An Unexpected Invitation A friend recently extended an invitation that I couldn’t refuse. A couple of weeks ago Chad Eisner (who some of you may remember from my various lightsaber projects) got in touch and let me know that… Continue Reading →
Lightsabers Go Legit What follows is a meditation on recent events. It is not every day that you sit down, open your phone, and find Trevor Noah performing a Daily Show bit about people you know. It is… Continue Reading →
Chinese Martial Arts in the News: January 20th 2019: Jingwu, Chinese Armor and Liberating the Nunchuck
Its been over a month since our last news update, which means that there is no better time to get caught up on recent events! For new readers, this is a semi-regular feature here at Kung Fu Tea in which we review media stories that mention or affect the traditional fighting arts. In addition to discussing important events, this column also considers how the Asian hand combat systems are portrayed in the mainstream media.
While we try to summarize the major stories over the last month, there is always a chance that we may have missed something. If you are aware of an important news event relating to the TCMA, drop a link in the comments section below. If you know of a developing story that should be covered in the future feel free to send me an email.
Its been way too long since our last update so let’s get to the news!
News From All Over
True story. While hanging out with with the guys at my university martial arts club in Japan, it was a constant point of fascination that while I was allowed to own all manner of firearms (most which were strictly prohibited in Japan), several traditional Japanese martial arts weapons, including nunchucks, were illegal where I lived. Being a resident of New York State (and not a student of traditional karate), I have never actually owned a set of nunchucks. But maybe its finally time for that to change!
A federal court recently struck down the state’s ban on these weapons as unconstitutional and declared them to be covered under the Second Amendment. Various news outlets have reported on how this ruling came about, but I liked the coverage over at Bloody Elbow.
Last month Judge Pamela K. Chen of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York ruled that New Yorkers have a constitutional right to own nunchucks. The ruling comes after James A. Maloney, a lawyer and nunchucks enthusiast, launched a complaint over the state’s 40-year ban on the traditional martial arts weapon in 2003.
According to The New York Times New York decided to criminalize nunchucks in 1974 while the “United States was in the middle of a kung fu fever” inspired by martial arts movies.
At some point I am probably going to write a blog post on all of this. Obviously the weapon came to be strongly associated with Bruce Lee, and I feel that its subsequent ban reveals a darker side to the “Kung Fu Fever” of the 1970s. More specifically, news reports of the era were quick to point out that African-American and Hispanic youth joined various martial arts groups in huge numbers. Given the racial, social and political subtexts of Bruce Lee’s films, the sudden popularity of hand combat systems among young men of color made many authority figures uneasy. Everyone from school teachers to politicians had something to say about his phenomenon. The ban on these weapons makes more sense (historically speaking) when viewed through a racial and generational lens. But I need to read and think a little more about this before jumping into a more detailed discussion of that episode. In the mean time, I should probably just decide what type of nunchuck needs to be added to my collection. I have certainly seen some interesting flails in old Chinese photographs….
One place that you are unlikely to ever run across a set of nunchucks is in a Wing Chun class. But that is ok as, according to this review in the South China Morning Post, Wing Chun offers many benefits to the perpetually stressed, always on the go, young professional. Basically, “mindfulness practice” is key to not getting hit in the face.
That brings us to one of the most interesting aspects of this article. The author finds it necessary to provide a “trigger warning” and lets readers know that there is a lot of two-person drilling in Wing Chun, so if you decide to go to a class you need to be ok having a certain amount of physical contact with strangers. If this bothers you, then “you should bring a friend.”
I began to wonder whether the author might actually have been more comfortable in a class on the Taijiquan solo forms as I read this article. Indeed, I felt as though she was attempting to push Wing Chun in that direction as I contemplated her first impressions of the practice. This is a valuable reminder of the gap that often exists between hardcore martial arts enthusiasts and the new students who we are always trying to attract to our schools. While so many of us are looking for greater levels of “realism” (e.g., bodily conflict) in our training and sparring, its well worth remembering that these sorts of aspirations don’t fit within a large segment of the population’s mental map of the martial arts. They are dealing with a very different set of “discomfort thresholds.”
