Through a Lens Darkly (3): Chinese Martial Artists in a Local Marketplace

***Many traditional Chinese martial artists today actively distance their practice from its more “theatrical” aspects which may have been displayed in theaters propers or marketplace demonstrations. Still, these were the activities that supported countless martial artists over the centuries.  Here is an early discussion of the topic from 2012.***

Our image for this week (two of them actually) come from J. A. Hammerton’s encyclopedic People of All Nations (volume 5, circa 1920).  I don’t normally condone cutting up of old books.  I had actually attempted to buy just the bottom picture in an on-line auction, thinking I was getting an original postcard or photo.  Alas it was not the case.

When thinking about the emergence of modern Chinese martial culture I often speak about the “martial arts marketplace.”  I use the phrase as a metaphor for the subaltern space within Chinese society where hand combat ideas and philosophies competed for an audience, legitimacy and paying students in China in the 1920s and 1930s.  Still, it is worth remembering that there is a much older, and more concrete, association between martial artists and marketplaces.

Market days and temple festivals were times when large numbers of potential consumers came together in a single place.  More importantly, the peasants had just sold their produce and were walking around with money.  That made these gatherings a good venue for popular entertainment.  Common forms included storytellers, puppet shows, opera performances, acrobats, traveling patent medicine sales demonstrations and martial artists.

The martial arts were much more popular in the country side than in urban areas (with a couple of notable exceptions), and martial culture could easily suffuse all of these forms of entertainment.  Story tellers might recite the exploits of the great heroes from Water Margin, puppet shows would portray “Monkey” fighting various monsters with his magical staff, and I recently saw an estimate that up to 1/3 of all of the plays in the traditional repertoire of Cantonese Opera troupes were probably stories of adventure and daring do that focused on the exploits of famous martial artists.  These often features extended fight scenes.  In fact, opera troupes quite literally competed with one another to offer the most impressive martial displays and showcase the most exotic styles.

And then there were the straight up martial artists.  These seem to have come in three varieties.  There were local martial arts masters who put on displays, organized classes and recruited students at these events.  This sort of market organization was a major force in the growth of Plum Blossom and other styles in Shandong and northern China.  Secondly there were traveling bands of performers who attracted a crowd with their displays of strength, dexterity and hard Qi.  The resulting crowd was then plied with patent medicines, charms or cheap martial arts manuals.  At the end of the day the performers pulled up stakes and moved on to the next town.

Lastly there were the “lei tai” fighters.  A lei tai was a raised platform that would be erected so that a large audience could (for a small fee) watch a fight.  Professional fighters would come into town and set up the stage.  They would usually begin by issuing an open challenge to local fighters, and they would continue to perform for as long as they kept winning.  And the longer they performed the larger and more animated the crowd became.  Needless to say, big crowds were good for business.

There is a lot of loose talk and gossip about the “good old days” of lei tai fighting that still circulates in martial arts circles today.  Having a great grand-master who killed a man in a lei tai fight is seen (for some inexplicable reason) as the ultimate proof of the superiority of ones style.  I do not mean to disrespect anyone’s style or creation mythology, but such stories need to be approached with extreme caution.

Martial arts demonstrations could exist only when they were not seen as a threat to law and order by the government.  In practice that meant they were a lot more common in the countryside where there were fewer officials and it was easier for a snake-oil salesman to ply his wares.  Yet some of this stuff was seen everywhere and you always had to be careful not to let it go to far.  Why?  Because if the local government decided that you were a trouble causer or were “disturbing the peace” the typical punishment was to literally stake the offender to the ground, strip them naked and them beat them with switches until they bled.  If you killed someone in a fight, justified or not, the typical response was a short trial and a public beheading, also conducted in the market place.

Public execution photographed for a Qing era postcard, hand-tinted. Postcards such as this one are relatively common and reflect the raciest bias of western consumers in the early 20th century who saw the Chinese as implacably violent, subversive and threatening. Unfortunately they also accurately reflect the swift and brutal nature of justice in late imperial China. Public executions were often used to deal with market thieves.

As brutal as this sounds, the truth is, the government had its reasons for taking a very dim of highly publicized violence.  If a leit tai fighter from one village were to kill a fighter from a neighboring village who was a member of a different clan, the result could be a spiral of revenge attacks and and score-settling that would escalate into a mini-civil war.  No one wanted to see an outbreak of organized community violence, and stuff like this did happen.

You also have to think about the lei tai fighters (and later western boxers and wrestlers) who became involved in this sort of thing.  These people made a living doing this, and if they didn’t fight, their ability to continue to eat was jeopardized.  They had no health or disability insurance.  They had to travel far from home and their support network to ply their trade.  And lets just say that turn of the century health care in the Chinese countryside left something to be desired.  People wanted to attract a crowd, and they wanted to fight, but no one wanted to get hurt.  It should not then be a shock to discover that not all of these fights were “on the level.”  The higher the profile of the fighters, the greater the chance that the matches were fixed.  Add a healthy dose of illegal gambling to all of this…and it should all sound very familiar.

Before long Russian and European fighters were traveling to China and getting in on the game.  These guys traveled internationally as part of their profession, so what really happened was that China was added as one more stop on the pro circuit.  This won’t come as a surprise to anyone who is familiar with the popular martial arts mythology.  It seems that half of all of the Kung Fu movies made today tell one side of this story.

A foreign boxer comes to town, insults the fighting ability of the local peasants, whips the population into such a frenzy that everyone is willing to pay two bits to see him get his comeuppance.  Next a mysterious stranger shows up.  It turns out that he is a martial arts master who has heard of the problem and he then proceeds to clean the mat with the a fore mentioned foreigner. The town celebrates, local honor is restored and the managers of the two fighters split the revenue 50/50, usually after paying the local officials to look the other way.  Everyone agrees to do this again in six months when they get together again in Shanghai or Malaysia or Hong Kong.

