Meditations on the Blade, Ultra-Modernity and the Fine Art of Self-Promotion

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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.

Giant Refugee

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 Nik[]tine.  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.


Col. V. A. Katchorovsky as he appeared in the pages of The China Press in 1933.


Maitre d’Armes

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 PressAs 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.

Ultra-Modern Thrill

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.


Given his frequent discussion of the benefits of fencing for female students, and his quotes from Senac’s text, it seems only appropriate to end with this image. Source: THE ART OF FENCING BY REGINALD AND LOUIS SENAC, “PROFESSIONAL CHAMPIONS OF AMERICA,” 1915.



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


Local Resistance and Guoshu: The Foshan Zhong Yi Martial Arts Athletic Association

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The images in this post are taken from Daniel Mak and Alex Jung’s excellent documentary “The Origins of Macau Wing Chun.” Its well worth watching and you can read more about it here.




Guoshu in the Pearl River Delta

In a recent post I attempted to move away from the triumphalist rhetoric that accompanies many popular discussions of the Guoshu movement and ask how its institutional limitations (rather than its strengths) shaped the spread of Northern martial arts styles in the Pearl River Delta region during the 1920s and 1930s. That essay addressed events in one small region as in my research I have found that to really understand any social movement it is often necessary to move away from national level narratives. While helpful in understanding a movement’s goals, such discussion can obscure the reality of how reforms were actually implemented (and co-opted) at the local level. That can, in turn, lead to the uncritical acceptance of politically inflected historical narratives and a bad case of selective memory.

For instance, while investigating attempts to establish “official” Guoshu chapters in the Guangzhou area, we discovered that the success of these efforts were very much dependent on the support of the governor’s office. Yet in an era characterized by unstable and quickly shifting politics, such political alliances often proved to be a liability.  Ambitious efforts to rebuild Guangdong’s martial arts culture through legislative fiat were doomed by the KMT’s constant internal upheavals. Northern masters found considerably more success in spreading their styles once they were freed (partially) from political patronage structures and able to establish commercial schools that could compete in the economic marketplace.

This essay expands on that discussion by asking two additional questions.  First, Andrew Morris has noted that all sorts of modernizing groups (New Wushu, Jingwu, Guoshu), while typically successful in China’s major cities, tended to have trouble penetrating the countryside.  That was a significant problem as the vast majority of China’s martial artists lived far from the large cities. Given the geographic limitations of the Republic era’s hand combat reform movements, what do we see in the Guangdong case?  Was the Guoshu movement able to establish branches outside of the sophisticated and well-connected provincial capital of Guangzhou?  If so, how did these organizations function?

Our second question is closely related to the first.  Given that Guangdong had a vibrant martial arts subculture prior to the importation of the Guoshu movement in the late 1920s, in what ways did local martial arts groups attempt to resist or co-opt this new expression of Chinese identity through martial practice?  Elite reformers saw the Guoshu movement not just as a way to promote mundane public health goals. They sought to use a single, centrally controlled, program of physical training and competition to increase nationalism, militarism and loyalty to the party.  Yet the Chinese martial arts had traditionally been a vehicle for the expression of much more local and regional identities. How were local groups able to capitalize on the weakness of the Chinese state to use such centrally sponsored reform efforts for their own ends?

The following essay begins by shifting our focus away from Guangzhou to Foshan, a nearby market town and manufacturing center.  It examines the rise of the Zhong Yi Martial Arts Athletic Association. Perhaps the second most important regional martial arts organization between the 1920s and the 1940s, a close examination of developments in Foshan suggests that while the Guoshu movement looked quite strong on paper, in actual fact its unifying and centralizing agenda faced stiff opposition.  Ironically, the Guoshu label was even used to empower the sorts of local, traditional, secretive and sectarian identities which its national level rhetoric vocally opposed and claimed to have supplanted.





Given Guangzhou’s status as the political capital and cultural center of Guangdong Province, it is only natural that the Central Guoshu Institute would concentrate their reform efforts there.  But how far out into the countryside did these measures penetrate?  The case of Foshan, an economically vibrant market town only a short distance from the capital, suggests the level of complexity that may have been encountered. Still, given Foshan’s wealth, rapid economic modernization and long history as a center for hand combat development, one would think that if the Guoshu movement could succeed anywhere, it would surely find a foothold here.

The development of Foshan’s “Guoshu” related efforts (and we must use that term carefully) began shortly after the failure of the Liangguang Guoshu Institute in Guangzhou (discussed here) in the 1929-1930 period. Yet rather than importing a group of distinguished Northern instructors, as the Governor did in Guangzhou, Foshan moved in a radically different direction.  Instead of creating a new organization, the locally prominent network of “Yi” schools, whose teaching curriculum focused almost entirely on Hung Gar and Wing Chun, were reorganized into something more official with closer ties to the local KMT party structure.

