Research Notes: Judo’s Triple Transformation in The China Press (1932)

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“London Sees Thrills Of Japanese Sport.” A self-defense demonstration by a female martial artist, choreographed to as to be humorous for the audience. Vintage Newsreel. 1932.


Doing the Homework

Students of Martial Arts Studies are the fortunate few.  As research areas go, ours is pretty interesting. Yet as I review the literature (even recent publications from big name academic presses), it is clear that many of us are not making the most of our good fortune.  There seems to be a tendency to approach the literature in narrow slices and not to look for the sorts of insights that are frequently turned up in broader, more comparative, explorations.  The pie can be sliced in a variety of ways. Students of Japanese martial studies rarely deal with concepts and theories laid out in works on the Chinese styles. The literatures on combat sports and traditional arts often seem to run on parallel tracks.  And there is always room for a more substantive engagement between the theoretical and historical wings of the literature.

So here is my pre-Thanksgiving public service announcement: When offered pie, always eat more than one slice. Bringing multiple lens to an investigation leads to more insightful conclusions.  Beyond that, it makes the process of doing research richer and more intellectually fulfilling.

Still, we all have blind spots. As I was reviewing folders of research materials, it occurred to me that I may have created the mistaken impression that the English language treaty port newspapers in cities like Shanghai or Beijing only discussed Chinese fighting systems.  Over the last few years we have examined dozens of articles in which Chinese hand combat systems were presented to a global audience during the 1920s and 1930s. Doing so is helpful as it problematizes the often-heard trope that the Chinese martial arts were unknown to Westerners prior to the 1960s, or that everything about these arts has been shrouded in impenetrable secrecy. In fact, both KMT officers and private instructors worked (with mixed success) to publicize China’s reformed and modernized physical culture as a way of demonstrating to the world the reformed and modernized nature of the Chinese state.

Focusing on these conversations has been valuable.  Yet it must be remembered that all of this was only one aspect of a much larger exploration of the martial arts and combat sports which one could find in these same newspapers. While it is easy to focus only on the guoshu or taijiquan articles, in truth these pieces need to be read in conjunction with the frequent discussions of the Japanese martial arts, accounts of vaudeville style strongmen acts, and articles on western style boxing events which also appeared in the same pages.  It is all too easy to inadvertently create a siloed vision of cultural history in which boxing, kung fu and judo all existed in their own isolated spheres.  In truth they all competed for exposure within the pages of China’s treaty port press.

In an effort to correct this bias I would like to introduce one of the more interesting Republic era articles on the Japanese martial arts that I have come across. Judo is frequently mentioned in these pieces.  We can even find several glowing accounts of judo exhibitions in Shanghai in this era. Likewise, Chinese martial arts reformers often turned to judo as a symbolic foil for their rivalry with Japan. The following article, on the other hand, is interesting as the Japanese origins of judo have been almost totally erased.  Indeed, the Western appropriation of judo as a means of self-defense is so complete that the Japanese are barely mentioned, while cities like New York and Paris are looked to as centers of martial excellence.

Nor is this the only transformation which readers will detect.  While Kano Jigoro opened his practice to women fairly early, the vast majority of Japanese judo students in the 1930s were men.  Indeed, these were men often bound for service in the Japanese military. They had well developed ideas about cultivating a certain sort of masculinity which would be placed in the service of the state.  In contrast, the current article goes to great lengths to present judo as an exclusively female practice. More specifically, it was framed as a tool of urban self-defense and a bulwark against a new “masher” panic. The dojo as a training space, white uniforms, colored belts and other aspects of Kano’s now globally famous practice are totally missing from this discussion. Instead we find a slightly updated take on the pre-war American usage of “jiu-jitsu” to basically signify “dirty fighting.”

All of this is even more interesting as one suspects that these were not errors emerging from ignorance. By the early 1930s judo was a well-established practice in the West.  It had been featured in newsreels, books and extensively debated in the sporting press. Just to give us the proper perspective, the current article “introducing” judo was written more than 30 years after Theodore Roosevelt had famously promoted the same practice from his residence in the White House. Well educated Chinese and Western readers living in Shanghai (The China Press’core audience) had ample opportunities to see Japanese demonstration teams as they visited the city on a regular basis. Indeed, the Japanese invasions of Manchuria (1931) and Shanghai (1932) had sparked renewed public debate as to the role of physical education in a state’s battlefield success.