In truth this sort of activity had a lot more in common with professional wrestling than professional boxing.  On the odd chance that someone showed up to fight who didn’t get the memo the professionals would just move on to the next town in the middle of the night and try it again.  Again, this was first and foremost a type of entertainment.  It was wildly popular and lucrative.  It stirred up a lot of local passion, but it was entertainment, not private war.

Now this is not to say that all challenge matches were faked.  At the local level you actually did have something that looked more like professional boxing.  Certainly legitimate lei tai matches did happen, and fighters were injured, but a fair amount of discernment is needed when dealing with much later retellings of these stories.  Whenever stories of multiple dead fighters start to be thrown around (especially if one of them happens to be a once famous European whose name has been lost to history) its time to become very suspicious.

Back to our two pictures.  The picture on the bottom is the more interesting so I will start there.  Here we have a pre-1912 revolution marketplace and three martial artists (probably a teacher and two students) carrying swords and spears.  The central figure is displaying an ox-tail dao, a type of sword that was never used by the Chinese military (at least no officially) but was favored by civilian martial artists.  Both of his swords have a nice elegant sweep to them.  The two assistants are carrying spears, and you get a great detailed shot of one of them in the fore ground.  This is a heavily shafted weapon that tappers as you approach the tip.  The spearhead itself looks small and sharp.

It makes a nice contrast with the picture above.  The spear being used by the central figures in their display of hard-chi is obviously very supple and skinny compared to the weapons being carried by the martial artists bellow them.  There is a stack of other weapons in the background including a spear, a flail and a couple of long handled choppers (its hard to tell from the pictures exactly what sort they are).

The publication does not list exact dates or places for either picture, which is unfortunate.  I notice that in the top picture about half of the crowd is wearing ques and the other half isn’t.  Take that for what you will.  Judging by the style of cloths and dress I would guess that this photon was taken closer to 1910 than 1920.

Given that the vast majority of individuals in China never studied hand combat, marketplace displays like this (or opera performances) would have been the closest that most people ever came to them.  Its also worth reminding ourselves that these performers were not held in great esteem.  They were quite literally the social equivalents of vagrants or prostitutes.  In fact, opera singers and their children, like prostitutes, were even prohibited by law from taking the civil service exam, the one great avenue for social advancement that the state offered.  Even if they managed not to hurt anyone in their demonstrations or challenge matches, getting hassled by the authorities (and being scorned by the better parts of Chinese society) was their daily lot in life.

And that brings me to this (you knew I had to mention Wing Chun).

When I was little, I used to see people doing martial art demonstrations in the streets. When they were finished, they would sell Chinese medicine to you. These people would travel from province to province and in this way, they would make their living. I never imagined, that when I got older, that I would be doing a similar thing.  Instead of showing my martial art skill in the street, I teach seminars on Wing Chun Kung Fu.

Ip Chun, 2000

In an interview titled “Fifteen Years – Traveling the World to Sell My Skills” (Qi Magazine, March/April 2000, issue 48 pp. 26-28) Ip Chun candidly discussed the fact that while he is a famous martial arts teacher he doesn’t really like the martial arts.  As a matter of fact, he actively dislikes them.  He would much rather be doing something socially respectable with his time, and as he has got older the rigors of constant travel were starting to take a toll on him.  He continues in the profession out of a sense of respect and obligation to his father, the much more famous Ip Man. Its all very Confucian.

To better illustrate the deep irony of his situation he mentioned his distaste as a child when he and his upper-class father came across martial artists selling their skills in the market place.  Now, all these years later, he finds himself in an oddly similar situation.  Sure he is paid better and the police don’t hassle him.  But its still not respectable or fun.  This just goes to show that you cannot be too careful of the judgements that you place on others.  Their fate may be your own!

Attack of the Wooden Dummies!

Porcine style boxing has traditionally favored the use of really big stone dummies.

***This was one of the more popular posts I wrote during the first year of KFT (2012).  I still love talking about, and training with, wooden dummies. What better training companion can you have in the middle of cold weather and COVID-19?  Also, the above image of pigs at the Ming Tombs remains one of my favorite photos ever posted on the blog.***

One of the most iconic images in the annals of Kung Fu training is that of the lone student, lost in the zen-like practice of his wooden dummy routine.  Dummies of various sorts and sizes have a long history in Chinese boxing.  Kang, in his timeline of the development of the Chinese martial arts, notes that legends and references to their use in military training date back to the 12th century BCE (Spring and Autumn of the Chinese Martial Arts, 1995. pp. 22).

In their simplest form a dummy might consist of a single living tree or planted pole which a practitioner can walk around (practicing entry), kick and strike.  If one accepts trees or simple posts as dummies then they are ubiquitous throughout the Chinese martial landscape.

However, legend also speaks of more sophisticated, or even diabolical, wooden combat machines.  A common story (dating to the second half of the 19h century) states that the southern Shaolin temple had a hall of ingeniously designed wooden fighting machines.  Rather than being totally reactive these machines could also take the offensive.  One could not graduate (and leave) the temple’s training program without being able to make it across the training hall.  This image of a training hall full of automated and dangerous wooden dummies lives on in modern folklore as anyone who has seen the recent children’s film Kung Fu Panda is aware.

A modern adaptation of the legendary Shaolin “Hall of the Wooden Dummy Men.”

In modern times (from the middle of the 19th century on) the wooden dummy has been markedly more popular in southern, and to a lesser extent coastal eastern, China.  Nor will we be surprised to learn that this is also where the legend of the Shaolin hall of the wooden dummy men first emerged (before being popularized throughout the Chinese cultural sphere—See Hamm (2005), Paper Swordsmen, chapter 1).  Most of this post will focus on those areas where the greatest number and variety of dummies are found.

