Wang Ziping and the Early Days of Wushu: Two Important Films

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Wang Ziping (1881-1973) was an iconic figure within the world of the Republican martial arts.  Having gained fame through his many feats of strength and public fights, the Muslim martial artist from Heibi province went on to hold important positions in the Central Guoshu Institute.  Indeed, he was one of the few Chinese martial artists ever discussed by name in the New York Times prior to the Kung Fu Craze of the 1970s.  Readers may recall that I recently wrote a brief biographical sketch of this important figure which you can review here.

Every essay must have a focus, and that piece was most concerned with the early years of Wang’s life and his contributions to the Guoshu movement.  Unfortunately, I could only touch on his remarkable “second act.”  While many important teachers fled to Taiwan, Hong Kong or South East Asia in 1949, Wang stayed in mainland China and went on to have a distinguished career both as a traditional Chinese medical practitioner and as an elder stateman of the martial arts. The Communist government would tap Wang for several important appointments and honors, all of which served to call him back into service as a supporter of the newly emerging Wushu program.

I hope to explore this later phase of Wang’s career in some of my future writings. Yet I think all would agree that the greatest honor came in 1960 when Zhou Enlai requested his presence on a state visit to Myanmar.  Here he was once again called upon to demonstrate, and to be the public face of, the Chinese martial arts.

Multiple histories have already noted the significance of this trip.  Less appreciated is the fact that in the years immediately following this expedition Wang was also used to educated English speaking Western audiences about the importance of the Chinese martial arts and their connection to the “New China.” In many respects, Wang’s role as “Kung Fu diplomat” was just getting started in 1949.  His name would appear in publications such as China Reconstructs, one of the few official English language propaganda channels that the PRC sponsored during the period.

Still, I must admit that I have always had questions. When Wang was tapped to go to Myanmar he would have been close to 80 years old.  After a lifetime of fights and punishing strength training (we often forget that in his youth Wang was also famous as a wrestler and professional strongman), what sort of demonstration would he have been able to offer?  Did he undertake this trip primarily as a martial artist, or more as an elder statesman of what Western scholars refer to as “cultural diplomacy”? Short of finding some detailed film footage from the era, I assumed that this would be an impossible question to really answer. Many issues in the field of martial arts history will, by their very nature, remain a mystery.



Two Views of Wang Ziping

One can only imagine my surprise when I came across not one, but two, pieces of footage, both shot in 1963, that provided a pretty definitive answer to my question.  Not only was Wang still active at the age of 80, he moved fantastically. Better yet, these films compliment the few other clips I had been able to locate on YouTube. Yet they did not come without some questions of their own.

Interested readers can link to these films here and here. Both clips are just under two minutes and offer a clear, well directed, vision of the period’s developing Wushu culture, complete with English language narration.  Ironically, I came across both of these clips on the Getty Image database earlier in the Spring of 2018 when I was looking for newsreel footage of Chinese soldiers with dadao’s during the 1930s.  I realized that both films were quite exciting, but it took a while for my own writing and research to catch up with them.

Sadly, Getty does not provide their properties with the types of citations that are generally required in academic publications, but we do have some information. Their labels make it clear that both clips came from some sort of English language “cultural survey” that the Chinese government completed in 1963.  The actual title of this project, and how it was distributed to the West, are all left to the imaginations of the reader.

I have yet to resolve these questions and would appreciate any input that readers of this blog might have.  Yet as I further explored the archive it became clear that there were many other clips from the same project.  Some of these dealt with other traditional Chinese arts (such as the construction of miniature wood carvings).  But the majority of them reflected the dominant discourses seen in other period propaganda pieces. China was shown as a technologically advanced, wealthy, nation that had already achieved a high degree of industrialization. Indeed, it was getting ready to challenge the West on its own terms.  In one clip Chinese scientists were shown researching new petroleum products.  In another Chinese surgeons successfully reattached a hand that had been severed in an industrial accident.