While much has been written about the history of both Wing Chun and Hung Gar, the social significance of the Yi network has been largely neglected in favor of more traditional lineage and instructor specific biographies. That sort of rhetoric is historically problematic as it both lends itself to hagiography and obscures the ways in which martial arts groups interacted with the larger community. In fact, even before their formalization at the end of the 1920s, the Yi network of martial arts schools were an important force in the local community and the increasingly violent debates that accompanied the emergence of an independent labor movement.

Still, it was not the largest alliance of schools and instructors in Foshan at the time.  That honor was held by the various Choy Li Fut schools organized through the Hung Sing Association.  We previously discussed the creation and significance of this group at length in our volume on the history of the Southern Chinese martial arts. For the purposes of the current argument it is enough to note that by the 1920s the Hung Sing Association was recruiting much of its membership from the ranks of Foshan’s handicraft sector and the newly emerging industrial working class. In addition to hand combat training Hung Sing also provided a means for workers to network, organize and look for employment. All of this quickly drew the association into relationships with more radical elements of the local labor movement including trade unions and organizers from the Community Party.

In contrast, the Hung Gar and Wing Chun schools organized by the Yi network often (though not always) recruited their membership from the ranks of skilled local workers or small business owners. Such individuals were better positioned to benefit from the global shifts in trade, investment and economic structure that typically threatened the livelihoods of less skilled workers. It should not be surprising to discover that many of the Yi schools were financially backed by the region’s more conservative “yellow trade unions” who opposed the types of the demands that the more radical (“red”) labor movement was making.  Indeed, the Yi Schools and the Hung Sing Association clashed (sometimes violently) throughout the 1920s. Much of what has been preserved in lineage histories as “ancient rivalries” between competing martial arts styles should probably be reframed as local expressions of the sorts of class conflict that gripped the entire industrialized world during the 1930s.  But how did the Yi Schools first emerge?

That question has proved difficult to answer as, after 1949, the Communist government classified the Zhong Yi Martial Arts Athletic Association as a violent right wing group with a “special historical background.”  As such local society went to some lengths to suppress not just the membership of the group but its historical memory as well.  Nevertheless, two local historians, Xiao Hai Ming and Zou Wen Ping, have been able to reconstruct some key facts about the organization.

During the final years of the Qing dynasty a resident of Zhangcha Village (now a part of Foshan’s urban sprawl) named Zhao Xi organized the “Xing Yi” martial arts school.  Sadly, Xiao and Zou were not able to discover much about Zhao’s background.  But it is clear that he was a Hung Gar instructor and his schools were the first in the Foshan area to bear the “Yi” suffix.  We might also surmise that Zhao was a talented businessman and he found ways to franchise and leverage his personal reputation.  Eventually six schools appeared (Yong Yi, Xiong Yi, Qun Yi, Ju Yi, and Ying Yi) all associated with the initial Xing Yi location.  This set of schools is said to have constituted the core of the larger “Yi” martial arts system.  Xiao and Zou noted that both Hung Gar and Wing Chun were taught within this network, though they were not able to reconstruct a full list of instructors.



As is typically the case, things are most opaque during the early years of the Yi network.  We have more information on events which occurred in the 1920s and 1930s.  But our best information stems from the 1940s, just prior to the victory of the CCP. As we review this period Wing Chun students may even begin to spot some familiar names. Jiu Chao (1902-1972) taught Wing Chun at the Zhong Yi Association branch located at Kuai Zi Lane after 1945.  Like Ip Man, he came from a wealthy local family.  He learned Wing Chun from Chan Yiu Min, the son of Chan Wah Shun (Ip Man’s first instructor).  Jiu also opened another martial arts school in Zhongshan and is said to have had over 100 students between his two schools.  Perhaps his best-known disciple was Pan Nam.

Jiu’s career might also offer us some insight into the relationship between Wing Chun and Hung Gar within the Yi network.  While an acknowledged Wing Chun master, Jiu appears to have been most famous within the local community for his excellence with a wide variety of weapons that are more typically associated with Hung Gar.  These included the multiple varieties of iron chains, single and double swords, sabers and the eyebrow staff.  That certainly suggests a degree of cross-training.

