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!

The White Arc and Military Jian of the Han Dynasty

An Invaluable Inventory

In 1993 local residents in Yinwan (Donghai county, Jiangsu Province) made a remarkable discovery. They uncovered a group of relatively well-preserved flooded tombs dating back to the Han dynasty. Only two of these tombs have been excavated (2 and 6), and both yielded important finds. Yinwan Tomb 6, as it has come to be called in the literature, must be counted as among the more important archeological finds in recent decades. This is not because of the luxury of the tomb goods. The individuals interned within were a low-level government clerk and his wife.  Rather, the tomb yielded a rich cache of documents written on both bamboo strips and thin wooden boards that touched on everything from government administration, poetry, divination and even recreational gaming.  Dozens of articles have been published in English about these texts, and the output in Chinese academic journals has been much higher.  

One of the newly discovered texts provided a complete inventory of the Donghai arsenal in the first decade of the Western Han. This is the earliest statistical evidence that we have regarding the armaments and organization of the Chinese military during this transitional period. In that sense the document is priceless. Yet I have never been able to locate an English language scholarly treatment of this text, despite the fact that the actual contents of the inventory have been widely translated and can now even be found on the Han dynasty’s Wikipedia page.

For a group of martial arts scholars, this is a strange and painful oversight. Perhaps it can be best understood as a witness to how important the other texts in this same cache have been. Yet what do we know about the official who collected this inventory, and what does it suggest about the size and composition of the Han military?

Three relics of the Han Dynasty. The jian on the far left is the original model of the White Arc. Source: lkchensword.com

Tomb Number 6 is believed to be final resting place of a low-level government official named Shi Rao and his wife.  According to official records, Shi Rao would have earned a relatively modest salary of 100 bushels of grain a year. Still, Tomb 6 contained two coffins and a separate chest for burial goods, suggests a family with some wealth and status. 

Shi Rao was part of the Bureau of Merit and would have been responsible for compiling reports, carrying out inspections and collecting tax information for the government. While formally a low level official, such officers served as the governor’s confidents and often controlled access to valuable information that other officials needed for career advancement.

As such, it is not a surprise that Shi Rao was buried with a number of grave goods including important jade pieces, bonze and ceramic vessels, talismanic objects and two long steel swords in addition to a large collection of documents. Since the tomb remained flooded, these texts were initially recovered in excellent condition. Unfortunately, several were damaged when a subsequent squabble over payments to be made to local work crews prevented them from being preserved as quickly as was necessary. Nor have I have been able to locate any photos of Shi Rao’s swords in the secondary literature on the tomb. That likely reflects how common such weapons are in period sites, and the fact that the archeology community is much more interested in texts, bronzes and ceramics than blades. Yet it is important to note that a low-level civil official in the Han dynasty might be buried with not one, but two, swords.  

Arsenal Record from Tomb 6. Source: http://www.lygmuseum.cn

Of all of the grave goods in Tomb 6, we are most interest in a text titled “The Arsenal of Yongshi’s 4th year Equipment Account Book.” Composed about 13 BCE, the archeological report suggests that this text, written on a thin wooden board, was interned with Shi Rao in about 10 CE.  The text itself took up both sides of a single board and was a record of the 240 kinds of weapons, armor and vehicles collected in a county level arsenal in an area that had once been part of the Kingdom of Chu. The arsenal was likely to have been well stocked as the region had a history of rebellion in which the arms of opposing forces might have been captured, and additional weapons seem to have been sent from the capital. The total inventory of this single county level facility was enormous.

Martial arts studies and military history, while sometimes overlapping, are not the same field.  As such I have taken the liberty of only including the parts of the translation that deal with small arms. But even this is enough to give readers a sense of the size and depth of the facility that Shi Rao may have visited two decades before his death.

Bows
Crossbow: 537,707 (imperial owned: 11,181)
Bows: 77,521

Subtotal: 615,228

Arrows and Bolts
Crossbow bolts: 11,458,424 (imperial owned: 34,265)
Imperial owned arrows: 1,199,316 (imperial owned: 511)

Subtotal: 12,657,740

Armor
Jia Armor: 142,701 (imperial owned: 34,265)
Iron thigh clothing: 255, 1 pair of unique ones
Kai armor: 63,324
Iron Thigh Armor: 10,563
Sets of Iron lamellar armor: 587,299 
Leather armor is 14 jin [7.5 lbs]

Helmets
Helmets: 98,226
Horse armor: 5,330

Shields 
Shields: 102,551 (and one “rang,” which was probably a Gou-rang)

Polearms
Bronze dagger-aw: 632 (imperial owned: 563)
Spear: 52,555 (imperial owned: 2377) 
Imperial owned sheng: 943
Pi sword-staff: 451,222 (imperial owned: 1421)
Halberd (Ji): 6,634
Yofang (halberd/polearm of unknown make): 78,393

Subtotal: 614,546

Blades
Sword: 99,905 (imperial owned: 4)
Daggers: 24,804 
Sawing Sabre: 30,098
Sabre (Dao): 156,135
Great Sabre (Dao): 127 (232)

Subtotal: 311,069

Axes
Iron axe: 1132 (136)

This list provides us with as many questions as answers.  For instance, when we note that the arsenal had 614,546 polearms, one might very wonder whether it was actually attempting to supply the entire Han army? 

If we want to understand the actual force that this inventory was intended to serve, I suspect that we should instead ask about some of the more limited categories. During the Western Han helmets and shields were among the most commonly issued pieces of equipment for troops, and in both cases, we see that the arsenal stocked about 100,000 pieces of equipment. That is far short of what would be necessary to arm a million-man force, and it is more in line with what one might expect to see in a county level arsenal.  Likewise, by the Western Han the military’s transition away from the jian towards the dao was well under way. It is thus significant that we find 156,135 dao in the inventory.  These would have been weapons similar to the LK Chen infantry and calvary dao.

Even more interesting, however, was the fact that nearly 100,000 Jian were still held within the arsenal’s stores. Some of these weapons may have been inherited from previous conflicts and uprisings in the area. Yet I suspect that this figure is close enough to the total number of helmets and shields that it reflects a degree of planning rather than happenstance. In any case, the jian remained a military weapon in the early decades for the Western Han, typically used either with a shield or from horseback.  Thus, Shi Rao’s report provides us with a fascinating look into a pivotal moment of technological change when the jian and dao still overlapped.

Reviewing the White Arc

What would these military jian have looked like and how would they have been used?  For that matter, what about the two swords in Shi Rao’s coffin?  The site report includes only a basic drawing of the excavated tomb and describes the swords as being “long.” What does that mean in practical terms?