Before going on it might be useful to develop a typology of dummies.  For the most part training dummies break down into two categories.  There are those that focus on stepping and balance, and those that emphasize striking (either to improve technique or conditioning.)

Watch Your Step: Plum Blossom Poles

Stepping dummies are more wide spread than their striking cousins.  While not all styles use them, “plum blossom poles” are currently seen in all regions of China.  They are often employed by Plum Blossom Boxers (Meihua quan) in Shandong, Henan and in the north. Additionally, they are also an absolute fixture in a number of styles in Fujian and Taiwan, as well as commonly encountered in Guangdong and Hong Kong.  The wide spread adoption of this technology probably says something about its relatively ancient origins and the ease with which such training devices can be constructed.

Traditionally a field of plum blossom poles (I am using the approximate English translation to avoid confusion as the Chinese name varies between dialects, regions and styles) was comprised of a group of two meter long posts, approximately 10-14 cm in width, that were set firmly halfway into the ground.  The number and pattern in which these are laid out can vary quite a bit.  Often in modern southern martial arts only five poles will be used, replicating the five blossom of a plum flower, but more elaborate fields of a dozen poles or more are fairly common.  Additionally the height of the poles is sometimes kept even and sometimes staggered depending on the requirements of a given school.  If the posts are made high enough it is not uncommon to see students also using them as a striking target (for both hands and feet) while they are standing on the ground.  In fact, I have often wondered if this wasn’t the actual origin of the three posted kicking dummy seen in some Wing Chun schools today.

A martial artists using a field of plum blossom poles.

Different sorts of “portable poles” have been constructed over the years.  Esherick (Origins of the Boxer Uprising, 1985) reports that in the late 19th century Plum Blossom Boxing instructors would travel between temple festivals and marketplaces in Northern China after the wheat harvest to demonstrate their skills, meet old friends and recruit students (pp. 148-149).  Small benches, pots and other mundane objects were occasionally employed in these demonstrations of martial and acrobatic prowess.

Training on the plum blossom poles is still common today in a variety of schools.  It has a number of benefits but the most obvious are better balance and greater precision in stepping and turning.  Working on the poles can also build leg and core strength.

The Invincible Training Partner: Striking Dummies

Striking dummies are also seen in the north, but probably less frequently than the plum blossom poles.  Certain Bagua schools for instance will walk circles around a tree that might occasionally be struck.  Others have been seen using a single planted pole for similar purposes.  Some of these practices even resemble the Japanese use of the makiwara.  This simple but effective training device was used in Okinawan Karate and may be of Chinese origin.

Gichin Funakoshi, one of the founders of modern Karate, using the makiwara. Simple striking dummies such as this one are fairly common throughout the martial arts.

More rarely Bagua schools might employ a pole with four arms radiating out from the top in the form of a cross.  These objects are struck in a free flowing way, and in that sense they are fairly different from the more rigorous set dummy forms that are practiced by folk styles further to the south.  The emphasis here appears to be on both conditioning and the initial approach of the target.

A simple striking dummy employed in some Bagua schools.

Not only do striking dummies become more common as one travels further south but, in the modern era at least, they also seem to become markedly more complex.  R. W. Smith, who studied various forms of Chinese boxing in Taiwan during his tenure there as a CIA officer in the 1960s, noted the use of dummies among some of his informants and provided helpful photographs.

His first photograph is of Tung Chin-tsan  (aka, the “Golden Dragon”) whom Smith first met on his tour of Southern Taiwan (Chiayi) in 1961.  Tung was a somewhat unreliable source.  He claimed a great martial heritage, having studied at Wudang, the Shaolin Temple in Henan (where he learned Plum Blossom Boxing) and the southern Shaolin Temple in Fujian.  Given that scholars are now agreed that this last school never actually existed one must also doubt his other credentials.

What Smith did know through his law enforcement contacts was that Tung had a number of followers in the Black Dragon organized crime society.  He had also been imprisoned because of his own membership in the group.  While Smith found his Judo and boxing average at best, Tung Chin-tsan truly excelled in the realm of dummy work and Smith came away quite impressed.  So much so that he commissioned a replica of Tung’s dummy to be built at his own residence.

A few days later in Tainan, Smith was introduced to someone who actually was trained in Fujian.  Wu Ku-Ts’ai studied in Yong Chun County (Wing Chun in Cantonese).  Smith states that his style was simply “Shaolin.”  Evidently Wu was a believer in the importance of physical conditioning.  His students (all family members) would practice strikes on the post pictured here.  He also used iron balls (for hand strength) and contact sparing to condition his students.  It does not appear that Wu had a dedicated dummy form, at least not that he shared with Smith.

As we travel further South we hit Guangdong Province.  Many of the schools here have adopted various sorts of dummies into their practice.  Further, the actual use of the dummy is more likely to be systematized into a complex, even theoretical form, rather than a simple conditioning exercise.

Some of the first references that we have to dummies in southern China actually date back to the Cantonese Opera tradition.  We know for instance that members of the various opera groups used wooden dummies in training their younger members in the martial arts.  The Foshan Opera museum has a planted dummy (bottom half buried in the ground) that they claim is representative of what was often used.  However, this dummy is so similar in both size and shape to the sort favored by modern Wing Chun and Hung Gar players that it is hard to tell how authentic it actually is.  Period photographs of opera singers in training appear to show a much larger dummy and greater variability in the types of dummies used.

Late 19th century performers with a large wooden dummy, apparently on the deck of a boat.

Throughout the late 19th and early 20th century Choy Li Fut was the numerically and socially dominant martial art throughout the Pearl River delta marketplace.  Like Tung they seemed to favor more “mechanical” dummies.  There is also a lot of diversity in the sorts of training equipment that is seen in Choy Li Fut schools and this applied to their dummies as well.  Very often dummies from this style will have one upper arm that is either weighted, or attached to a spring (a more recent addition) that can be manipulated by the student.