Personally, I would be much more concerned if my martial arts class involved “incidental contact” with any sort bovine, rather than a human training partner. Chinese bullfighting, which leapt into the popular press during the autumn of 2018, is still managing to keep itself in the news. This recent story in NPR is of interest as it includes some discussion of how bullfighters (wrestlers?) are trained and the competitive structure of their shows All of this explained by the performers themselves with invocations of “the explosive power of hard qi gong” and meditations on Chinese masculinity.
A theoretical lens for approaching the recent bullfighting phenomenon might be found in the scholarly literature on public spectacles. I suspect that it could also provide a certain amount of analytical purchase on our next story as well. The Fox Sports desk has been running a number of martial arts features recently. Their most recent offering is modestly titled the “5 most unbelievable Chinese martial arts techniques of all time.“
The article itself is basically background commentary on video clips featuring five distinct styles. They portray a range of both traditional and more modern practices. I don’t think a long-time student of the Chinese martial arts is going to learn anything new here, but the clips might be useful as an illustration of the sorts of material that the general public finds interesting.
One of the more important articles in this news roundup, titled “Honoring ancestors in old boxing tradition,” was published at Shine.com (the Shanghai Times). It profiles Huo Jinghong, the great-great granddaughter of Huo Yuanjia (1868-1910) and the “inheritor” of his lianshouquan style. What makes it so interesting is that the further you read, the more complicated all of this becomes. Like all Chinese, university level, martial arts coaches, Huo’s background (and first love) is actually the performative disciplines of modern Wushu. Her family never taught her Huo Tuanjia’s lianshouquan (or any other traditional art) as they had stopped practicing it during the Cultural Revolution (and possibly before). In actual fact, she seems to be researching and reconstructing the style as much as anything else.
Yet the popular discourse around her efforts insists on emphasizing her genetic relatedness to Huo Yuanjia and concepts such as transmission and inheritance. Much of her efforts in this area also appears to be rooted in (or at least inspired by) a couple of big government backed projects to promote Huo Yuanjia’s memory (and the historic Jingwu movement more broadly) for political and economic purposes. In reading this article I felt like I had come across a short case study in how these sorts of public diplomacy and economic development projects take root in, and eventually restructure, the identities and practices of various individuals.
Her enduring connection with celebrated ancestor Huo Yuanjia restarted in late 2014, when she was asked to shoot a video to display lianshouquan. It was actually the first time that she learned the routine of the ancient boxing art.
“Lianshouquan had long been forgotten in the family,” she said. “My father learned a bit when he was a child but was stopped by my grandfather Huo Yating.”
Huo Yating’s decision was aimed at protecting the family during the “cultural revolution” (1966-76). His father, Huo Dongge (1895-1956), the second son of Huo Yuanjia and the major inheritor of the boxing art form, moved to Southeast Asia in the 1920s and never came back. Such an “overseas connection” could have spelled disaster for the entire family during the “cultural revolution,” so the family kept a low profile away from martial arts.
To really understand Huo Jinghong’s profile, it should probably be read in the context of another article (also published in Shine.com) titled “Martial arts fans mark Chin Woo master’s 150th birthday in Shanghai.” While much more general in nature, it suggests something about the scope of the efforts to promote the city (and tourism) through this aspect of its martial history.
A thousand martial arts lovers practiced traditional Chin Woo boxing in Hongkou District on Saturday to commemorate the 150th birthday of Huo Yuanjia who founded the Chin Woo Athletic Association in Hongkou in 1909.
The martial artists from both home and abroad practiced the mizong boxing at the North Bund waterfront along the Huangpu River. The martial art style is what has made Huo famous ever since the early 1900s.
The event aims to promote China’s traditional martial arts culture and highlight the spirits of the Chin Woo association such as patriotism, self-cultivation, justice and readiness to help, according to the Shanghai Chin Woo Athletic Federation, the organizer of the event.
Our next article is also worth taking some time with. It is not an exploration of the traditional martial arts so much as an extended investigation into the emergence of armored fighting (both in the context of competitive events and historical reenactment), in China. This reporting brings up all sorts of questions about identity and the current direction(s) of Chinese nationalism. Its worth noting that the larger social movement that these practices seem to be most closely discursively related to is not the martial arts per se, but rather the hanfu traditional clothing movement. Again, it may be time to brush up on the scholarly literature on public spectacle in identity construction and community formation.
