militia group in the the final years of WWII.  Military historians will find much of interest in these images.  But for students of martial arts studies they are a stark reminder that the urban and middle class approach to hand combat was not the only one that exited during the Republic era.  Indeed, it wasn’t even the most commonly practiced.  Rather, these Chinese martial arts have always reflected the values and conflicts of the communities that supported them.  They have been, and continue to be, many things to many people.


***A special note of thanks goes to Joseph Svinth who first told be about University of Wisconsin’s collection of Forman’s photographs and sent some examples of his work that really sparked my interest.  This post would not have happened without his generosity.***




More spearmen of the Min Ping Militia in Yan’an. Photo by Harrison Forman, 1944. Source: University of Wisconsin Milwaukee, AGSL Digital Photo Archive.


Member of the Min Ping militia in Yan’an, armed with a dadao ad grenades. Photo by Harrison Forman, 1944. Source: University of Wisconsin Milwaukee, AGSL Digital Photo Archive.



If you enjoyed these photos you might also want to see: Tai Hsuan-chih Remembers “The Red Spears, 1916-1949”


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.



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


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:


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.


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.


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.



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?



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.


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.




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



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.


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.





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




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



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:




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


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:


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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


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

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

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


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



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


Through a Lens Darkly (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


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