To answer these questions, we turn to LK Chen’s reproduction of a standard Han jian, the White Arc. This blade is a one-to-one reproduction of a period artifact that is currently in LK Chen’s private collection. It was selected precisely because it was typical of the sorts of jian that were forged during first half of the Han dynasty.  In general, these swords have fairly long blades (90-110 cm) with relatively sort handles (15-20 cm) that are finished either in a disk pommel (like the Soaring Sky) or, more commonly, with a simple cap of bonze or brass. Their oval hilts were made of wood scales wrapped in cord.  While organic material such as wood and fiber are far less likely to survive, enough artifacts have been preserved in oxygen starved submerged tombs that we now have a fairly decent sense as to how these hilts were contoured and wrapped.

The White Arc (bottom) with the previously reviewed Soaring Sky (top).
The White Arc (bottom) with the previously reviewed Soaring Sky (top).
The White Arc (bottom) with the previously reviewed Soaring Sky (top).
The White Arc (bottom) with the previously reviewed Soaring Sky (top).
The White Arc (bottom) with the previously reviewed Soaring Sky (top).

This brings us back to the White Arc. Of LK Chen’s three Han jian, it is the most representative of a typical sword from the period, as carried by either soldiers or civilians. Whereas the Flying Phoenix is a composite creation, and the Soaring Sky is an exact replica a relatively early and elite type of jian, the White Arc captures the essence of the period’s arsenal swords. Unlike the Soaring Sky or earlier pieces from the Waring States period, it features a simple four sided diamond cross-section that has been optimized for cutting. And unlikely its longer, “hand-a-half” cousins, its narrow blade could only be wielded with a single hand as the other was expected to be occupied with either a hooked buckler (mostly used for civilian fencing) or a larger infantry shield. In evaluating this sword, we must remember that it was only one half of the intended weapon system.

Two Han Dynasty scabbards (recovered from submerged tombs) decorated in the same manner as the White Arc. Source: LKchenswords.com.

When approaching the White Arc the first thing that anyone will notice is the scabbard. While the artifact that LK Chen reproduced no longer has its original furniture (aside from the handguard), the White Arc’s scabbard is a more or less direct copy of several period finds. Its simple diamond profile and red and black color scheme are perhaps the most common features found on scabbards from this period. In keeping with the utilitarian identity of this sword, the belt loop is made from carved wood (as was common at the time) and the chape is cast brass. 

The woodwork on my sample piece is nicely done and the paint is crisp and without runs.  However, my scabbard seems to be a just a hair too big for the sword at the mouth (which is loose) and the chape, where the wood overshoots the brass by about 1 mm. When the sword was being assembled the belt loop fell a bit to one side rather than sitting perfectly straight and here is also some excess glue around the top of the chape that has run up onto the scabbard. However, any early production issues with the epoxy that was being used seems to have been resolved and everything is firm and tight. 

Next we come to the blade itself. Once again, LK Chen has attempted to replicate the look of period pattern welded steel by using a high layer count Damascus combining 1065 and T8. The blade has received a light acid etch revealing an interesting pattern. The forging of this piece is absolutely top quality.  There are no bends or warps in the blade and edges are perfectly straight with the primary bevel leading straight to the cutting edge.  The medial ridge on both sides of the blade is perfectly straight with no distortions, and the tip is symmetrical.  One side of my blade shows very little waviness in the steel and that is mostly towards the tip, as you would expect with a hand made blade.  The other side has more pronounced waves and seems to have received a bit more attention either in straightening the blade or the polishing. The bottom quarter of the blade was left relatively dull, but the rest has been brought to a high degree of sharpness. In bright light you can see a few places where the “mirror polish” is cloudy, but overall the quality of the blade is exceptional, especially given its price point.  

Replicating the guard of the original White Arc. Source: LKChenswords.com

In terms of basic statistics, my sword’s blade (measured from the top of the guard) was 94 cm long (or just over 37 inches).  The total length of the sword was 113 cm (44.5 inches), making is almost exactly average for a late Eastern Han dynasty jian.  The blade’s width at the base was 30 mm, which tapered evenly to 17 mm at the tip.  The distal taper was also relatively even, declining from 7mm at the base to about 3 mm right before the start of the tip.  

Interestingly, my test sword weighed 764 grams, less than the advertised wight of 810 grams. 50 grams may not sound a like a lot in the abstract, but on a sword this light I suspect that it would be notable.  Lastly, in terms of the weapon’s dynamic characteristics, the point of balance was relatively far out at 21 cm from the guard (8 inches). The blade’s upper vibrational node and point of rotation were both located about 22-23 cm back from the tip, giving the blade a well-defined and intuitive “sweet spot.”

Late Warring States or Early Han sword fitting. Note the resemblance of the top set to the fittings used on the Striking Eagle. Source: LKChenswords.com
The raw cast fittings (brass) of the White Arc, along with the wooden belt loop. Source: LKChenswords.com

The White Arc’s hilt is constructed somewhat different from LK Chen’s other Han Jian.  It has a pommel cap rather than a terminal disc.  That is important as a disc pommel isn’t just decorative. It is a structural element allowing the pommel, tang and scales to be held in place with a single shared pin.  However, pommel caps are also common in the archeological record.  These could be quite thick, sometimes with only enough space for the tang of the sword, or more generous, fitting over the hilt’s wooden scales and holding everything together. They were typically glued or set with a friction fit. The subsequent wrapping of the hilt with cord closed the gap between the wooden scales and the elevated edge of the cast bronze or brass cap.  This traditional method of construction has been used on both the White Arc and the much larger Striking Eagle.

The hilt scales of the White Arc are also pinned through the tang just beneath the hand guard and everything has been epoxied. If one carefully examines the bottom of the handguard you can see that it is not straight.  Rather, it is notched on both sides allowing the scales to be custom fit and recessed into the guard itself, further preventing them from rotating. The brass handguard is an exact replica of the original and is extremely comfortable. Indeed, it is probably the most comfortable guard on any of LK Chen’s swords. Finally, the relatively wide oval scales have been wrapped in a grippy white cord made from some sort of natural fiber.

The hilt is widest at the top and and narrows slightly as it moves towards the pommel cap.  I am not entirely sure whether this reflects the way the scales were carved, or its its artifact of the way that they were wrapped. In any case, the hilt feels secure and firm when thrusting but has a tendency to feel as though its pulling away from the user when executing broad cuts. This small detail may be a hint as to how some Han jian were originally intended to be used. The cord itself is comfortable and showed no signs of loosening or wear even after several weeks of daily with this blade.