I suspect that this article never dropped Kano’s name, or mentioned black belts, as there was simply no need. All of that was already part of the public consciousness during the 1930s.  It instead focused on the topic of women’s self-defense as that was both timely (note the repeated references to Vivian Gordon’s murder in New York City), and front-page images of petite women throwing men around like rag dolls was sure to sell papers.

It is important to take note of a few other topics that are missing from this article as well.  To begin with, The China Presswas a pro-KMT newspaper with a liberal editorial line.  It ran more (glowing) stories about the guoshu, and China’s martial practices more generally, than any other Republican era paper that I have studied.  Its editors never missed an opportunity to note that China was the true home of jiu jitsu, or to publicize the latest Jingwu demonstration.  It is thus remarkable that there is no mention of the Chinese martial arts anywhere in this piece.

While the photographs and writing style suggests that this may have originally been a newswire article intended for an American audience, I doubt that this is the entire story.  Given the levels of outrage directed at the Japanese in 1931 and 1932, it probably would have been impossible to run an article that lauded any practice with Japanese roots in such a “patriotic” paper. Yet by completely erasing Japanese culture and martial values from the discussion of judo, effectively transforming the art into a primarily female, and Western practice, the editors may have gotten the best of all possible worlds.  On the one hand they could run a sensational front-page article that would sell lots of papers.  At the same time, they could appropriate an important marker of Japanese masculinity and militarism, presenting it as a cosmopolitan and almost exclusively feminine practice. One can only guess how thrilled the Japanese military officers and government staff in Shanghai were to see this treatment of their national art.

Still, this was by no means a negative portrayal of the art.  One of the things that struck me as I read this piece was the extensive “how to” section at the end.  Such discussions are so common in Western martial arts conversations that they are easy to dismiss. Yet they were quite rare in the pages of China’s English language treaty port press.

While these papers ran hundreds of articles on the Chinese martial arts, I don’t think I have once seen them undertake a detailed discussion about a specific Chinese technique. Instead demonstrations or systems were discussed in general terms for the edification of the reader, but not their education. While there was some training of foreign students in martial arts classes in China in the 1930s, buy in large this didn’t seem to be something that many people (either Western or Chinese) were interested in. Yet this article clearly suggests that judo is something Western women can (and should) learn.  That seems to be a frank admission that while Chu Minyi and other reformers had hoped to make the Chinese martial arts a modern and cosmopolitan practice, it was Japan that had actually succeeded. Nevertheless, we as readers are left to ask if the following vision of judo remains in any way Japanese?



Here’s “Judo”, the Newest Art of Self-Defense Against Mashers

The China Press, Feb, 3 1932. Page A1


Curious Details of the Smashing Surpise Receptions American and English Girls are Planning for “Catch-as-Catch-Can” Masculine Admirers.


“Wreck the necker!”

This warlike cry has gone up on both sides of the Atlantic since judo, an improved version of Jiu Jitsu, was perfected recently. Jiu Jitsu has always been primarily a man’s sport but judo is for women only. It enables the frailest flower of femininity to throw and knock out a burly assailant with ease and dispatch.

Women’s judo clubs are being formed in New York and other American cities.  In England enthusiastic feminine exponents of the method of self-defense against the Mashers have formed a team that is touring France, Germany and other European countries, giving exhibitions of this tricky and fascinating new art of self-defense.

Slight pressure of the fingers applied at the right moment, combined with sudden twists of the body by a judo expert, often results in broken limbs for the assailant.  There is no question that if judo’s popularity continues to increase at its present rate the obnoxious masher species may soon entirely disappear. Certainly nothing yet devised discourages the male flirt so quickly as a dislocated arm, or a broken head followed by several months in a jail or hospital.

Any close student of the subject will tell you how easily not only serious injury, but death, may come to the unwary roughneck who chooses to inflict his unwanted attentions upon a girl schooled in the far from gentle craft of judo.  A single lightening quick arm thrust from a girl who “knows her stuff” is sufficient in most cases to discourage any masher.  The young lady trained in Judo tactics may be outweighed by a hundred pounds and look as defenseless as a fawn but when she goes into action Mt. Necker had better run.

A famous Japanese wrestling champion once said that homicide committed by jiu jitsu provides “a lovely death, no pains from bullets, knives or violence, You just fade out in a pleasant dream—and don’t know that perhaps you will never wake again.”  The newly-perfected science of judo is equally effective in producing lethal effects although the physical instructors who teach it are careful to exclude the death dealing holds from their curriculum.

Unlike most forms of combat, judo’s effectiveness depends ironically enough on the strength and intensity of attack of one’s opponent.  The more powerful he is and or furiously he falls upon his intended victim, the more serious his injuries are going to be.