Master Ho Ngau working on a type of dummy still seen in Choy Li Fut schools.

Traditionally striking dummies in Guangdong were planted in the ground.  However, unlike the plum blossom poles, which were supposed to be firm and unmoving, a dummy that is intended to be hit should have a little movement and spring.  As such dummies were placed in a hole and then secured with gravel, reeds or small shoots of bamboo so that it would have some natural springiness when struck.

Other regional styles also employed dummies.  Mok Gar seems to have favored a relatively simple striking pole, similar to what we already saw in Northern China.  Hung Gar and Wing Chun seemed to take a middle position.  Their dummies were more complex than the simple striking pole, possessing arms (usually three) and often a leg (one or none), but they lacked the more complex mechanics and moving parts favored by other regional practitioners.  Rather than being strength training and conditioning devices, the dummies favored by these schools were meant to correct a student’s angles of attack and entry.  They were always more concerned with geometry, posture and proper technique than strength.

Traditional Mok Gar dummy training from Guangdong.  Note the emphasis on conditioning.

The Advent of the Modern “Wing Chun” Style Dummy.

In the 1950s, a number of martial artists fled the communists on the mainland and settled in Hong Kong.  Ip Man (a prominent Wing Chun instructor) was one of these.  In 1952 he wished to resume teaching the styles  wooden dummy form in his school.  Unfortunately he lived in a multistory apartment building and it was impossible to install a standard planted dummy.  After thinking the matter over he asked a friend, Fung Shek, who was a talented carpenter to create a system whereby a dummy could be mounted on a wall.  Fung devised a system whereby the dummy is held in place by thin wood slats that act as natural springs giving the dummy more life and movement when struck than was ever achieved with traditional “planted” dummies.
Unfortunately Fung was not able to supply the Wing Chun clan with many dummies.  After making less than a dozen dummies his son was killed in a tragic car accident.  Most respectable citizens of Hong Kong took a rather dim view of the martial arts in the 1950s.  These pursuits tended to be associated with criminal and youth delinquency.  Evidently Fung felt conflicted about his association with Ip Man and concluded that the death of his son was divine retribution for creating devices that would train unreliable young men to better hurt one another, and other members of the community.  While Fung stuck with his vow and never made another dummy, his basic design was adopted by others and is now produced on a massive scale (Ip Ching and Ron Heimberger.  Mook Yan Jong Sum Fat. Springville, Utah: King Dragon Press. pp. 47-50).  I mention this story not only as an interesting footnote in the modern history of the wooden dummy, but also because it nicely illustrates the ambiguous place that the martial arts occupy in modern Chinese society.  Even after all of the work of the reformers in the Jingwu and Guoshu movements, the martial arts still engender a level of suspicion that students in the west have a hard time fully comprehending.

Ip Man working on his dummy. Note the thin slats that dummy hangs on. This mounting system was perfected by Fung.

Fung’s new mounting system has succeeded because it is ideal for urban environments.  It was portable and could be easily installed in apartment buildings. Students responded enthusiastically to then new training tool and for the chance to work with dummies in an urban environment.  As a result the standard Wing Chun dummy, modeled on the one commissioned by Ip Man and produced by Fung, has become the most common wooden dummy seen throughout southern China.  This is the type of striking dummy that most martial artists will picture in their minds unless you specifically specify a different variant.

Further, the rising visibility of Wing Chun (due to the media presence of Bruce Lee and his teacher Ip Man) has led students in all sorts of styles to begin to experiment with different sorts of dummy exercises.  I think we can safely say that there are vastly more wooden dummies in use in the Chinese martial arts now than there ever were in the 19th century.  Further, they are more standardized in their size, shape and function than ever before.

In an era increasingly dominated by modern, scientific, equipment and training regimes it is interesting to watch the rediscovery, and even the spread, of wooden dummies to new areas of the traditional Chinese martial arts.  No doubt this reflects the growing affluence and media exposure of modern martial artists in China (and the west).  Yet it also speaks of a need to reconnect with the past, even if it is the imaginary past of the southern Shaolin Temple and its room of diabolical dummies.  I think for a lot of Chinese practitioners there is an odd, almost self-orientalizing, aspect in this rush to rediscover the dummy.  Of course it goes without saying that to beginning students in the west, the wooden dummy is always the most exotic and intriguing piece of equipment in the training hall.  It appears to be the absolute acme of Chinese martial mysticism.  This is why the humble wooden dummy is elevated to such heights in martial arts entertainment, including films like “Ip Man” and “Kung Fu Panda.”

These tendencies make me slightly uncomfortable.  I would prefer for practitioners to remember the past as it was, as opposed to how they hoped it would have been.  Still, as a student of the martial arts myself I can attest that a good dummy is a very useful bit of equipment with a lot to offer.  Maybe their wider adoption will ultimately end up improving the quality of practice in a variety of styles.  While not a complete history of wooden dummies (a project of that scope would require a book) I am always interested to hear more about traditional practice methods.  Feel free to share any photos or stories that you might have below.

Through a Lens Darkly (1): Images of China’s Martial Culture

Chinese martial arts display. Northern China, sometime in the 1930s.