Details of the White Arc hilt construction. Source: LKChenswords.com

I found the handling characteristics of the White Arc to be notably different from not only modern Jian, but also LK Chen’s Soaring Sky and Flying Phoenix. This is not to say that the sword was unpleasant to use.  It is very light and responsive. When training both basic movements and cutting I always had an intuitive sense of where the tip was, and because of the hilt construction the blade was easy to index. In those respects this is an easy sword to use and it really puts to rest the notion that narrow blades are only good for thrusting.

That said, I did feel a bit more hand shock in the White Arc than some of LK Chen’s other jian. I suspect this is because the sword’s lower vibration node was actually somewhere in the blade’s forte rather than the upper hilt (which would have provided a natural dampening effect). This is probably an unavoidable mathematical result of the very short hilt compared to long overall length of the blade and the lack of a robust pommel adding weight to the end of tang.  Given that the White Arc is a one-to-one recreation of a very standard period blade, there is not much that one can do about this. Still, it is interesting to note the way that Chinese hilt designs subsequently evolved, generally becoming longer and heavier, in the coming centuries. One wonders whether that correlates to a corresponding shift from thrusting to cutting? This is also evident if you compare the construction and proportion of Han dao hilts, which could be quite diminutive, to later sabers from the Sui/Tang or Song dynasties.

As one would expect, this is a blade that excels in the thrust. It wants to thrust and make tight parries. In improvised training those are always the movements that come the quickest and easiest. I would say that all of the standard guards and cuts from modern jian systems are possible with the White Arc, but they aren’t all equally comfortable or quick due to the swords length. I found the recovery from broad cuts to be a bit slow because of the long point of balance. For instance, if the sword was too far extended, I felt that my back tip cuts wouldn’t have generated enough force to actually be effective. While this blade is light and quick, it clearly was not designed with the wheels and sword flowers of the Qing and Republic era jian systems. Weapons are, by their very nature, inflexible and we must adapt ourselves to the possibilities that they allow. In that sense the White Arc is an invitation to explore new aspects of Chinese swordsmanship. It will be less rewarding to resist nature and use it exactly as you might a more modern cutting jian. Instead the blade must be understood as an invitation for experimentation.

Han dynasty Sword and Gou-Rang. Source: LKChensword.com
Two modern reproductions of Han jian with Gou-Rang. Source: LKChenswords.com

This brings us to the elephant in the room.  While I have quite enjoyed training with the White Arc, I don’t feel like I have fully plumbed its depths. Aside from some pieces of art, we don’t have any detailed texts describing how these blades were used. Further, this was a sword that was almost certainly designed to be used with either a shield or a Gou-Rang. That is one thing that we do see very clearly in most surviving period art. 

To really grasp what this blade is capable of I need to take another look at it in that specific context.  I am still working on securing a couple of Gou-Rang for experimentation, and at some point I need to dust off my neglected woodworking skills and make an infantry shield.  Clearly that is the next step in studying the White Arc, and probably a precondition for really understanding how any Han jian was intended to be used.

The White Arc is a remarkable artifact. It reminds us of a time when county level arsenals might have had 100,000 similar blades in their inventories, ready to equip an army on a moments notice.  And their presence in so many civilian tombs, including that of Shi Rao, speaks to the importance of both swords and fencing in Han culture.  Recreating the White Arc bring us one step closer to understanding this lost chapter in the development of the China’s ancient martial arts. 

From the Archives: A Really Short Reading List on Chinese Martial Studies

Patrons of a market stall selling sequentially illustrated martial arts novels in 1948. Source: Vintage AP Press Photo
Patrons of a market stall selling sequentially illustrated martial arts novels in 1948. Source: Vintage AP Press Photo

Introduction

Ok, here is a fun post that I originally wrote in 2012 that really needs to be updated.  So many new articles and books have come out in the last eight years (including ones written by myself) that I am not sure where to start. So I am leaving it up to you dear readers.  In the year 2020 what are the five essential resources necessary to get up to speed on Chinese martial studies?  Remember, only two books per list.  Feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments below.

A Really Short Reading List on the Chinese Martial Arts (Originally Posted July 27th, 2012).

Suppose you had a friend or a colleague who was interested in Chinese Martial Studies, was willing to invest some time and effort in learning what it was about, but had substantial professional commitments.  What sort of a reading list would you put together to show the possibilities of the field without overwhelming them?  Your list must not include more than five entries and no more than two books.  What would you choose and why?  And keep it brief, she is a busy woman!

  1. Peter Lorge.  Chinese Martial Arts: From Antiquity to the Twenty First Century. Cambridge University Press. 2012.

I wish this book had been out when I was first trying to get my hands around the field!  If you are new to the area Lorge provides a very workable single volume introduction to practically everything you want to know about the Chinese martial arts in under 250 pages.  Sure I have a couple of issues with this book, but creating a single volume introduction with that much information in so few pages is just a remarkable achievement.  Strong work.

2. Brian Kennedy and Elizabeth Guo. “Chapter 4: Chinese Martial Arts Historians.” In Chinese Martial Arts Training Manuals.  Blue Snake Books. 2005.

Again, very minor quibbles aside the entire first half of this book is a great introduction to the field of Chinese Martial Studies that should be accessible to anyone.  I can’t begin to count the number of times I have photocopied this material for students and research assistants.  I choose chapter 4 because it provides a great introduction to the early (pre WWII) Chinese language academic literature on the martial arts which is basically inaccessible to most students in the west, but is still very important to know about.

3. Andrew D. Morris. “Chapter 7: From Martial Arts to National Skills: The Construction of a Modern Indigenous Physical Culture, 1912-1937.” in The Marrow of the Nation. University of California Press. 2004.

This chapter is a great place to go next after reading Kennedy and Guo.  Morris has done the field a huge service by excavating the 1930s dialogue about the fate of the traditional martial arts out of old newspapers, magazines and journals, all of which are basically inaccessible without spending some serious time in rare book collections in China.  It also seems that Morris’ work ends up in a lot of secondary sources (like magazine articles) without proper credit being given.  More people should read the original.  He has perhaps the best brief overviews of the Jingwu (Pure Martial) and Guoshu (National Arts) movements available in the literature.

4. Stanley Henning. “The Martial Arts in Chinese Physical Culture, 1865-1965.” In Green and Svinth (eds) Martial Arts in the Modern World.  Praeger. 2003.

Henning offers a very solid overview of the evolution of modern Chinese martial arts.  His approach is similar to Lorge and it is easy to see the influence between the two.  I like this piece because you can achieve a certain level of focus in a well-crafted essay that is just not possible in a volume.  Also, the edited volume where this essay was published is a wonderful example of the possibilities available to creative researchers in the modern field of martial studies as a whole.