Certainly no more astonishing surprise could be imagined. Instead of screaming and shrieking the young woman who knows judo outdoes the masher at his own game.  With a minimum of effort, she can throw the strongest “he-man,” laugh at his efforts to embrace her and continue on her way, unmolested and at her leisure.

The underlying principal of this science is balance.  In judo it is vastly more important to control perfectly one’s posture than to have building muscles and enormous energy.  Japanese physical culturalists tell us that a “man without balance has no strength.”  This is particularly true in jiu jitsu and judo.  The very first thing the beginner learns is to change an opponent’s posture while maintaining her own. This is done by maneuvering him to his heels and toes, which enables one to throw him with little exertion.

As a typical example of the judo science, let us take a girl weighing about 110 pounds and say a husky 190 pound man has seized her throat in both hands. Now the ordinary young woman, unschooled in judo, would naturally concentrate her efforts on attempts to tear his hands from her throat.  The judo adept, however, would waste no time and strength on such a futile task.

Her technique, though simple, would be amazingly effective. Her first move would be to take a short step backwards with her left foot.  This will bring the attacker’s balance to his toes, naturally weakening his equilibrium.

Next, she would quickly swing her right arm sharply across his left arm, pivoting her right toe and bringing her right shoulder forward.  Her arm would pass close to her face until her right shoulder touches her chin.  In that position she would exert irresistible leverage on the man’s wrist with her shoulder.  This will break any grip, no matter how powerful, with the result that her assailant must fall slightly forward with face unguarded, leaving him a ready target for an elbow jolt to the face or a paralyzing cut on the back of the head.

If Vivian Gordon, the New York girl who was strangled to death in a taxi cab some time ago, had known such elementary judo moves she might have outwitted her slayer and escaped a gruesome fate.

The larger picture in the upper right half of the page shows a young woman swinging a husky male over her hip.  The uninformed may well ask how this slight girl could carry a powerful man off his feet and throw him to the ground.

The answer is judo and a perfect sense of timing and balance.  You will notice that the girl in the photograph is bending forward.  The man had come up behind her and seized her by the throat.  But she shot her head and shoulders sharply forward, throwing his weight on his toes and off balance.  Seizing his shoulders, she adroitly rolled him over her hips.  The picture was snapped just as she was about to throw him to the ground.

Perhaps you have seen one acrobat on the stage holding three or four partners on his shoulders.  Ordinary men cannot do this, of course, because they have not studied the science of balance and timing.  The acrobat has learned to distribute the weight of his companions evenly, to assume a posture that enables him to lift and hold an enormous number of pounds and to time his efforts so that his powers are never overtaxed. Strength is vital, but alone it is not enough.  Until he has mastered these twin sciences his efforts at great weight-lifting will fail.

The same holds true of the judo students.  The two photographs in the half center of this page demonstrate the ease with which a judo expert can disarm and knock down a stick-wielding assailant.  In one picture you see her catching his arm just above the elbow.  Her judo instructors have taught her that holding an arm above the shoulder greatly weakens the arm’s powers of resistance.  Placing her knee behind his right leg she pushes his arm backwards until he is off balance.  With this accomplished, she finds sending him backwards over her extended knee is child’s play.

Another photo on this page illustrates another effective judo maneuver that can be used when the assailant comes up behind his intended victim and seizes her by the throat.  Instead of trying to wriggle from his strong grip, the girl merely grasps his elbows and bends quickly forward, catapulting him over her head and shoulders.  This is called the shoulder throw.

Brutal attackers often use the chancery hold, which consists of encircling the victim’s neck with one arm and battering her face with the other fist.  Judo teaches girls how to break easily this painful hold.  If the assailant has gripped her neck in his left arm and strikes her face with his right fist, she reaches quickly up his back and over his right shoulder with her right hand and places the inner edge of her finger under his nose, where there is an extraordinarily sensitive nerve center.  Pressing on this diagonally towards the back of the head will quickly cause the fellow to release his grip.

The next move is to extend the pressure backwards and downwards.  If at the same time the girl grips him under the knee, raising him upward and forward, the gentleman will soon be spilled upon the ground with much violence.

The photograph depicting the young woman jamming the heel of her hand against the man’s chin demonstrates the perfect counter offensive against the mashers who sieze women about the waist.  You can be sure when the roughneck caress is returned in this manner the likelihood of a repetition of the Casanova tactics is very small.

