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



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