Incidentally, the Chinese government is not always enthusiastic about people putting on home made armor and bashing each other with swords and maces in public places. That is just hard to imagine…
Here is the money quote:
It’s entertaining — even comedic at times — but for Gao, bringing China’s martial past to life through real armor, combat, and historical re-enactment is a serious matter. “Only if you understand this can you understand how you came to be — how your own nation, your own people, made it to the present day,” he tells Sixth Tone in December from a Shanghai café, a stone’s throw from the video game studio where he works as an animator.
As always, the South China Morning Post has had some things to say about the martial arts. Perhaps the most articulate piece was this editorial defending Xu Xiaodong’s right to make a living through fighting. Apparently he has been criticized in Chinese social media for not just harming the reputation of traditional culture, but for being paid by fight organizers (who have started to offer huge purses to anyone who might be able to defeat Xu). Indeed, everyone involved with these bouts appears to be paid. But the recent rhetoric echoes the traditional criticism of those who would “sell their kung fu.” All of that seems pretty unfair to the SCMP’s columnist who notes that professional MMA fighters have a right to make a living. Still, he does implicitly criticize Xu for only accepting challenges from individuals who are obviously inferior opponents.
But that might be about to change. One of Xu’s upcoming challengers (an appropriately fake Shaolin monk), is an experienced fighter in the ring and might provide a more interesting contest while allowing Xu to continue his quest to debunk the “frauds” of the traditional Chinese martial arts community.
The next article is for those who prefer their “reality fighting” to happen on the street rather than in a ring. It is an account of two Chinese martial artists who get the better of three Russian thieves attempting to snatch a bag from a Chinese tourist. The moral of this story appears to be that the “Chinese tourist” you are threatening to pull a weapon on might just be an off-duty law enforcement officer.
How did Bruce Lee die? Newsweek seems a little late to this party, but enquiring minds never seem to tire of this debate. The magazine’s webpage published an article summarizing the major theories that have arisen over the years, including some of the more medically sound ideas that have been proposed recently. This might be a fun read for Bruce Lee fans. Those looking for general biographical treatment can check out this recent article over at the GB Times.
Did you see Ip Man’s ten year challenge photos? I thought that was pretty clever. Apparently Donnie Yen would like to remind us that Ip Man 4 is coming soon. Incidentally, I am sure someone could turn this into a great meme. Any takers?
I thought “Henan’s Snow Covered Shaolin Temple” was a better than average photo-essay. It is more focused on architecture than Kung Fu (though there is a bit of that). Yet some of these images are striking. Worth checking out if you are a Shaolin fan and can’t get out to train because of the snow!
If you live anywhere in New York State, not being able to get out to train might be the least of your problems. Given the amount of snow that just fell, we will all be snowed in for a while. Luckily TimeOut magazine has the entertainment covered. It has just released its list of the “21 Best Kung Fu Movies Made in Hong Kong.” Given that none of us are going anywhere, we may as well grab the popcorn and boot up the streaming service of our choice. While all quality picks, I thought this list played it pretty safe. So do you see anything that is missing?
Martial Arts Studies
The spring semester is just starting and the Martial Arts Studies community is lurching back to life. As always, there is a lot to get caught up on. The latest issue of MAS, packed with original research articles and reviews, has just be released. Head on over to the Journal’s webpage to find out what is inside.
The table of contents is as follows. (Hey, look at that. A crack team of scholars wrote an article about the development of Wing Chun in Germany!):
Be sure to also check out the Martial Arts Studies YouTube channel. The presentations from this years Bruce Lee conference have just been posted, and it looks like there is some interesting stuff. Given that we recently discussed the classic article “Liberate Yourself from Classical Karate,” it might be fun to start with Lyn Jehu’s paper “Bruce Lee or Budo? Is the Mess Really that Classical?”
On the journal front, readers will be excited to learn that there is also a new issue of Revista de Artes Marciales Asiáticas (RAMA) with multiple English language articles. You can see its table of contents here.
Last but not least, Greg Downey has just uploaded his paper (with Monica Dalidowicz and Paul Mason) “Apprenticeship as method: Embodied learning in ethnographic practice.” This is a nice methods piece that will be helpful for many researchers in the field of Martial Arts Studies. You can read it at Academia.edu.