Possibly the most spectacular of the group of extraordinary photographs is the one which portrays the young woman lying on the ground and kicking her surprised assailant in the stomach.  In this case the girl has fallen backwards to the ground, pulling the man into a flying fall.  As she fell, she drew up her foot and, on reaching the ground, she sent him sprawling over her head with a powerful and well-directed kick to his abdomen.

This startling defense should only be employed by experts who have been adequately instructed in the science of relaxing. Like football coaches, the teachers of this new art and fascinating study teach their students to go limp when falling.  A limp body does not strike the ground with half the violence that a stiff one does.

When Benny Leonard was the world’s Lightweight Boxing Champion he often attributed much of his extraordinary punching powers to his knowledge of anatomy.  He exactly knew what spot to hit and consequently opponents crumpled up before what seemed likely fairly light punches.  A knowledge of anatomy is even more necessary to girl judo experts than it is to boxers.

The new judo vogue began by a woman who saw in it a chance to reduce the ever-growing number of fatalities and injuries suffered by girls attacked in lonely sections of towns and cities.  Certainly it equips young women with an excellent defense against the cave-man tactics of roughneck admirers.



If you enjoyed this article you might also want to read: Addiction, Wellness and Martial Arts


Performance Ethnography and the Martial Arts Studies Reader

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As the indomitable Professor Farnsworth would say, good news everyone! The long anticipated Martial Arts Studies Reader (Rowman & Littlefield, 2018) is now shipping.  Weighing in at 244 pages, and featuring articles by over a dozen of the most respected names in the field, this volume is sure to be referenced for years to come. Its timely chapters can easily be integrated into a wide variety of course reading lists. And if you look closely, you may even find my latest paper on the lightsaber combat community. This book will be of interest to both scholars and practitioners seeking to understand the evolution and social meaning of the modern martial arts.  Featuring articles by Peter Lorge, Douglas Wile, Meaghan Morris and D. S. Farrer, it is sure to find a place on all of our holiday gift lists.


Speaking of which, D. S. Farrer has been kind enough to post the text of his chapter on performance ethnography. His paper opens a window onto the sorts of content that one will find in the Martial Arts Studies Reader. It also provides students with a great discussion of one of the most important research methodologies being employed in the field today.  Take a look at the volume’s table of contents, read Farrer’s chapter, and order your copy today!


Table of Contents
Introduction: “What, Where and Why is Martial Arts Studies?” Paul Bowman
2. “Early Chinese Works on Martial Arts” Peter Lorge
3. “The Battlefield and the Bedroom: Chinese Martial Arts and Art of the Bedchamber” Douglas Wile
4. “Martial Arts by the Book: Historical European Martial Arts” Daniel Jaquet
5. “The Phone Book Project: Tracing the Diffusion of Asian Martial Arts in America Through the Yellow Pages” Michael Molasky
6. “Martial Arts, Media, and (Material) Religion” Esther Berg-Chan
7. “Liminoid Longings and Liminal Belonging: Hyper-reality, History and the Search for Meaning in the Modern Martial Arts” Benjamin N. Judkins
8. “‘He’s an Animal’: Naturalizing the Hyperreal in Modern Combat Sport” Janet O’Shea
9. “Martial Arts as a Coping Strategy for Violence” Sixt Wetzler
10. “Performance Ethnography” D. S. Farrer
11. “Martial Arts Studies and the Sociology of Gender: Theory, Research and Pedagogical Application” Alex Channon
12. “Masculinities, Bodies, and Martial Arts” Dale C. Spencer
13. “Martial Arts as Embodied, Discursive, and Aesthetic Practice” Tim Trausch
14. “Carnival of the Drunken Master: The Politics of the Kung Fu Comedic Body” Luke White
15. “Learning from Martial Arts”  Meaghan Morris and Paul Bowman


Chapter 10: Performance Ethnography
DS Farrer
The human mind is apt to perceive many things, and more so according as its body can be disposed in more ways. —Spinoza, Ethics IIP14 (1977: 52)


Performance ethnography, where the researcher sets out to learn a martial art, or other skill, is a somatic extension of participant observation where the body may become both subject and object of research.  This chapter traverses essential features of ‘how to do’ performance ethnography in martial arts research, thereby introducing a methodological toolkit to a new generation of ‘fighting scholars’ (García and Spencer 2013). Perfor-mance ethnography itself, however, is an open quarry for further research. Hence, in addition to a discussion of practical, methodological concerns, this chapter aims towards a fresh theoretical understanding of performance ethnography in terms of ‘immanence’ and ‘emergence’, where the method facilitates creative outcomes, knowledge or theory to surface from within a community of martial artists, dancers or other skilled practitioners (Deleuze 1988, 76).




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