5. Meir Shahar. The Shaolin Monastery: History, Religion and the Chinese Martial Arts. University of Hawai’i Press.  2008.

Looking back over my list I saw a lot of discussion of the modern era.  So for my final selection I am going old school.  As a matter of fact, you just can’t get any more “old school” than the Shaolin Temple.  This highly readable volume documents the martial traditions of what is probably China’s most venerated Kung Fu institution.  It also looks at the evolution of the Shaolin mythology and the reality of their fighting arts in the Ming and Qing dynasties.  I have read it multiple times and for my money this is the best book out there in the field of Chinese martial studies right now.  I can’t wait to see Shahar’s upcoming research of the myth of the southern Shaolin temple (spoiler alert: no, it never existed.)

Ok, so that is my starter list of books, chapters and articles to introduce someone to the field of Chinese martial studies.  How did I do?  To historical perhaps?  Maybe I need some ethnography, or critical theory?  What would be on your list?

So what do you read? Photo Credit Alex Judkins. Scene on the Street (SOS) Photography. Thanks Alex!

Chinese Martial Arts in the News: September 21, 2020: Mulan Struggles, Return of the Guandao, and the Future of Kung Fu Tea

Introduction

It has been over a months since our last news update. For new readers, this is a semi-regular feature here at Kung Fu Tea in which we review media stories that mention the traditional fighting arts. In addition to discussing important events, this column also considers how the Asian hand combat systems are portrayed in the mainstream media.

While we try to summarize the major stories over the last month, there is always a chance that we may have missed something. If you are aware of an important news event relating to the TCMA, drop a link in the comments section below.

Lastly, this month’s news update ends with an important announcement about the blog.  Thanks for your patience.

Mulan

It is surprising how often a single event dominates the monthly news cycle for Chinese martial arts. This time the clear leading story was the release, and subsequent struggles, of Disney’s long awaited live action Mulan project. As most theaters in the US are still closed, or operating on a very limited basis, the studio decided to release the project on their Disney+ streaming service for an additional $30 fee.  Needless to say, that decision generated all sorts of controversy, and more followed quickly including renewed calls to boycott the film after consumers began to question the ethics of filming in a region of China where Uighurs Muslims are being detained in large numbers.

Mulan received an even more hostile reception in China (an increasingly important market for American films) where audiences felt that it suffered from wooden performances and cringeworthy cultural tropes, despite its obvious efforts to pander to Chinese audiences. The general consensus seems to be that the new project is a step backward from the beloved animated classic.  All of this is terrible news for Disney in a year when they badly needed a financial win. But it did generate a fair amount of discussion on topics related to the Chinese martial arts!

One of the more positive treatments of the film can be found in this piece on its co-star Donnie Yen who is “proud of the richness of Chinese culture, and celebration of family” in Mulan.

Action star Donnie Yen gets the chance to dazzle us on the big screen with his martial arts skills in Disney’s “Mulan.” But he had a very personal reason for wanting to be part of this movie. The veteran actor said he is completely familiar with the story; first, as part of Chinese lore. Secondly… because his daughter loved the 1998 animated movie!

“She grew up watching with me, ‘Mulan,’” said Yen. “We sang the songs over 100 times!”

More typical of the ensuring frustration was this conversation in South China Morning Post, which noted that Disney is just one US company to be called out for missteps regarding human rights in Xinjiang.  Alternatively, a reviewer in the Observer called Mulan “A mess of hollow representation and real-world controversy.”

More interesting than the reviews of the film itself were some of the stories that it inspired.  We might call these “Mulan adjacent” essays.  The first of these, published on the National Geographic webpage, provides a surprisingly indepth overview of Chinese martial arts history.  With the assistance of Dr. Johnathan Clements, who has been a talking head on a number of National Geographic projects, it touches on everything from General Qi Jiguang, the Maiden of Yue, Shaolin, the Shaw Brothers and (of course) Bruce Lee. At this this point my main question is, how does one get on the interview list for these sorts of things?

Equally interesting is this piece in the South China Morning Post modestly titled “Forget Mulan: meet Khutulun, Mongolia’s undefeated wrestling princess, Genghis Khan’s great-great-granddaughter and Turandot inspiration.” So far as a summery goes, the title pretty much says it all.

Rather than folk fable, the Mongolian warrior princess Khutulun was quite real and had the body count and fearsome reputation to prove it. She was the daughter of Kaidu Khan and great-great-granddaughter of Genghis, a cousin of Kublai Khan who would found China’s Yuan dynasty.

Chinese Martial Arts in the News

Earlier in the year we saw accounts of deadly skirmishes along the China-India boarder between groups of soldiers using improvised weapons and spiked clubs in an area where the use of firearms was prohibited by a treaty between the two countries.  Apparently tensions in the region have flared up once again, and Chinese soldiers have now augmented their arsenal with quickly made guangdao and spears. This story has been getting a lot of coverage both globally and in India.  For instance, Forbes magazine notes that “China May Be Arming Its Soldiers With Medieval Halberds To Fight India.”

Forget tanks and jet fighters. Chinese soldiers may have found a new weapon to battle the Indian army: medieval-style halberds.

Photos have surfaced that purportedly show Chinese troops in Tibet carrying polearms. Chinese soldiers in modern battle gear – including body armor and helmets – are seen holding long sticks topped with curved blades that resemble machetes. Presumably the weapons are meant to be used against Indian soldiers, with whom China has fought recent border clashes.

Not all of the news has been so grim.  Asian One ran a story on the growing popularity of Shuai Jiao, or traditional jacketed wrestling, in the Beijing area.

Chinese wrestling is making a return thanks to a veteran of the fighting sport.

At an indoor facility in downtown Beijing, a group of young enthusiasts was recently training and practicing the traditional martial art of shuai jiao, which is little known outside China.

As usual, there have been a fair number of “public diplomacy” stories in which the promotion of fighting arts is used as a way of strengthening, or celebrate, cultural ties between countries. The government run China Daily reported that “Martial arts supplies from China delight Romanians.” I thought that this story was interesting as one of the beneficiaries of this diplomatic largess was a Wing Chun school.  Generally speaking, these sorts of efforts favor official Wushu programs and sometimes community Taijiquan classes.  I don’t think I can recall seeing a Wing Chun school discussed in this context before.

Despite the prevailing pandemic, Romanian people’s passion for Chinese martial arts hasn’t faded. Recently, about 200 pieces of equipment for the sport were sent to many clubs in Romania, in large packages with “Friendship Lasts Forever” printed on the side.

-Interesting to see that in addition to the expected Wushu organizations a Wing Chun club was also the recipient of some of this gear.  We don’t as often see these sorts of folk styles being included in these programs.