Kung Fu Tea on Facebook
A lot has happened on the Kung Fu Tea Facebook group over the last month. We discussed a set of antique butterfly swords, reviewed important martial arts manuals and learned that bodily techniques from the traditional Japanese martial arts could help us in daily life. Joining the Facebook group is also a great way of keeping up with everything that is happening here at Kung Fu Tea.
If its been a while since your last visit, head on over and see what you have been missing!
The Unexpected Giant
Some of the essays at Kung Fu Tea are the result of several days of careful research and thinking. This is not going to be one of those pieces.
I started out with a great topic. It was my goal to explore the stochastic progress of duanbing, a type of competitive short-weapon fencing, conducted with specific safety gear, which has been on the verge of “really taking off” within the TCMA community ever since the late 1920s. As I began to assemble some articles and descriptions of the first phase of duanbing practice in the 1930s, one name just kept coming up. In fact, I ran across so many references to this individual that I just had to find out more about him.
Sadly, he has nothing to do with Chinese fencing. But Col. Voldemar Katchorovsky did make quite an impression on anyone who met him. His colorful career suggests something about the general attitudes which shaped the development of Guoshu, as well as the types of adventurous individuals, peripatetic either by choice or circumstance, who shaped the global transmission of all martial arts (both Eastern and Western) during the 19thand 20thcentury. Lastly, his career is also a valuable reminder that duanbing did not emerge in a vacuum. It was developed at a time when both Japanese Kendo and Western foil fencing were making inroads into Chinese schools and popular culture. As I (and many others) have already noted, the development of any “local” and “traditional” practice must arise in discourse with notions such as “international” and “modern.” Katchorovsky’s writings provide us with a very specific example of how these concepts entered discussions of martial and combative pursuits in China.
Who was V. A. Katchorovsky? It is difficult to say with absolute certainty. As with many martial artists, we simply do not have a complete life story. Yet a review of period newspapers reveals two competing narratives. The first was something that Katchorovsky’s inherited. Despite his enormous height (over seven feet), and unusual profession (fencing instructor), most people saw him primarily as a refugee, a former Russian military officer displaced by the Bolshevik Revolution. Indeed, quite a few Russians refugees would eventually end up in China, and they seem to feature prominently as “threatening outsiders” in many kung fu legends. Perhaps we should not be surprised that displaced individuals (many with a military backgrounds) would end up coming into contact with China’s own martial artists.
Still, Katchorovsky’s path to China was far from direct. The first mention that I can find of him comes in the form of a short article in a local paper in New South Wales, Australia. It seems that in 1924 Katchorovsky was passing through on his way to Tahiti. Yet he was viewed as such a tragic figure that an article on his visit was necessary.
Body Guard of Murdered Czar
Melbourne, Saturday. –Penniless and physically worn, after years of intense anxiety, Artillery Colonel (W)oldemar Katchorovsky, once of the first Artillery Brigade attached to the late Czar’s Imperial Russian Life Guards, arrived in Melbourne on Wednesday. He stands over seven feet one inch high.
Having been hounded out of his country by the Bolsheviks, Katchorovsky is on his way to Tahiti, where he will join another refugee, Colonel Basil Niktine. His fortune having been confiscated, he was obliged by necessity to travel steerage on the French liner Ville de Strassbourg.
Katchorovsky was one of the late Czar’s bodyguards. As a refugee in Malta with the Dowager Empress Maria Deodorovna, he learned the authentic story of the death of the Royal family.
While the Royalist Generals were organizing volunteer corps in the Caucasus and Crimea, the Czat and his family were taken prisoners to Ekaterinburg, Western Siberia. According to the Dowager Empress, his majesty was killed by the prison guard against military orders. The rest of the family, after suffering terrible humiliation, were likewise done to death.
Katchorovsky carries with him treasured photos of himself taken with members of the royal family when holidaying in Lividia Palace in the Crimea.
Northern Star(Linsmore, NSW) 16 June 1924. Page 4.