***Greetings!  As I noted in my last post I am taking a (hopefully) short hiatus from multiple-essays-a-week blogging as I adjust to the demanding schedule of a new job.  But rather than let things get stale I decided to use this time to go back and systematically review some of my 800+ posts (over 3 million words) which I have written since the inception of KFT in 2012. This a personally useful exercise in that it gives me a chance to see where my thinking has changed and where I have stuck with patterns I laid down very early on. I am also betting that most of my current readers won’t have seen any of this material before.  So without further ado, here is the very first “Through a Lens Darkly” post that I ever did, from all the way back in the autumn of 2012.  Better yet, its still one of the more interesting images of the CMA that I ever came across.  Enjoy!***

This is the first entry in what I hope will be a periodic series where we examine and discuss period ephemera (1850-1970) relating to Chinese martial studies.  Ephemera is very interesting to me as it is closely tied to questions of class, identity and popular culture.  It’s a valuable source of evidence as to what was going on at a given point in time, and how that was perceived by other groups.  Not only does the camera lens record the past, but it also records the ways in which we frame, display and distort our collective memory.

One of the largest groups of ephemera to emerge from China prior to WWII were postcards.  These inexpensive items were sometimes meant for internal consumption or, more often, they were produced by Japanese, British, German, French or American firms with the expectation that they would be purchased by expatriates and sent back to the home country.

Not surprisingly, the postcards produced by foreigners in the early 20th century often descend into a protracted exercise in racism and orientalism.  The most common themes seen in postcards from the 1900s-1930s are attractive Chinese women, the on-the-spot beheadings of street criminals and occasionally beautiful black and white images of ancient temples, Ming era tombs and picturesque architecture.  Less common (but by no means rare) cards include pictures of drug addicts, foot binding or brightly dressed opera singers.

A typical period postcard featuring female drug addicts. This post card was also published in Japan, probably in the 1920s.

The overall message of this trade in appropriated images is clear.  “The Chinese are different from us.  They are lascivious, degenerate, murderous and whatever greatness their civilization possessed is now in ruins–ruins that westerns have a duty to document and preserve.”  Of course nothing could have been further from the truth.  The average Chinese citizen of the 1930s was very distressed by the breakdown of civic and personal virtue in places like Shanghai.  The warlords of the period were ruling the populace through campaigns of terror directed at their own citizens.  No one saw this violence as a model of good government. Lastly, far from falling into obscurity, Chinese society was modernizing incredibly swiftly.  It managed to do in just a few decades what had taken Europe hundreds of years to accomplish.  Of course no one enjoys watching the sausage of modernity being made.

The one thing you don’t see very often are postcards with martial artists on them.  They exist (like the one above) but they are hard to come across.  This silence is informative as westerns were certainly interested in Chinese hand combat.  It fit their dominant cultural narrative and boxing was a “quaint,” quintessentially “oriental,” behavior.  When you go through Japanese post cards of the same period it is not all that hard to find individuals dressed as Samurai or in period armor demonstrating the traditional martial arts.  The rareness of images of martial artists in China really testifies to the cultural marginality of hand combat throughout most of the country prior to the 1980s.

Of course things vary by year and location.  The nadir of Kung Fu’s popularity was reached around 1900, following the defeat and national disgrace of the Boxer Uprising.  Martial arts schools across the country were closed (many by local governments) at that point in time.  Yet by the mid-1920s tastes were once again beginning to change.  There was growing excitement about a variety of “traditional” Chinese activities, including the martial arts.  Jingwu (the Pure Martial brand) sought to capitalize on this, and later the nationalist government attempted to subvert the growing enthusiasm for traditional boxing to its own ends.

All of which brings us back to the image above.  It records a martial arts display that was probably staged sometime in the 1930s given the style of clothing seen in the photo.  This would mean that the photo was taken during the Guoshu, or “National Arts” period when the Nationalist KMT party was promoting their version of the traditional arts through centrally organized tournaments, publications and martial arts academies.  Unfortunately I have not been able to identify exactly when or where this image was taken.  The verso is little help in this regard.

The postcard itself was produced in Japan in the 1960s and was probably an attempt to capitalize on the resurgence of interest in the martial arts that was going on at that point in time.  It was marketed to both a Japanese and English speaking audience.  Contrary to the assertions of so many Kung Fu films, traditional Japanese martial arts masters were certainly aware of their debt to their Chinese brethren and were often very interested in the Chinese martial arts.  The interests and attitudes of real martial artists are often quite different from how they are portrayed in nationalist myth-making.  In both China and Japan, government sponsored myth-makers sought to use the mystique of the martial arts as a tool to unify and radicalize the population.  For much of the 20th century Asian martial culture was used to create a certain type of nationalism.  This postcard seems remarkably free from such sentiments and is a valuable historical document.

The weapons seen in this photograph are particularly interesting.  Obviously the closest martial artist to the viewer is demonstrating the use of the Shuang Gou.  These hooked swords are one of the more exotic pieces of weaponry sometimes seen in the Northern Kung Fu arsenal.  Yet is should be noted that most of the weapons carried by the masters on stage are actually quite traditional.  We see a horse knife, a couple of period ox-tail daos (always popular with civilian martial artists), what appears to be a Qing regulation military saber from the mid-19th century (something that would have already been an antique in the 1930s), at least four spears (one of which is quite long), multiple jians and one (comparatively rare) double handed straight sword right in the middle.  This is one picture that certainly suggests a thousand stories. I wonder if there are any other postcards in this series?  If anyone has any information as to when or where this picture was taken I would love to hear it.

Earliest Published Photograph and References to Wing Chun

The Problem with Being “First”

I am distrustful of attempts to locate the “first” instance of anything popular or famous. Generally speaking, these quests misunderstand the way that the social world works. We all stand on the shoulders of giants, and when you really start to dig into claims of absolute originality you invariably find many other sources of inspiration. Within the Chinese martial arts these sorts of claims are doubly problematic as they tend to have more to do with marketing, or reinforcing the authenticity of some lineage, than actually understanding the past.

Still, when properly framed discussions of the earliest appearances of things can be helpful. This is particularly true when they shed light on how some obscure practice or community was initially understood by the rest of society. Such is our goal as we discuss three of the earliest printed appearances of the term “Wing Chun,” as well as an important photograph of early practice.