All of this should help us to properly frame and understand these clips. The view of China which this “cultural survey” set out to construct was overwhelming that of an advanced and industrialized nation. While clearly noting that the Wushu was an aspect of China’s traditional physical culture (or more specifically, a type “traditional calisthenics”), one got the sense that all of this was meant to underline the fundamental modernity that ran throughout the rest of the project. Foreign audiences were not meant to see in these scenes a romantic view of an unchanging China.  Given the film’s avowedly Marxist viewpoint, its fundamental argument was that China had changed, and so had its martial arts.



These large themes can be seen in both clips. But beyond that, each clip seems to accomplish different goals for its Western audience. The first of these runs for 1:51 seconds.  It opens with an establishing shot of senior citizens preforming Taijiquan in the park. Indeed, the age of the practitioners seems to be an organizing principal of this brief film.  Having hailed the audience with what was already a fairly common trope, the camera then cuts to a shot of Wang Ziping leading a large group of children through a similar type of exercise.  This scene seemed to have its own message.  While “New China” was moving on, the younger generation would not forget their fundamental identity.

Questions of identity come up repeatedly in the narration of this brief clip.  The next shot shows an enthusiastic young boy demonstrating a dynamic dao routine.  The narrator informs the English speaking audience that Wushu was an art with uniquely “Chinese characteristics.” These could be found in its penchant for combining opposed sorts of movement.

As if to illustrate that point the camera then cut to Wang, who was demonstrating a sword set using a long, two handed jian. This is perhaps the best sequence in the film as it clearly establishes the virtuosity of his techniques.  Yet rather than naming the master, the narrator simply informs the audience that such practices are “popular among the broad masses of the working people.”




Even when dealing with foreign audiences, China’s new government sought to define and justify the martial arts at least partially through a class-based narrative.  Yes, this was “traditional” physical culture but, more importantly, it was property of the masses.  Wang’s anonymous performance stood in technical contrast to what was about to come next. It seemed to exemplify the neo-historicism of certain aspects of the Republican period (such as a fascination with the archaic two handed jian) which was in contrast to the streamlined and socially conscious Wushu to come.

Having introduced both the very old, and the very young, the film then cut to the athletic performance of young adults in their prime.  First an individual (who bears at least some resemblance to Wang’s son), dressed in a white silk performance costume, performed a more vigorous Jian set.  The performance was spectacular and kinetic. After that we are introduced to the more acrobatic aspect of Wushu when an unarmed fighter is forced to “defend” himself from a dao wielding opponent. The visual tension was further escalated with a spear vs. double dagger performance. Both exciting and theatrical, such sets had been the mainstay of public demonstrations in the 1920s and 1930s. Finally, the clip ends with a female performing a solo set with the Emei piercers. She was dressed in the same silk uniform as the other university age performers who had come before.

None of the individuals in this clip were named. Rather, everyone was presented as a general cultural type: the group of old people doing Taijiquan in the park, the enthusiastic young students, and (most importantly) the mysterious teacher.  Yet all of them were shown as contributing to the explosion of kinetic vigor seen in the final Wushu demonstrations.  The narration of this film sought, in simple terms, to define this new Wushu for Western audience.  Yet the director’s arrangement of visual images presented an equally compelling argument as to how a resurgent China was reframing and transforming its traditional cultural heritage.



The second film seeks to tell a very different story. Rather than defining Wushu, it uses traditional martial arts practice to explore the lives of a “typical Chinese family” living in a luxuriously furnished apartment in Shanghai.  Of course, the patriarch of this multi-generational family is Wang Ziping.

If anything, the second clip is even more dramatic.  It begins with a shot of Shanghai in the evening, focusing on the street lights and scenes of vehicles driving by the water. We then see the glowing windows of Wang’s residence as though we were visitors walking up the sidewalk.

As the camera moves inside, a family comes into focus. Whereas all of the figures in the previous clip were anonymous representation of the nation, we are now guests in a home. Introductions are in order.  These begin with Wang himself, who is shown working on a piece of calligraphy. The audience is informed that Wang is a doctor of traditional Chinese medicine, and the camera cuts to a quick shot of his clinic where he can be seen manipulating a patient’s arm.