Readers should note that this piece contains no discussion to fencing, leading me to wonder whether Katchorovsky had begun to teach. Tahiti in the 1920s, while probably lovely, would not have been my first choice of location to open a new fencing salon. Beyond that, this article offers readers very few biographical details. We do not learn how old Katchorovsky was, or whether he ever had a family. Nor do we learn where he was coming from.
Like many refugees in our own era, Katchorovsky seems to have been subjected to a process of biographical flattening. His entire life is reduced to only those elements most interesting to the paper’s readers. One suspects that in the 1920s any number of White Russian refugees might have passed through the same area and inspired almost identical articles. In this discursive movement Katchorovsky, as an individual, was hollowed out and reduced to a symbol of the era’s increasingly well-developed fear of Bolshevism.
Whatever business Katchorovsky had in Tahiti, he seems not to have stayed long. In 1927 his name resurfaces in another newspaper in New South Wales. Then in 1930 we catch a glimpse of him in Honolulu. While most of the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa was consumed with an upcoming football game against BYU, the school newspaper reported that an exhibition fencing tournament had been planned between the students of Katchorovsky and those of Cedric Wodehouse (a local instructor who had been trained in the UK). Once the preliminary matches were finished, the student body was promised an exhibition match between the two instructors. This was billed as a “real match between experts.” Without digging into more detailed local historical sources, it is difficult to say how long Katchorovsky stayed in Honolulu.
In any case, he did not put down roots. Two years later a student newspaper for the University of British Columbia (Vancouver) ran a brief notice stating that Katchorovsky had taken up residence in the area and was looking to establish a class for local university students. Any student wishing to take him up on the offer needed to hurry. By the spring of 1933 Katchorovsky would be seeking to establish a somewhat larger presence in Shanghai.
This is the period of Katchorovsky’s career that generated the most interesting paper trail. Between February 19-22 of 1933, he wrote a series of three, highly detailed, articles for The China Press. Each of these sought to explain and promote Western style fencing as a desirable type of personal exercise and competitive sport. [Readers should note that, confusingly, both the second and third articles in this series are labeled as “number two,” so it is necessary to actually check the dates of publication]. Collectively these discussions seem to announce the arrival of a more prosperous stage of Katchorovsky’s teaching career.
Readers may recall The China Press was one of Shanghai’s leading English language “treaty port” papers. While the editor of this paper was Chinese, and a virtual agent of the KMT government, the China Press prided itself on its connections to the American tradition of journalism and liberal editorial slant. The paper served three audiences. Obviously, it spoke to the needs of the expatriate English speakers in Shanghai. Yet unlike other foreign language papers, it reported extensively on Chinese political and social events. Indeed, its ostensible foreign ownership helped the paper to skirt certain censorship regulations, and it thus also appealed to educated, English reading, Chinese citizens. Lastly, the KMT tolerated papers such as this as they hoped that they would bring news of what was happening in China (unfiltered by the always hostile Japanese newswire services) to citizens in the West.
Given this complex readership, it is significant that The China Press was unrelentingly enthusiastic about all aspects of the martial arts. It seems to have published more stories on Chinese boxing (or “national boxing”) than any other treaty port paper. But it also reported on judo, kendo, boxing and fencing. One suspects that someone in the editorial office took a keen interest in martial pursuits.
Still, the degree of coverage that Katchorovsky’s thoughts on fencing received seems exceptional, even by the standards of The China Press. As I mentioned in our prior discussion of Ma Liang’s New Wushu movement, certain outlets also offered their services to government officials or important individuals who sought (for a price) to promote a project that was generally in line with a paper’s editorial policy. For a few years the China Press even seems to have run an ad hoc English language public diplomacy program for the KMT. I suspect that Katchorovsky may have entered into a similar promotional arrangement with the paper.
His first three articles, in April of 1933, were immediately followed up by another piece at the beginning of March. This article (written by a reporter) sought to both promote fencing in general and Katchorovsky’s classes more specifically. It noted that he had recently been hired by St. John’s University as a fencing instructor for the students. The paper proclaimed (probably incorrectly) that these were “the first Chinese [boys] to take up this typically European sport.” It was also noted that his experience in America demonstrated that fencing was really a sport for everyone, regardless of age or gender. A local girl’s school was also considering adding fencing classes.