Readers will note that none of these passages were authored by Wing Chun students. All of our earliest published mentions of the art were provided by outsiders. This fact grants contemporary researchers valuable clues as to what was generally known about the style and how it was understood by other TCMA practitioners in the early and middle years of the 20th century.

It should also be noted that I am restricting this discussion to appearances of the name “Wing Chun” in commercially published and distributed works. This essay does not attempt to comment on hand copied documents or singular artifacts. The reasons for this are two-fold.  As Douglas Wile noted in his important discussion of “newly discovered” Taijiquan texts, it is typically difficult to establish the provenance and age of these documents. Often this requires a specific type of scholarly expertise and direct physical access to the manuscript in question. Dating is also difficult because martial arts students continued to make hand copied versions of texts up through the 1960s. As such, not all hand copied manuscripts are really all that old. Martial arts are also one area of popular culture in which forgeries are not unheard of. As such, the academic bar for accepting new document discoveries, especially on controversial topics, is high.

Yet beyond those specific difficulties, discussions that occurred among very small groups of people (perhaps only a single master and student in the case of certain fightbook traditions) are not as interesting as those that shed light on what the martial arts community as a whole believed. Establishing what “everyone” knew (or aspired to know), gives us a clearer glimpse into the world that gave rise to Wing Chun as a social movement, rather than the internal history of a single lineage or school. As a student of social history, these are the sorts of discussions that I find the most compelling. It is the main reason why I keep coming back to newspapers, magazines, novels and other sorts of ephemera when trying to understand the social origins of these fighting systems.

Xiong family with Wen Weiqin on the far right of the back row. Source and Translation: Brennan Translation Blog.

Wen Shengcai – Wing Chun’s Revolutionary Martyr

Our first reference to Wing Chun occurs in 1919, which fits with what we know about the development of the art. After declining in popularity locally during the 1910s, Wing Chun’s public profile really began to take off throughout the Pearl River Delta during the 1920s. This was the decade when the once small style became a fixture in the regional martial arts landscape.

More surprising is the venue in which its name appeared.  In 1919 the Shanghai based Jingwu Association published their tenth anniversary commemorative yearbook. Equal parts family album, ideological statement, and marketing tool, this work is a critical source for anyone seeking to understand the martial arts of the early Republic period.  It was extensively discussed by Kennedy and Gou, and Paul Brennan has done the field a great service by releasing a complete translation. Still, I don’t think anyone would accuse the sprawling work of being overly organized. One must read closely to spot the gems.  One of these occurs in Part VIII in a collection of short observations titled “Some Ink Spillings” by Chen Tiesheng, the group’s main mouthpiece and writer.  In a collection of snippets, many of which focused on social criticism or political topics, he noted:

“Wen Shengcai, the martyr who assassinated Fu Qi, was from Mei County, Guangdong. He was skilled in the Wing Chun boxing art. His son Weiqin is now a martial arts instructor in Wuyangcheng [another name for Guangzhou, Translation by Paul Brennan].”

I have previously pulled together a short biography of Wen Shengcai, and a discussion of his career as a political terrorist. At the time I argued that this passage is important as it reminds us that the first Wing Chun student to be widely known on the national stage was not Bruce Lee or Ip Man, rather it was Wen Shengcai, one of the celebrated “Four Martyrs of Guangzhou.” While he has been basically forgotten in modern discussions of the art, and almost nothing specific is known about his training, his story is a fascinating one.

This passage is also critical as it is the very first published instance of the name Wing Chun that has so far been identified in the Chinese language literature. And its interesting to note that Wing Chun’s reputation building efforts were starting out right at the top. Anything that the Jingwu Association published in this period was sure to reach a large national audience.

Still, it must be remembered that Jingwu didn’t teach or promote the martial arts of Guangdong.  Their curriculum looked to the North for inspiration. The opening of chapters in Guangzhou and Foshan was even the source of friction with regional martial arts instructors as the two sides saw each other as both economic and cultural competitors. Still, Jingwu was not above invoking Wen’s exploits in their own attempts to polish the revolutionary credentials of the Chinese martial arts. Nor was it apparently necessary to explain to audiences what Wing Chun was, or from where it hailed. This is the oldest published reference that we are aware of, yet it suggests that at least some basic knowledge about Wing Chun was already in national circulation by the opening of the 1920s.

While this was the only direct reference to the name “Wing Chun” within the 1919 yearbook, the volume did contain a few additional hints about the art’s community. Wen Weiqin, son of Shengcai, reappears at a particularly important moment in the history of the Southern Chinese Martial Arts.  Specifically, his employer was a Director and special guest of the Guangzhou Jingwu Association when they opened their branch.

The 10 Year Anniversary Book commemorated this occasion by reprinting some of the press coverage of the event.  In an article from the China News we read the following description of the opening ceremonies:

Then it was time to begin the performances (which are already listed above and thus are only briefly discussed here). Among the guests were Xiong Changqing’s sons and daughters, who performed various staff sets. Xiong family instructors Wen Weiqin (son of Wen Shengcai) and Li Zhenchang performed boxing and staff sets, which they are each experts in.

Xiong Changqing was a wealthy local businessman and martial arts enthusiast who helped to raise the funds necessary to open the Guangzhou branch. He hired Wen Weiqin as a private martial arts tutor for the family, and in that capacity he and Li Zhenchang were given an opportunity to demonstrate their skills on opening night. Sadly, the names of the sets they performed were not recorded previously in the article as this paragraph seems to suggest.  Still, for one evening Wen Weiqing shared the stage with the likes of Wong Fei Hung, who made his now legendary final public appearance at the same demonstration.