Likewise, the Shanghai Daily news enthusiastically reported that a “Sword-wielding 17-year-old cuts a new path in martial arts world.” A fair amount of this report was actually on Wushu’s continued attempts to enter the Olympic arena, with some biography towards the end.

In January this year, the International Olympic Committee confirmed that wushu would make its debut as an official sport at the 2022 Dakar Youth Olympic Games.

“It’s exciting news for martial arts lovers, because it’s a good chance to make more people aware of this wonderful sport, and we hope it features at the summer Olympic Games one day,” said Wang Liang, chief range officer of the Ningxia championship. “More teenagers are engaged in martial arts competitions nowadays, and their competitiveness is improving daily.”

Who are the “Seven Best Taiwanese Martial Artists Masters of all Time?”  Click the link to find out!  Unfortunately this is more a list than an actual collection of biographies.  Still, it could be a great jumping off point for future exploration.  And yes, Cheng Man-Ch’ing does make the list.

Every once and a while, you run a cross an article that is a lot more detailed than you were expecting.  Such is the case with this breakdown of the various unarmed fighting styles practiced and implied throughout the Karate Kid saga at the Den of Geeks. If you are a fan of the franchise be sure to check this out!

More disappointing was this reprint of stories on martial arts in Hong Kong in the South China Morning Post.  While this is one of my favorite topics, I am not entirely thrilled to see a somewhat deceptive discussion of how Hong Kong (and Bruce Lee) is the true origin point for modern MMA. The city’s martial arts history is fascinating on its own without trying to pander in this way. But I have already critiqued a couple of these articles elsewhere so there is no need to repeat myself here.

Next up in the pop culture category, we have a new video game out of China staring the Monkey King.  On a technical level the gameplay in this looks great, but the project may also have added significance for students of Martial Arts Studies. Over the last decade video-games have become as an increasingly important vector for introducing all sorts of people to martial arts imagery, essentially supplanting the role of television as a pop-culture incubator. With increased competition between China and America in all sorts of cultural and tech spaces, this may be a potentially important story to watch.

Still shot of Bruce Lee in the opening scene of “Enter the Dragon.”

Next we have a couple of feature on the Little Dragon. What is better than a discussion of Bruce Lee in ForbesA Discussion of Bruce Lee and James Bond!  Second, the exhibition “Bruce Lee: Kung Fu, Art, Life” at the Hong Kong Heritage Museum has been extended to 2026.  The exhibit is also going to be restaged and expanded in 2021, and will continue to feature more that 600 Lee-related items, including 400 on loan from the Bruce Lee Foundation in the United States. I was planning on heading to Hong Kong this summer (thanks COVID-19!), but I guess I will now have plenty of time to check it out in the next couple of years.

Its facebook time!

News About the Kung Fu Tea

I recently accepted a job working with one of the federal government’s COVID-19 relief programs.  Needless to say, this isn’t what I anticipated I would be doing at the start of the year, but given that it has become difficult to travel for my research, or even visit library collections, this seems like a good use of the next six months or so. As a professional political economist I am really looking forward to getting a granular view of what is happening in the economy and society.

All of that is great news. The downside is that I am about to become very busy as I immerse myself in this new, 60+ hours a week, venture. Sadly, this means that I will have less time for blogging.

I am hesitant to declare the blog on hiatus as I hope to work on the occasional post once things settle down and I can establish a new schedule.  I also have a few guest posts and reviews lined up. Still, I expect that regular readers will note a marked decrease in the frequency of my posts over the next few months. WordPress tells me that I have published well over 800 posts (or 3.2 million words) at Kung Fu Tea since 2012, and I am guessing that no one has actually read more than a fraction of that material. As such, I will also be republishing some of my favorite pieces from the archives during this time just to keep things fresh.

I would like to thanks all of you for your support over the last eight years, without which this never would have been possible. A special note of thanks also goes to my wife Tara for her long  suffering and editing much of this material. It is amazing to see how much the field of Martial Arts Studies has grown in that time. I look forward to a return to regular blogging and research soon.

Research Note: A Challenge Match in Hong Kong, 1890

Vintage Postcard (undivided back) dating to the late Qing dynasty. Source: Author’s personal collection.

Today’s post comes courtesy of Joseph Svinth who shared an intriguing, if brief, find with me a few weeks ago. Kung Fu legends revel in accounts of high stakes challenge matches. In a typical story a young martial arts instructor enters a neighborhood seeking to set up shop.  He is challenged by one or more members of the local establishment on the understanding that if he loses, he must close down his school and head elsewhere.  Such showdowns are the bread and butter of martial arts films and novels. Their memory even seems to affect the behavior of contemporary North American martial artists as I have, over the years, heard of a good number of challenges issued and received under various circumstances.

I suspect that casual brawling between rival martial artists was probably more common in the 1970s and 1980s, but a certain amount of this still happens. Of course, in the current atmosphere such standoffs may be more likely to end in police involvement than in the past.  Or maybe not.

The following article lets us take a close look at how one specific challenge match evolved between two martial artists in the Hung Hom neighborhood of Kowloon (Hong Kong) in the year 1890.  Not only do we get a glimpse of the truth behind the legends, but this account is interesting for two other reasons as well. First off, our would be combatants advertised their disagreements through a series of public placards, giving us a look at the sort of rhetoric that surrounded one of these events.  Unsurprisingly they attempted to hail the neighborhood, invoking its honor and making Hung Hom not just the prize, but a participant in their grievance. One wonders whether such a rhetorical strategy reflected the fundamental marginality of such figures and their attempt to claim a place within local society by loudly advertising that they alone could protect the neighborhood’s honor.

The second interesting thing about this fight is that it never actually took place. While our would-be participants felt that publicly posting placards was the appropriate way to go about airing their grievances, Hong Kong’s law enforcement officers strenuously disagreed. When the promised fight caused public excitement they swept in, removed the offending placards and apparently arrested Hok Lo Chun, the instructor who had more recently moved into the area.

This is a valuable reminded that the “good old days” were never quite so free as modern stories tend to imagine. Both the Qing Empire and later Western imperialists took a dim view of any type of public disorder, particularly episodes caused by martial artist in areas under their control. I wouldn’t say that challenge matches never happened, but they could and did result in serious legal consequences. It seems almost certain that we know about this aborted bout precisely because it generated a court case (and written records) that could be discussed by a Hong Kong reporter looking for a juicy story.