Next, we meet Wang’s son.  While his father wears traditional clothing, the son, like everyone else, is smartly dressed in western attire.  He plays some type of shuffle board game with a number of other family members.  We learn that he too is a physician.

After that we are introduced to Wang’s daughter and her husband, both of whom are professors.  The camera then pans from a shot of the two speaking with their children, to a framed photograph on the wall in which Mrs. Wang is putting a group of identically dressed Wushu students through their paces.  This would seem to answer any question as to what subject she taught.

Once we have established for the Western audience that this is indeed a “typical” Chinese family, we are then told that the Wang’s do have one unique characteristic.  Despite their many professional commitments, they all gather during their free time to practice various types of Wushu in the park.  A set of traditional weapons are shown leaning against a park bench and one by one a set of hands appears to claim them.  A long continuous shot then weaves through the family group showing everyone involved in their own solo practice.

Finally, the viewers gaze is allowed to settle on Wang. He has again resumed his role as teacher and cultural guardian.  We can see his face as he happily instructs one of his grandchildren. The segment ends as the camera pulls back to reveal a family united by practice.





There are many remarkable things about this second film. Perhaps the most basic might be that Communist (and even Republican) authorities tended to treat family/lineage-based practices with a fair degree of suspicion. These were seen as being based on pre-modern modes of social arrangements, and individuals ended up investing their loyalty in the group rather than the party or the nation.

The advent of the Cultural Revolution in 1965 would see a forceful reemergence of these claims, and the subsequent suppression of much traditional martial arts practice.  This film shows a very different vision of family practice, one in which there are no doubts as to anyone’s loyalties, or their equal value to the group. Indeed, Wushu has been adopted as a means to tell Western viewers something important about the modern Chinese family.  Under the guiding hand of the CCP, practices that might have been harmful to individuals or the nation have been rectified and made socially useful. If this is true for the martial arts, we can also rest assured that it is true for gender and family relations.

Nor was the first clip actually content to simply define Wushu.  If the second film sought to use a visual portrayal of these practices to explain the family, it appears that the first’s real subject is the Chinese nation.  The intergenerational portrayal of the Wushu was not a coincidence.  Indeed, it can be read as an argument about transmission.  What exactly does the narrator mean when he notes that Wushu possesses “Chinese characteristics?”  The virtuosity of the anonymous teacher, and the explosive potential of his adult students, suggest that the stabilization of these traits was not a random or automatic process.  Rather it was one of refinement and discernment, the creation of something essential by those who worked under the authority of a benevolent state.

These clips are remarkable not just because of the technical prowess that Wang and his family display.  They also indicate that even prior to the advent of the Cultural Revolution the Chinese government was seriously investigating the use of the martial arts as a soft power resource.  More specifically, in these clips they sought to use visual representations of Wushu to convey basic principles about the nature of the new Chinese state and the reformed (yet still reassuring traditional) family.  Wang himself can be seen not just as a leading figure within the traditional Chinese martial arts community, but as a pioneer of the basic Kung Fu Diplomacy strategy which would come to define much of the global view of these practices in the current era.




If you enjoyed this discussion you might also want to read: Lives of Chinese Martial Artists (22): Wang Ziping and the Strength of the Nation





Swords, Visuality and the Construction of China

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


Deciphering an Icon

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

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

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


The Eternal Swordsman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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



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

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

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



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



Through a Lens Darkly (56): New York City’s Kung Fu and the Roaring 1920s

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While I have a few connections in New York City’s TCMA community, it has always been my experience that one turns up different sorts of insights by getting out and exploring the terrain on one’s own.  It was with that notion in mind that my wife and I set out to reconnoiter the older Manhattan Chinatown, which now seems almost quaint when compared in scale to its larger and more vibrant neighbor in Queens. The weather was great, and we got some memorable photos of tourists from China stopping to take photos of Chinese-American businesses and families.  The gods of globalization move in mysterious ways.

The afternoon was not a total bust.  We briefly made contact with two people working on Xingyi in a local park, though it was abundantly clear that no manner of martial art was going to distract the local residents from the many card games that dominated the district.  After purchasing a book (by my friend Mark Wiley) from a local martial arts business, we were able to learn a little more about the neighborhood’s martial arts scene.  Things sounded quiet, but we found out about two other instructors (Taijiquan and Wing Chun) who occasionally taught in the same park.