Cheung Bo (1899-1956) may also have taught for the Zhong Yi Association. Rene Ritchie notes that Cheung Bo’s lineage is not totally clear and that he likely learned both Wing Chun and bone setting from Wai Yuk Sang, who was a doctor employed by the Nationalist Army.  Cheung became a chef at the Foshan Tien Hoi Restaurant and was close friends with Yuen Kay San. In addition to his “restaurant class” he may also have taught at the “Hui Yi” martial arts school.  Cheung was responsible for the early training of Sum Num who he later introduced to Yuen Kay San.

It was during the 1920s that the Yi schools more closely aligned themselves with local business interests, “yellow” trade unions and the rightwing of the provincial KMT leadership. They clashed repeatedly with the more radical Hung Sing Association over the various strikes and pickets promoted by the leftist organization.  It appears that at times they may even have been used as strikebreakers.

As Guoshu activity began to accelerate in Guangzhou, only a short distance away, the Yi schools decided to formally unite and organize themselves as the Zhong Yi Martial Arts Athletic Association.  The new group had about a dozen branches (all in Foshan) during the early 1930s.  Its official membership has been estimated at about 1000 individuals, making it about one third the size of Hung Sing at its 1927 peak. It should be remembered that this later organization was closed by the KMT during the crackdown on Communists that followed the Northern Expedition and the Shanghai Massacre in the same year.

Of the many ways of expressing “martial arts,” the Zhong Yi Association adopted the term “Guoshu.” Still, it remains unclear what sort of relationship (if any) the group had with the Central Guoshu Institute. There is no evidence that they adopted the standardized Nanjing curriculum meant to unify the Chinese people behind a single set of (mostly Northern) practices. Nor did this group attempt to pursue the sorts of radical ideological reforms of the martial arts sectors that the short lived Liangguang Guoshu Institute had demanded. Indeed, the Zhong Yi Association was composed of exactly the sorts of regional, traditional, sectarian and secretive styles that national Guoshu reformers so desperately sought to eliminate. It is thus reasonable to ask whether, or how, this group functioned as an extension of the Guoshu movement.

Perhaps the clearest answer to this comes when we look at the organization’s leadership flowchart. The first thing that we see is that its president was none other than Zhang Qi Duan, the KMT Party Secretary for Nanhai County.  Indeed, prominent local citizens and KMT functionaries filled all of these leadership roles.  While there is no evidence that the Yi schools adopted any of the substance of the national Guoshu reform movement, it does appear that local elites consciously decided that they were more interested in having political control over the local martial arts community (particularly at a time when it was embroiled in frequent violent clashes with the labor movement) than the details of what styles were to be taught.  It was easier and more efficient for local leadership to co-opt a preexisting group, rebranding it as part of the Guoshu movement, than to create yet another competing school staffed with imported martial artists.

If this interpretation of the historical facts is correct, the choice to simply work with the Zhong Yi Association represents a telling concession to the realities of the local martial arts marketplace.  Given the intensely local nature of most schools, it seems that the top-down, state centric, model of martial arts reform promoted by the Central Guoshu Institute during the 1930s was doomed to fail. Even a few miles outside of a provincial capital it proved almost impossible for the state to assert its control over the vast networks of private schools and associations that had grown up since the end of the Boxer Uprising.  Such an undertaking was only possible when the local political and military leadership was strongly committed to the project.  But in Foshan it was precisely these officials who instead decided to rebrand a preexisting network that they already depended on and exercised some control over.  Rather than the Guoshu banner being one that united a common (and progressive) national culture, in Foshan it was a tool for local martial artists to express an entirely different (and more conservative) vision of how modern China should function.




One lesson to be drawn from this is that historians must approach the written sources (policy statements, manuals, yearly reports, newspaper articles, etc…) generated by reformist groups with a fair degree of caution. This material is relatively easily accessible to us today as one aspect of the Republic era modernizing agenda was to establish a robust written record, thereby combating the popular perception that the martial arts were practiced only by rustic illiterates.  Yet the substantive claims made by these organizations about the state of the Chinese martial arts were often deeply misleading.

In their public statement during the 1920s and 1930s they constantly claimed that the Chinese martial arts were dying, that they had become irrelevant, corrupted or ignored. They proposed various schemes for the resurrection of these arts through a process of purification, modernization and state sponsorship.  The irony was that the local martial arts were not dying, certainly not in Guangdong, and probably not in most other areas of the country.  New commercial schools and organizations were growing at a dizzying rate, so much so that outside regulatory efforts found it essentially impossible to control the local supply of martial arts instructors.  While there were starts and stops, the interwar years saw a steady rise in interest in the martial arts.