Given the questions that remain about Wen Shengcai’s training, one might have legitimate concerns as to whether his son was teaching something that readers today would recognize as Wing Chun. Luckily Xiong’s family reappears latter in the same volume in a collection of photographs taken in Guangdong during April of 1919.

Here we find two group portraits.  The first includes Wen Weiqing himself on the far right, along with his employer, Xiong’s family, and members the local Jingwu group.  In the second we see a number of Wen’s young students engaged in two-person exercises that will be immediately familiar to any modern Wing Chun student.  Thus the 1919 Jingwu yearbook unexpectedly leaves us with both the earliest published reference to the name Wing Chun, and possibly the oldest photographic documentation of its practice. It also provides us with clear evidence that Wing Chun was practiced by female student from at least the early Republic period.

The earliest published photograph of Wing Chun, courtesy the Jingwu Ten Year Anniversary Book. Translation by Paul Brennan.

More Light on Leung Bik

Wing Chun reemerged in print in 1926 and once again we have the Jingwu Association to thank. Rather than a national publication, this occurrence was published in the local newsletter published by the Association’s Foshan branch. In 2016 the Foshan Wushu Association began a project looking into the various lineages present in the city. One of their researchers, Zhang Xuelian, came across a 1926 issue of the Foshan Jingwu Monthly containing a series of biographies. One of these was published at the request of a then current member named Feng Chengjian. It recorded the story of their father, Feng Xiaoli, who had learned Wing Chun from Leung Jan’s son Leung Bik. By estimating the ages of the various individuals who were mentioned, Zhang concluded that this training probably began around 1883. This newsletter was the earliest local publication that the Foshan research team located using the term Wing Chun.

This piece is also important for another reason. When researching my book on the social history of Wing Chun I ran across a couple of individuals who hypothesized that Leung Bik either never existed, or that he never taught Wing Chun. The thought seemed to be the Ip Man fabricated his existence as a justification for either changing his techniques or attempting to shore up his lineage status (though it should be noted that Ip Man, being a good Confucian, never claimed any Sifu other than Chan Wah Shun). The appearance of Leung Bik in this 1926 article confirms that he was indeed active in the Wing Chun world and had taken on students prior to Ip Man.

Nima King Wing Chun School. Source: SCMP

Wing Chun as a Soft Style

Our third occurrence of the term “Wing Chun” is a bit later than the first two but in some respects it is even more interesting. In 1946 Huang Hanxun (Wong Honfan) from Shunde published Secrets of the Mantis Style Boxing Art in Hong Kong. In keeping with the theme of this essay, Huang was also a former Jingwu instructor and student of the Northern branch of Mantis.

The introduction to his manual reads like something from the 1930s and suggests that he had been working on it (or at least thinking about it) for some time. It repeats once popular arguments about using the martial arts to “strengthen the nation” in the face of foreign threats, but reframes them as an attack on the notion that the more popular internal styles were up to this challenge. Unsurprisingly, he concludes that what is needed is the unique blend of hard and soft found in Mantis Boxing.

“Our nation in recent years has not resigned itself to the slander of being the “sick men of Asia” and we have instead endeavored to use martial arts as a remedy for the fragile physiques of our citizens. Our boxing arts are numerous and varied. I have heard many among the older generation say that southern boxing arts emphasize hardness, whereas styles such as Wing Chun and Taiji emphasize softness. It is true that hardness has the stubbornness of hardness and that softness has the subtlety of softness. However, the passive and active aspects are paired together, for it is through their interactions that the universe was made, and thus qualities of hardness and softness are actually equals. Just think of the way that teeth and tongue protect each other. Therefore, boxing arts that use hardness and softness equally, such as Mantis Boxing, should not be casually dismissed.” [Translation by Paul Brennan, emphasis added].

This is the only occurrence of Wing Chun in Huang’s text. Nor is it much of a mystery how he would have come contact with the art. As a resident of the South and savvy martial arts professional, he would have enjoyed some exposure to the region’s styles.  Further, when the Jingwu Association in Foshan fell on hard times in the aftermath of WWII, at least one Wing Chun instructor rented space in its halls to teach his classes. Yet what is critical here is Huang’s assumption that a Hong Kong readership would also be familiar with the style. Further, he accepts a stereotyped vision of the art, classifying it as an exclusively soft style similar to Taijiquan.

It would be pointless to debate Huang’s assertions about Wing Chun’s essential nature. Still, it is fascinating to realize that by 1946 the style was well enough known that it could be referenced as a means of explaining other, more exotic, martial arts. Further, the art’s public reputation for softness was already fully formed by the end of WWII. Within lineage accounts it is not uncommon to hear the assertion that prior to Ip Man’s 1949 arrival in Hong Kong Wing Chun was unknown outside of Foshan. This is clearly not the case. While Ip Man’s young students in the Restaurant Workers Union many have been unfamiliar with his style, many readers had both heard of Wing Chun and formulated definite ideas as to how it related to other arts, both locally and nationally.


The fascinating thing about the sources which we have just reviewed is that they simultaneously reflected and informed the public imagination. In a few cases documents such as these can yield tantalizing clues about the development of the Wing Chun community itself.  For instance, we now know that Leung Bik took students in the final years of the 19th century. And it is incredible to have discovered what is perhaps the earliest datable photograph of Wing Chun techniques, and its practice by women.

Yet more commonly these types of documents teach us something about the society that shaped Wing Chun’s early years. In 1919 this was a community that was at least aware of the existence of the art. By the end of WWII it was one that had developed preconceptions about the system. This discussion was shaped by individuals with no actual experience in the system and little sympathy towards it, yet there does seem to have been a general curiosity about the style. All of this provides us with a more accurate understanding of the environment that Ip Man entered when he become a professional instructor in Hong Kong in 1950.