Again, it is difficult to know exactly when Katchorovsky arrived in Shanghai and began teaching. But at the end of March (22nd) the China Press ran another story, probably independent of any formal advertising campaign, noting that due to the increased popularity of the sport an exhibition had been scheduled at the International Branch of the YWCA. Exactly one week later (March 30th) another unsolicited article was run reporting on the result of this social and athletic gathering. Such stories are relatively common in the pages of The China Press. Still, it seems that this event made a positive impression on the reporter. Like Hawaii, the student tournament was followed by two exhibition matches in which the various coaches and organizers demonstrated other weapons and superior techniques for the crowd.
Skimming various accounts of tournaments and exhibitions, it seems that much of the fencing in Shanghai was led by, or included, Russian refugees. Indeed, one wonders whether this was what drew Katchorovsky to the city in the first place. His own match was against Dr. Schoenfeld. Col. Minuchin, who coached many of the participants, is reported to have graduated from the Officers’ Fencing and Gymnasium School in Petrograd just before the outbreak of WWI in 1914. He had been living in Shanghai for approximately five years.
All of this publicity resulted in two photographs of Col. Katchorovsky in his role as fencing instructor. The first, published on Feb. 27th, shows a sophisticated looking individual, hair parted in the middle, sporting round glasses and a neat mustache. He holds his trademark foil and fencing mask on his lap as he seems to look beyond the camera with a pensive gaze. If the first image is serene, the second is slightly unsettling. It was taken on the day of the YWCA tournament/exhibition. Several female students sit in the front with their instructors standing behind them. Shown at his full height, Katchorovsky towers over the others. At first one guesses that the other coaches must have been sitting as well, but of course they are not.
The China Press revisited fencing again on October 27th with another article by Katchorovsky. This piece quoted liberally from the Art of Fencing by Senac and Fencing by Brek in an effort to argue for the athletic, personal and somatic value of the practice. Not to be outdone, the North China Herald also ran an article by Katchorovsky on November 7th. Unfortunately, this rehashed many of his prior points without adding much new to the discussion. Still, in a remarkably short period of time Katchorovsky had written or been discussed in at least eight articles and received two photographic features.
That is a remarkable amount of press coverage for anyone in this period, let alone someone from the martial arts community. But his efforts paid off. The introduction to the October China Press article noted that Katchorovsky was currently serving as Master of Arms at both the Shanghai American School and St. John’s University, while running his own fencing academy at 73 Nanking Road.
Modernity’s Knight Errant
Given the volume of material that Katchorovsky produced, it is important to ask how he (and other instructors) sought to promote fencing in the 1920s and 1930’s. More specifically, how are the values that they sought to promote similar to, or different from, the sorts of discussions that other martial arts (especially Guoshu and Judo) were generating? One might suppose that given his military background, Katchorovsky would be something of a traditionalist when it came to the sword. He came of age in an era when there was still an expectation that officers might have to fight with their swords. And all of that seems to fit with the more tragic and orientalist ways in which the press sought to frame his life narrative.
Yet Katchorovsky was no traditionalist. One suspects that he would have had little tolerance for the sort of essentialist cultural rhetoric that followed Kendo. His understanding for the need for modernization and reform within the martial arts would have fit well within the more progressive currents of China’s own Guoshu movement. Note, for instance, the following excerpts from his discussion on the topic of traditionalism vs. modernity in his third article for The China Press, titled “Modern Fencing Reaches High Sate of Perfection.”
…There are so many people who have never given up the old-fashioned idea that fencing is an ancient art, graceful and beautiful to behold upon the stage. Many never think of fencing as competitive sport, which it really is—the fastest and most brilliant of all man to man sports in existence.
Fencing progresses like everything else. A fencing bout of two hundred years ago and a present day match have very little resemblance. Fencing today is very fast, very competitive, and a study of it gives one a deep and interesting experience in the thoughts of modern science and philosophy, such as timing, motion, space, reflex-action and counteraction, and shows one the vast differences between perception and intuition.
Suits Modern Youth
Fencing today is very modern, very athletic, very fast, sparkling and vivid, almost scientific. It should suit the modern youth to perfection. He can still keep his identity, his individuality, be a little swaggering and devil-may care, and possibly fence better for it….