This brings us to the second point of significance. I am not yet sure which paper (or reporter) first published this account, but it quickly got taken up by a newswire service and was eventually republished around the globe in the autumn (August-November) of 1890. Joseph Svinth sent me a clipping from The Sportsman, an athletic newspaper published in Melbourne. A few moments of searching revealed that at least three other Australian newspapers carried the same story within a month of when the Sportsman ran it. It was also republished in the Boston Globe Weekly, the Times of Philadelphia and the London Evening News and Post.  I am sure that it made other appearances as well, but given how popular it clearly was, I did not feel like making a more comprehensive search.  I think it is sufficient to say that the account was widely read on at least four continents…in 1890.

To put this in a more historical context, a decade before the outbreak of the Boxer Rebellion we can already find stories about Chinese martial artists circulating widely in the global press. The ways in which they were reported was unflattering to be sure. Yet this suggests that the existence of unique forms of Chinese hand combat was not unknown to the reading public.

A few notes on the article itself may be helpful before going on. As is often the cases in news reports from this era, the romanization of Chinese names and places did not enjoy any universally agreed upon standard. The “Hungham” neighborhood that the reporter identifies is almost certainly Hung Hom. Likewise, I suspect that the Kwan Yun Temple of Hungham is a reference to Hung Hom’s Kwan Yum (or Guan Yin) temple, which was a prominent structure in the region at the time.

I haven’t located any information about the two martial artists discussed in the piece.  Lau A Kwan seems to have established a successful public school in Hung Hom sometime before 1890. Sadly, the article says nothing about his style.  Hok Lo Chun, who subsequently moved into the area, is said to have studied both boxing and fencing.  If anyone has insight into these two figures, feel free to contact me or leave it in the comments bellow.

A Chinese Boxing Professor’s Challenge

A Chinese professor of boxing and fencing in Hong Kong published, by means of placards, the following challenge:–“Having been informed that a man named Lau A Kwan, who keeps a place in Hungham, where he instructs pupils in the art of fighting and self-defence, boasts that he has no equal in his profession, and that he is a perfect Hercules in strength and offers an inducement in the shape of 10 dol. to anyone who has the courage to meet him at the manly art and bend his arm—his strength being equal to several hundred cattles [sic.]—now I, Hok Lo Chun, have traveled over many countries of the globe, but never met a man who was so boastful and proud of his superiority in his profession.  I also have some knowledge of fighting, and therefore write this and post it up, so that all men can see me challenge him to meet me at the spot in front of the Kwan Yun Temple, Hungham, at 5 p.m. this day, man against man, there to try with me his skill in fighting, and the results of the test will be to settle beyond a doubt who is the best man.  If this Lau Kwan refuses to come out, then he is a vain boaster and rank coward, and he must clear out of the place all together, for he is only an upstart, and, and when put to the test, a baby at heart, and therefore not fit to associate with respectable men. I hope all people will excuse me.  Dated this day of the 3rd moon. Hop Lo Chun.”

The placards were removed by the police after attracting much attention, and the pugilist himself was arrested and punished.

The Sportsman, Melbourne, October 29, 1890. Page 2.
Boston Globe weekly on September 6, 1890. Page 4.
The Times (Philadelphia), August 24, 1890. Page 7.
London Evening News and Post, August 5, 1890. Page 3.

Knight Errantry and the Soaring Sky

The Soaring Sky. Source: LKChenswords.com.

For ten years I have been polishing this sword;
Its frosty edge has never been put to the test.
Now I am holding it and showing it to you, sir:
Is there anyone suffering from injustice?

The Swordsman (剑客) by Jia Dao

It could be argued that in macro-historical terms the Chinese martial arts are as much an identity, or a disposition, as they are a set of combative techniques. Technique evolves and changes over time. Weapons, and entire systems of military technology, come and go. Archery and charioteering were once the hallmark of a sound military education. Today that is clearly not the case.

Still, “like always recognizes like,” and modern martial artists can identify those figures with which they empathize in China’s classic works. While technologies and cultures of violence have changed, certain early stories became literary touchstones that many generations of practitioners returned to as they searched for proper models of behavior and a means to explain themselves to others. Every generation reads these texts through their own lens and finds something new and exciting within them. Without expecting to find anything like strict continuity, we cannot discount the value of these stories in providing a sense of cultural continuity for successive generations of martial artists.

Without a doubt the most important of the early cultural models is the Youxia, often translated in English as “knight-errants.” The fact that so little research has been carried out on these figures provides elegant testimony to the fact that Martial Arts Studies, as a research field, might yet contribute much to disciplines such as Chinese history.  Perhaps the most widely cited authority on the topic remains James J. Y. Liu who published his various contributions during the 1960s.

The original Soaring Sky. Source: LKChenswords.com

The most important early source on the Youxia is Sima Qian’s Records of the Grand Historian, completed during the middle years of the Han dynasty. Among the biographies of the various important figures of his time, we find an entire section documenting the Youxia. When one considers Sima Qian’s theory of history, that it was the scholar’s job to record the past so that what was admirable might be remembered, and what was bad condemned, their inclusion (and not so subtle endorsement) becomes quite interesting.  Sima Qian himself was well versed in the Confucian classics and took the Spring and Autumn Annals as his guide for what proper history should be. Yet within his work he records with approval the behavior of some very non-Confucian characters.

One probably need look no further than the basic outlines of Sima Qian’s own life to understand why he admired those who stood up for what was right in the face of political authority and social disapproval. Or as he put it:

To save people from distress and relieve people from want: is this not benevolence? Not to belie another’s trust and not to break one’s promises: is this not righteousness? That is why I wrote the “Biographies of knights errant….

Although the actions of the knights errant were not in accordance with the rules of propriety, they always meant what they said, always accomplished what they set out to do, and always fulfilled their promises.  They rushed to the aid of people in distress without giving a thought to their own safety. And when they had saved someone from disaster at the risk of their own lives, they did not boast of their ability and were shy to hear their virtue praised. Indeed, there is much to be said for them.”

Sima Qian regretted that he was unable to record the stories of the early Youxia of the Warring States Period as little specific information about them remained. Most of his accounts were drawn from the early Han or the previous Qin dynasties. In reviewing this material Liu hypothesizes, probably correctly, that knight errantry represented a subculture, or mode of behavior, rather than a definite social group. This behavior could be found among both peasants and princes, but the accounts that Sima Qian provide seem to focus on either the lowest ranks of the nobility or townsmen. For the most part his Youxia are differentiated from professional soldiers or bandits, though at times in their life they might take up either banner for a season. Many were literate and some were even remembered as skilled musicians.

Fiercely independent, these figures cultivated a code of chivalry or personal honor that was not always intuitively obvious to those around them and might at times require some explanation.  Like the Confucians and Mohists they believed in a universal ethic (often articulated as an abstract sense of “justice”) that was higher than the laws of the state. However, unlike the former this also superseded one’s responsibility to familial obligations, whereas they had no sympathy with the Mohists puritanical approach to music or strict social organization. A number of Yuxia are said to have been followers of Daoism, but that seems to have been a personal preference rather than a shared community identity.