Still, there was very little evidence of the vibrant martial arts scene that had been so prominent during the late 1970s and 1980s. While the gentrification that has reshaped so much of the island was less evident south of Canal Street, Chinatown evolves and changes, like everything else.  It seems that the warehouse schools which I read about in memoirs and doctoral dissertations have suffered the same fate as many of the more colorful elements of New York life.

In search of some historical perspective my wife and I next visited a local non-profit dedicated to preserving as much of Chinatown’s local and oral history as possible. The young employees (all in their 20s) thought that our subject sounded fascinating. Yet as they searched their databases and various key-word indexes they didn’t hold out much hope of finding anything useful. While they approached their job with infectious enthusiasm, they freely admitted that most of the neighborhood’s older residents didn’t share their zeal for preserving the past.

In fact, convincing older Chinese-Americans to sit down for oral history interviews was proving to be every bit as difficult as one might suspect.  While there was some interesting history available on various musical and opera societies, once the tape recorders were turned on no one seemed willing to admit to knowing anything about martial arts instruction or Lion Dancing. In fact, the young researchers who staffed the office were hopeful that as a “total outsider” I would have better luck than them when it came to interviewing individuals and ferreting out this chapter of the historical record.

The situation was even bleaker when looking for resources that might discuss martial arts training in the pre-war period.  Outside of a few stories and names, not much of substance seems to have survived. Giving me a mournful look, my ever-earnest historical guide explained that with so few surviving sources much of the texture of the community had been irrevocably lost. So ended my hopes of unearthing a rich trove of New York’s early Chinese martial arts history.

Or so I thought. Research is a funny thing.  All of our sources are oddly specific, and even the most comprehensive database catches only a fraction of what is already sitting in some archive or library. While conducting a search for Chinese newsreel footage of martial arts practice during the Guoshu decade (1928-1938), I stumbled across something much more valuable. I found perhaps the best preserved and oldest footage of North American Southern Kung Fu practice that I had yet seen.  Even better, it was shot on the same New York City streets that my wife and I had recently explored.



The Footage

Anyone interested in viewing this film can do so by clicking this link. This priceless visual record has been preserved on a reel of out-takes and raw newsreel footage that is held by the Historic Film archive.  The entire reel is quite important as it helps to contextualize how images of the Chinese martial arts were classified and framed at the time of their production and cataloging.  All of the clips on the reel were produced during the 1920s and most of them focus on scenes of entertainment. The period’s jazz tradition is well represented, and scenes of Chinese-American life find themselves juxtaposed with visual records of the African-American community.  It should be noted that there are multiple recordings of Chinese New Year Festivals on the reel, suggesting a persistent interest in the subject.

At minute 19:42 viewers will encounter footage of a New Year celebration which happened on January 10th, 1929. In addition to the more common scenes of enthusiastic crowds, fireworks and Lion Dancing, two minutes of footage was also shot of the sorts of martial arts exhibitions that accompanied these festivals. While such exhibitions are occasionally noted in period newspaper reports, this is the most complete visual record of such a performance (in North America), that I have yet encountered.

This material rewards a close examination. None of this footage has been narrated, nor are there scene cards. As such I suspect that most of this material was probably treated as “out takes.” Still, it’s a rich source.  While we might lament that we only have two minutes of material, by the standards of a 1920s newsreel, two minutes is an eternity.

This footage is composed of a series of much briefer clips (most ranging in length from 10 to 30 seconds) which focus on the performance of individual martial artists, all performing on a single day in what appears to be the same crowded outdoor venue.  In total 11 sequences are shown, each focusing on some sort of forms performance. Both unarmed and weapons sets are represented in the sample, as well as a few two-person weapons sets. (For the sake of clarity this post is discussing only the martial arts demonstration, and not the excellent Lion Dance footage found on the same newsreel which probably deserves specialized treatment of its own).