Helps Eliminate Time
I know of no other sport today which has become as ultra-modern as fencing. In my opinion fencing develops such keenness and precision that it becomes far more mental than physical. A fencer finds that along with modern inventions, modern science and its fourth dimension, this sport goes a long way to eliminate more of the encumbering element of matter we call time.
To think is to set, i.e., when you think “thrust” your arm is already extended: when you think “lunge” your right foot hits the floor with pantherish agility.
It is especially true that in a hardfought bout between equals you are never conscious of your body. It has ceased to exist; that is, it is no longer the tool of the mind, but becomes the mind itself.
You lose all consciousness of self and exist as the mental qualities of speed, precision, accuracy, distance, balance, judgement or seem to exist as life and action itself. For your time is not, and each moment of action flashes from the future into the past without the realization of its passing.
After a twenty-minute bout, whether you have won or lost, you feel that if you have not spent a second in eternity, you have least lived more vividly, more intensely during these minutes than is ordinarily lived in a week.
Thus fencing, once necessary as a means of bodily protection between the exponents of the art, has today become a new mental and physical thrill for the ultra-modern.
1933. A. Katchorovsky. “Modern Fencing Reaches High State of Perfection.” The China Press. Feb. 22 1933. Page 8.
This is one of the more interesting first-person accounts of any martial practice which I have encountered during the 1920s or 1930s. While most of Katchorovsky’s articles tend to emphasize the fully-body muscular development that fencing provides, or its utility for students seeking to lose weight, it seems clear that he was motivated by a quest for altered states of consciousness. This article provides a very detailed account of what it is like to experience a “flow state” in weapons work. Yet rather than seeing this as a universal psychological phenomenon, something that might occur in any number of activities, he supposed both that it is unique to fencing and its modern reforms. Katchorovsky even points to the achievement of personal goals and individually attained altered states of consciousness as core qualities of his “ultra-modern” martial art. Reading these passages I am left to wonder how many practitioners of combat sports in or own era might agree with him, even if they have never picked up a foil.
All of this might seem very distant from the world of Guoshu and the development of duanbing. And, in a sense, it is. Yet it must also be remembered that the great reforms of the 1920s and 1930s did not happen in a vacuum. Both Jingwu and Guoshu sought, in their own way, to appropriate and respond to the discourse of modern superiority which was projected by the Western imperialist powers. That is why the “traditional” Chinese martial arts which we practice now are, in fact, a product of modernity.
Of course, fencing is also modern art. Katchorovsky’s embrace (even celebration), of this fact is probably a multi-layered phenomenon. On the one hand, it may have been commercially necessary to distance fencing from its historical association with dueling if one wanted to win middle class female students. Doing so might have been more challenging than one might guess as even newspapers in China were carrying stories of duels (some carried out with sabers, others with pistols) which were still happening in France as late at the 1930s. At least some of Katchorovsky’s rhetorical efforts to carve out a space for sport fencing as a distinct modern practice, unrelated to the art’s bloody past, were probably necessary. [For a sample of what else his audience might have been reading see “Savage Duel is Fought by Paris Lawyers.” The China Press, March 10, 1935. Page 3.]
Of course, “ultra-modern” practices are by definition young, trendy and more likely to be popular with university students. Such things are also transnational and transcultural, values that he probably felt very strongly about given his constant wandering. Undoubtedly Katchorovsky reveals something of his life experience in all of this. Scientific rationalism and international community may have been things that he could ground his identity in after the nation-state and political ideology had failed him. He many even have seen these values as tools to push back against the socially dominant narrative that defined him solely as a refugee.
Modernity takes on a variety of meanings as we read these accounts of fencing’s brief flowering in Shanghai during the 1930s. Yet all of this was happening in concert with larger intellectual trends and global events. Katchorovsky is a valuable remainder of the role of marginal and displaced people in the popularization and spread of modern martial practices. Beyond that, his writings offer a particularly clear glimpse into the sorts of concepts that shaped both the development of the Guoshu movement and the modern Chinese martial arts we know today.
If you enjoyed this discussion of the the martial arts scene is Shanghai in the 1930s you might also want to read: Mixed Martial Arts in Shanghai, 1925
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.
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.
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.
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.
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