An eight sided Han jian, still in its partially preserved scabbard. Note that it is decorated in the same style as LK Chen’s White Arc. Source: LKChenswords.com

This is not to say that the Youxia existed only as lone wandering vigilantes. If they had it is doubtful that they would have become an important enough force in Chinese society to be included in Sima Qian’s work, or to earn the near universal condemnations of the Legalist, Confucian and Mohist writers of their time. Rather, these individuals organized themselves into patronage networks. Sima Qian tells us of princes who publicly cultivated the ideals of the Youxia and thus accumulated networks of thousands of knights and retainers.  Occasionally these networks even impacted matters of state. More common were well off gentlemen who might gather dozens of such individuals. One Han period account begins by casually noting that every quarter of the capital had its own powerful Youxia figure.

The knights errant are typically remembered for taking justice into their own hands, often in an attempt to help a friend who had become a victim of misfortune, or the common people.  For instance, Liu provides us with the following short account from the late Han which features many of the typical themes found in these stories:

Chic Yun was a native of Ju-nan prefecture (in modern Honan). He had a friend called Tung Tzu-chang whose father had been murdered by another man from the same district. Unable to avenge his father’s death, Tung became sick and was about to die. On his death bed, Chih came to see him. Tung looked at Chih and sobbed, no longer able to speak.  Chih Yun said, “I know you are not sad because you are fated to end your days but because you have not brought about revenge. When you are alive, I share your grief but cannot personally carry out revenge on your behalf; when you are gone, I will personally kill your enemy and grieve no more.” Tung could but look at him.  Thereupon Chih left, took some friends with him, ambushed the enemy, and killed him. He brought back the enemy’s head and showed it to Tung, who on seeing it breathed his last. Chih Yun then went to the district magistrate and gave himself up.  The magistrate, who knew and admired him, would not send him to jail, but he insisted on going, until the magistrate threatened suicide.  Later, Chich Yun became an important official at court.”

The dramatic nature of the previous story notwithstanding, the Youxia were also remembered for acting as diplomats, quietly resolving disputes, and even ending cycles of familial revenge that went against the demands of a more universal ethic. In that sense they were peacekeepers rather than simple vigilantes. What is common in all of these stories is that the Youxia acted benevolently when it was not required, often going far beyond what would have been considered the normal call of duty. While individualistic in origin, their actions were not always violent.

Liu speculates that the Youxia first emerged as an identifiable group during the Warring States period as political chaos dislocated the military retainers and lower levels of the aristocracy of defeated states.  As these individuals blended back into society, they brought not only their military skills but also a core of personal ethics. Throughout the tumultuous years that followed such individuals may have been able to find patronage or employment as they traveled from one country to the next, as did other types of military and civil officials during the same period.  During the Han dynasty these individuals would have faced a more hostile environment. The inter-state chaos that created a degree of tolerance, and even demand, for their services was gone. Both the Legalists and Confucian scholars who dominated court life found the existence of large networks of influential and well-armed men of dubious loyalty to be an intolerable threat. From the middle of the Han dynasty onward the state systematically suppressed and executed Youxia. Again, these events were recorded in Sima Qian’s history so that future generations could ponder the virtues of these individuals and their betrayal by government officials.

A selection of antique bronze pommels dating from the Han dynasty. Note that each of these shows the same cloud pattern used on the Soaring Sky. Source: LKChenswords.com

To say that Sima Qian’s own relationship with the court was complicated would be a profound understatement. It would draw us too far afield to explore his biography here, but perhaps we will conclude this discussion by noting that in many ways the oppressed and disgraced historian got the last laugh. By going to heroic lengths to write China’s first universal history he not only established a reputation that has lasted for millennium, but he also changed the way that the subject of history was approached and written for most of that time.

He also frustrated the sincere desire of the Confucian, Mohists and Legalists who all wished that the Youxia would be erased from history and their legacy forgotten. The stories that Sima Qian recorded would prove to be the source material that inspired many subsequent generations of knight-errantry up through the Tang dynasty. During the Ming and Qing dynasties, these same biographies would help to shape the emerging discourse around new types of martial arts communities that were then beginning to take shape.

Ma Mingda once noted that modern scholars should think of the novel Water Margin as the Old Testament of the modern Chinese martial arts.  While difficult to understand and obscure in places, one cannot underestimate the cultural influence that it had on the popular imagination.  I fully agree with his assessment on the proviso that we take Sima Qian’s account of the Youxia, along with their devotion to universal notions of justice and brotherhood, as our Genesis. It is impossible to come to terms with the values of figures such as Shi Jin if we do not understand in whose shadow they stand.

The Soaring Sky

The existing historical accounts (with a few exceptions) do not spend a lot of time talking about the specific weapons that the Youxia of the Qin and early Han carried, but if they were lucky they might have owned a sword similar to LK Chen’s Soaring Sky. This offering is a direct replica of a well preserved eight sided jian dating from the early years of the Han dynasty. The classic Han jian, in contrast, has a flattened diamond profile where each of the sword’s sides acts as a primary edge bevel. This construction can be seen on both the White Arc and the Flying Phoenix and it explains the surprising cutting prowess of these weapons. The true genius of the Han jian lay in its ability to combine both prodigious cutting and thrusting capabilities in a single weapon.

The Soaring Sky looks back to earlier trends in weapon design.  Eight sided blades, often with shallow double fullers forming a medial ridge, were commonly seen on the shorter bronze weapons of the late Warring States period. This configuration allowed a smith to create a weapon with a fairly broad profile that was still light enough to wield and fairly stiff.  This same basic profile was adopted on certain early steel weapons made in the Kingdoms of Yue and Chu, such as the Magnificent Chu jian, which I have previously discussed.

While this complex geometry was less necessary on steel swords, it continued to be seen through the Qin and early years of the Han dynasty. Given their additional complexity such blades would have been more expensive to produce and the examples that have been found are typically in the graves of the nobility or well off. Still, these weapons are different from their predecessors in the kingdom of Chu.  They have the same length (typically 90-110 cm) that was seen on other Han jian, as well as a relatively narrow blade and pronounced tip. The double fullers of the Magnificent Chu have been replaces with two flats that spread out to meet the primary edge bevel.  The end result is a thicker and sturdy spine compared to the compressed diamond cross-section of later swords.  Whereas they are optimized for cutting ability, the Soaring Sky values durability and stiffness.