If you enjoyed this post you might also want to read: Spreading the Gospel of Kung Fu: Print Media and the Popularization of Wing Chun (Part I)


Through a Lens Darkly (66): The Dramatic Aspect of Chinese Martial Arts


We must thank Joseph Svinth for this post. He came across the following photo essay during his research and was kind enough to share it with me. It was clear that this needed to be included in the “Through a Lens Darkly” series as we just don’t have that many great images of TCMA practice from seventy years ago. Given my interest in traditional weapons, I was also fascinated by the range of armaments that this piece featured.

Most early and mid 20th century treatments of the Chinese martial arts demonstrate a fascination with weaponry. The reasons for this are varied. Lion dance celebrations, one of the few places where non-Chinese residents in the West might reliably encounter these fighting systems, often included extensive demonstrations of weapon sets. That sent a strong visual message that these fighting systems were fundamentally unlike Judo and Karate, the two best known Asian martial arts in the West during the post-war period. The preference for demonstrations with steel, as opposed to wood or bamboo, would have also set these systems apart from Kendo.

It is hard to deny the romance of the sword. While most period sources used the term “Chinese boxing” as a reference point for readers (the current nomenclature of “martial arts” would not stabilize in English language publications until the 1970s), others underlined the importance of these arms by referring to these fighting systems as “sword dancing” or “Chinese fencing.” Weapons convey a sense of danger, and that can lead in different directions. On the one hand, they inspire a certain amount of respect. The memory of Chinese “Big Sword troops” during the Second World War did enjoy some of this in the West. Yet they also generate an innate fear and sense of revulsion that anyone in the modern world would revel in such primitive and bloody means of violence. This was obviously the dominant response a generation or two prior when the Boxer Uprising was the major cultural signifier of Chinese martial arts in the West.

Thus Chinese martial artists, and journalists wishing to write sympathetic stories about these systems, spent a lot of time explaining this deadly menagerie. These explanations typically broke down into one of two categories. Advocates of “scientific training” noted the ways in which weapons practice built strength and coordination. More culturally minded practitioners discussed them as a heritage project. During the 1930s it had been popular to promote spear and sword training within China as a means to defend the nation, but by the end of WWII that idea had fallen out of favor.

It is thus interesting to note that the journalist who wrote this piece went in a slightly different direction. He humanized his subject by exploring the many connections between the traditional Chinese martial arts and theatrical performance. Researchers like Daniel Mroz, Charles Holcombe and Scott Phillips have all made the same point in our current literature. Martial arts training was often a core aspect of one’s apprenticeship in any traditional opera company. Likewise, practicing martial artists might use their skills to engage in amateur performances, which we often forget was pretty much everyone’s favorite pastime in the Late Imperial period. Before TV, and in a largely illiterate society, people had to make their own fun. Various types of performance were one way that people at all levels of society did that.

This is not to say that the martial arts weren’t also practiced by soldiers, criminal enforcers and security guards.  They certainly were. But despite the protests of modernists attempting to save (or really create) a “pure” version of martial arts in the 1910s-1930s, fighting systems free from the taint of traditional village folk culture, there has always been a lot of cross-over between these realms. This remains one of the main reasons why there is still so much confusion about the goals of much traditional practice today.

The 1951 Pix magazine photo essay goes in another direction, celebrating the links between martial practice and stage performance. The gentleman interviewed (Lao Hu) makes a living teaching opera students and gives a bit of detail on how different roles are performed. I think that this makes sense as there was more popular interest in Chinese theater in the mid twentieth century than there is today.

While reviewing English language propaganda magazines produced by the PRC in the 1950s, I was surprised to discover that almost every issue had not one, but often two, features that would explore some aspect of traditional Chinese performance. In comparison, the martial arts would get a couple of articles a year. This seemed to be an attempt to tap into the same (somewhat elite) cultural enthusiasm that led Maya Deren to feature abstract operatic/martial performance in her groundbreaking 1949 avant guard film “Meditations on Violence”, or Sophia Delza to study theater while living in China at the same time. Her work as an early promoter of Taijiquan in the United States was really something of a side effect of her initial interest in actor and dance training. (However, it should be noted that Delza explicitly rejected the notion that Taijiquan derived from operatic performance, seeing it as an independent form of artistic expression with its own internal logic.)

The notion that Kung Fu could somehow resolve the Judo vs. Karate debates of the early 1960s, tipping the scales in favor of the supremacy of striking arts, really put the public discussions of the Chinese martial arts on a different track. This was somewhat ironic as wrestling was hugely popular in traditional China, probably more so in many places than “boxing.” Still, the emergence of Bruce Lee as a media superstar, and the publication of early books by authors like R. W. Smith, crystalized a different and much more combative image of what the Chinese martial arts should be. That is largely the framework that continues to shape the public imagination of these systems today.  Still, it is interesting to be reminded of the somewhat different discussions that emerged in the 1950s.

Chinese Fencing

PIX, December 29, 1951, 40-41.

Chinese Fencing

Fencing in the Western world is the art of offense and defense with a weapon. In China it is more a specialized form of harmony between mind and body and is generally linked with dancing and acting. European fencers use foils, epees, sabres. Orientals are trained with a great variety of weapons—from hinged sticks to sharpened steel rings with fearsome barbs.

Actors learn swordplay to enact duels, suicides or war dances in traditional plays.  All movements are strictly stylized. Numerous schools teach fencing.


Sadly, I have not been able to identify “Lao Hu.” Without having the actual characters, I am not even sure if this is really his name. Perhaps “Lao” is being used here in an honorific sense, and sometimes Fu was transcribed as Hu. If anyone has a lead on the identity of the martial artist in these photos (most likely a Bagua instructor in Beijing in the early 1950s) please feel free to drop a hint in the comments below!


If you enjoyed this photo essay you might also want to read: The Sword Shops of Beijing’s Bow and Arrow Street