If we assume that most of these sets could be introduced, set up and performed in about two minutes, it seems that the original demonstration was at least 22 minutes long. Even more remarkable is that very few individuals (maybe one or two) made any repeat performances in this show. Thus it took at least a dozen martial artists to stage this demonstration.

Most of the individuals in the show were wearing regalia suggesting that they had just come from (or were headed to) Lion Dancing.  The standard uniform appears to have been a white shirt, black bowtie and Kung Fu pants, but a number of individuals can also be seen to wear the typical street clothing of the period. All of the performers in this film are male (though I have seen newsreel footage of female martial artists in NYC in the 1930s).  Some are dressed as common laborers, while other have the air of shopkeepers or clerks.



A detailed breakdown of the film is as follows:

19:49-19:53     Unarmed Solo Set 1 (conclusion)

19:54-20:05     Unarmed Solo Set 2 (opening)

20:06-20:29     Unarmed Solo Set 3 (opening)

20:30-20:36     Solo Weapon, Eyebrow Staff

20:37-20:40     Solo Weapon, Southern Style Long Pole

20:41-21:08     Solo Weapon, Pudao

21:08-21:22     Solo Weapon, Hudiedao (Butterfly Swords)

21:23-21:32     Two Man, Long Poles

21:33-21:52     Solo Weapon, Rattan Shield and short saber

21:53-21:55     Two Man, Spear vs. Shield and Sword

21:56-22:00     Two Man, Spear vs. Shield and Sword





So what sort of demonstration are we looking at? To begin with, one of remarkable sophistication.  The conventional narratives suggest that modern Chinese martial arts schools, as we know them today, did not begin to appear in Chinatowns in cities like New York, San Francisco and Toronto until the 1950s.  Prior to that it is not the case that the martial arts were never taught. Rather, their instruction tended to be sponsored by the various fraternal societies, theater groups and criminal organizations that dominated much of these neighborhoods’ associational life. Indeed, as Charlie Russo has demonstrated in his book on the Bay Area martial arts community, the first generation of public instructors often opened their school after having first established a reputation in community these group. For their part, the various Tongs are generally thought to have been more interested in training “street soldiers” capable of collecting gambling debts, acting as bouncers in a variety of establishments and dealing with belligerent tourists.

Still, the existence of this film problematizes any attempt to bifurcate early 20th century Chinese-American martial arts into a “practical” pre-war phase and a post-war era that might be more recognizable.  While it seems unlikely that any of the individuals received their instruction in public commercial martial arts schools in New York City during the 1920s (to the best of our knowledge there simply weren’t any), it is now clear that there were a large number of individuals who were regularly gathering to train in the traditional martial arts.  Further, staging a Lion Dance and demonstration with as many individuals as we see on this film suggests a fair degree of organizational sophistication.  While they may not have been organized as a public school, it would appear that their institutional Kung Fu must have been pretty good.

What about their physical practice?  All of this film was shot from a single elevated camera angle, so the various martial artists move in and out of the frame.  This combined with the repetitive nature of many Southern sets, and the short duration of most of the clips, makes it very difficult to positively identify the various forms being displayed. After sharing this film with Hung Gar instructors on various continents, and a couple of Choy Li Fut students, we were not able to identify any of the sets with 100% certainty.  Most of the unarmed and weapons work bears a resemblance to pre-Wong Fei Hung style Hung Gar. Alternatively, the one set in which we see the rattan shield and sword combined with tumbling is highly suggestive of some sets that are still practiced in Choy Li Fut.

Identifying these sets has proved to be somewhat frustrating. The film suggests that the general movement culture (or possibly “habitus”) of the Southern Chinese folk arts have remained remarkably consistent over the last century. It was genuinely interesting to see how the seventh performer moved with the hudiedao. Figuring out just what these guys were doing might be an important clue in reconstructing the early TCMA community as it existed in New York city during the 1920s. If anyone has any insights into the identities of these sets (or better yet, the martial artists) please leave a comment below.



If you enjoyed this essay you might also want to read: Lion Dancing, Youth Violence and the Need for Theory in Chinese Martial Studies



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