This is not to suggest that it is a heavy sword. The review sample that I was sent weighs only 797 grams (as opposed to its advertised weight of 823 grams). It was also slightly longer than its official length at 112 cm (versus 110 cm) with most of that difference coming in the form of a slightly longer blade.  The width of the blade at the base was just under 30 mm, which tapered evenly to 15 mm at the tip.  In terms of distal taper my blade was a bit thinner than some others being 7 mm at the base and 3.1 mm at the tip with the official averages at 7.4mm and 4 mm respectively.  The distal taper moved only about 1 mm in the first third of the blade but decreased more rapidly after that. This resulted in a point of balance about 7 inches (17.8 cm) away from the top of the guard.

An original scabbard decorated with the same geometric pattern seen on the Soaring Sky. Source: LKChenswords.com
A Han dynasty scabbard fitting, used as the model for the Soaring Sky’s belt attachment. Source: LKChensword.com

The overall build quality of the weapon is excellent. Aesthetically the Soaring Sky makes a single cohesive thematic statement.  Your eye is immediately drawn to the gold and green lacquer work in the shape of a Han cloud motif that graces the center of the scabbard. This surrounds a checked orange pattern that supports a belt loop decorated with a harvest grain pattern.  Both it, and the painted geometric pattern under it, are taken from various period artifacts. Sadly, the scabbard for the original blade that the Soaring Sky is modeled after did not survive.  The scabbard’s chape repeats these geometric themes, while the disk pommel once again shows a cloud motif that was very popular on Han jian. The overall symbolic effect is to suggest a field of grain waving in the wind.

All of the lacquer work was well executed, as was the cast brass sword fittings.  The pommel is highly detailed, and the handguard has been polished so that it has no sharp edges. The hilt itself is constructed from rhomboid wooden scales that are pinned in place (as is the pommel), coved in ray skin and wrapped in a simple white cord.  I used this sword for about 40 minutes a day for better part of two weeks and had no problem with the wrap. If anything, it seemed to become tighter and grippier as I began to break it in.  I suppose all wrapped grips will have to be replaced eventually, but I don’t anticipate any problems, even with heavy use.  I should also note that while I really like the black cord wrap on the Flying Phoenix, from a purely practical standpoint the white wrap on the Soaring Sky provides better purchase on the weapon.

As nice as the fittings are, the Soaring Sky’s blade is certainly its main attraction.  Mine was beautifully constructed and had no obvious flaws.  LK Chen once again used his signature mixture of 1065 and T8 tool steel.  Lightly etched the eight-sided profile of the blade allowed the Damascus to show a variety of fold and grain patterns. Both of the cutting edges were perfectly straight with no warps or twists.  The medial ridge on both sides of the blade is fairly low but straight. When examining the flats under a bright light, the first half of the blade is perfectly smooth and there is only enough of a wave in the top third (where the smith formed the taper towards the tip) to remind you that this is, indeed, a hand-made sword. The edge came sharp enough that I certainly don’t want to spend much time with my fingers anywhere near it, but your milage may vary.

A broken hilt from a Han dynasty jian which still has its original rhomboid scales and cord wrapping. The hilt of the Soaring Sky was modeled on this artifact. Source: LKChenswords.com

Most of my use of this sword involved training basic movements and taolu with some additional light cutting. During that time I came to really appreciate its versatility.  I found that it was agile enough to do pretty much any modern jian set, but at 20 cm the hilt was just long enough for some material from double handed forms as well. Even though the sword is light and very fast, some modern jian students may be put off by a point of balance that is 7 inches from the hilt.  And while that forward weight gives us the blade presence to do the sorts of serious cutting that a long sword should be able to handle, the hilt is a bit too short to be considered a dedicated two-handed weapon. Still, blade design is all about tradeoffs, and it is remarkable how close both the Flying Phoenix and the Soaring Sky come to so many sweet spots.

Given the similarities between these two swords, how might consumers choose between them? Both are remarkable weapons and I find their handling more similar than different.  Still, there are differences. Most obvious is the fact that the blade profile for the Flying Phoenix has been optimized for cutting, whereas the reinforced spine on the Soaring Sky prioritizes strength and a bit of stiffness. If you do a lot of cutting on typical targets (water bottles, bamboo, rolled mats or newspaper) the Flying Phoenix may have an edge. If you prefer a stiffer blade with a reinforced tip, the Soaring Sky might give you the experience you are looking for.

As someone who does more traditional martial arts training than cutting, here are a few other factors to consider. The first of the these is that the point of balance on my Soaring Sky makes it feel a bit heavier than my Flying Phoenix during taolu. Its hilt, while comfortable, is narrower. If you have large hands, you might find the Flying Phoenix to be a better fit. I also prefer the way the hilt on the Flying Phoenix swells to meet the pommel as this is a more comfortable arrangement when you do find yourself placing a second hand on the grip.

Nevertheless, the sheer toughness of the Soaring Sky should not be underestimated.  On my second day of testing this sword I accidentally planted its (slightly longer than expected) tip into my driveway. The sound of the strike was sickening, and it left a gash in the recently resealed asphalt. But after cleaning the debris from the blade I discover that the cutting edge of the tip was not only undamaged, but that it was still sharp.

Clearly this speaks to the quality of the heat treatment, but it was also instructive in another respect. While I could hear what was going on, I realized in retrospect that I never felt the expected vibration or kickback in the hilt as I attempted to cleave my driveway.  After doing a bit of experimentation I determined that the nodes of vibration on this particular sword are about 23 cm (9 inches) back from the tip and right beneath the guard, where one’s right hand would rest. To put it is slightly different terms, the Soaring Sky has a “sweet spot” for cutting about where you would expect it to be and a hilt that is not going to transmit the recoil of a blow up your arm.  While I am as big a fan of Peter Johnsson’s work as anyone else, I generally try not to delve into this sort of minutia in my reviews as I can just imagine my reader’s eyes glazing over. But in this case, I think that it is important to point out that not only does the Soaring Sky feel stiffer than other Han jian in LK Chen’s lineup, it has the mechanics in place to back up its promises.

No other quality could be more important when selecting a sword for the Youxia of old. The defining characteristic of their code of honor was that they delivered on their promises. As Liu reminds us, being a knight errant was more about one’s personal conduct than profession or membership in a specific class. Most of these individuals were not professional soldiers, and I suspect that modern readers might even see some of them as primarily diplomats rather than martial artists. Still, these were men who never shied away from direct action when the situation demanded it, and the Soaring Sky is equally capable of answering that call.

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If you enjoyed this you might also want to read: Political Extremism, Violence and Martial Arts

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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.

Conclusion

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.

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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)

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

Introduction

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.

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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!

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

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