Newspapers in Guangzhou, Foshan and Hong Kong all began to carry serialized novels glorifying local martial artists from the recent past.  New radio programs, and later early films, hyped martial strength. Urban individuals became involved in these traditions in record numbers. The simple reality is that the Chinese martial arts were more popular, and practiced by a wider range of groups, in the 1920s and 1930s than ever before.  The Guoshu movement was never going to “save” the Chinese martial arts as, in reality, these arts and the social structures that supported them, were doing quite well on their own.  Rather, the various reform movements of the 1920s and 1930s are better understood as attempts to get out in front of trends that were already highly developed and threatening to pass by a relatively small group of elite activists and their backers in the government.

The situation in Foshan is instructive as it suggests two issues which probably slowed the substantive spread of the Guoshu movement.  While there was an immense demand for martial arts training in this period, local martial artists expressed little enthusiasm for the centralized reforms, training regimes and tournament structures that a handfull of national level reformers sought to promote.  Instead martial arts groups continued to focus on local issues, identities, power structures and conflicts.

Secondly, with the help of local government officials, the Guoshu name and framework could be appropriated to promote exactly the sorts of parochial, traditional and sectarian martial arts practices that the national reform movement was actively preaching against. Rather than weakening these groups, the expansion of the Guoshu program actually provided them with a platform from which to promote their own, radically different, vision of what “New China” should be.  While Foshan’s Zhongyi Martial Arts Athletic Association has been all but forgotten by modern Hung Gar and Wing Chun practitioners, this short discussion suggests that it still has much to teach students of martial arts studies.



A note on sources:  Anyone interested in a fuller account of this period (as well as the relevant footnotes and citations) should check out chapter 3 of The Creation of Wing Chun: A Social History of the Southern Chinese Martial Arts.


Bringing Northern Styles South: A Brief History of the Lianguang Guoshu Institute

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Transforming Southern Martial Culture


How did Taijiquan, now ubiquitous, establish itself in Southern China?  What about the other northern Shaolin systems? I would think that the lion’s share of the credit must go to the Jingwu Association which introduced and popularized several systems throughout the 1920s.  Still, the institutional structure of the modernist Jingwu Association tended to absorb sets from various arts rather than presenting them as distinct, self-contained, lineages.  The other actor, frequently noted in this equation, is the Guoshu (National Arts) movement.

Guangdong province established its own branch of this national organization relatively early on. I recently heard the assertion that all of the “traditional” practices of southern China could be classified into three categories.  First, one had the local Cantonese arts (Hung Gar, Choy Li Fut, etc..), next there were the Hakka styles (White Eyebrow, Dragon) and finally there are the northern arts (Taijiquan, Northern Shaolin). The argument went that it was ultimately the Central Guoshu Association, and their program to promote national unity through martial arts training, that should receive the credit for disseminating these styles to the south.

This particular assertion was made much too quickly, and the author was speedily on to other topics. Still, I think it would be worth our time to go back and parse these events more carefully. Guoshu, as both a term, idea and a historical movement, seems to be enjoying a mini-renaissance at the moment.  Speculation as to why this is, and what it ultimately suggests about contemporary Chinese martial arts culture, will need to wait for a separate blog post. Yet, at least in the case of Southern China, it is interesting to note that many of the organization’s greatest contributions to martial culture are rooted in its institutional failures, rather than success.  The following meditation on these questions is based largely on research conducted for my co-authored volume (with Jon Nielson) on the social history of the Southern Chinese martial arts. If you are interested in chasing down a more complete account of Guoshu in the Pearl River Delta (or my footnotes) take a look at chapter three.

In a certain sense the prior assertion by the unnamed author is absolutely correct.  Even if the Jingwu Association whetted the public’s appetite, the Guoshu movement was directly responsible for the export of many important styles and lineages to the south. Still, if we succumb to a type of easy romanticism about this process, we risk misunderstanding both the nature of the Southern Chinese martial culture and the severity of the challenge that it posed to a program consciously designed to displace regional traditions with a more universal set of practices and identities. Yes, national reformers were able to use the martial arts to shape debates about what the “New China” should be.  Yet local society could also turn to these practices in launching their own broadsides against outside forces.




A group photo of organizers and athletes at the 1928 National Guoshu Examination.


A Governor Goes North

The first common misconception that casual readers might have is that the Guoshu organization was truly national in scope. Andrew Morris has noted that the movement’s pretensions to universality and sectoral dominance never materialized in real life.  Indeed, it would have been practically impossible for any organization to fully integrate itself into Chinese life, in both the city and the countryside, in only a few years during the turbulent 1930s. China was just too large and complex for this to happen.  Further, many of the specific challenges that Guoshu faced stemmed from the group’s unapologetically partisan nature.

Unlike the Jingwu Association, the Central Guoshu Institute was not dedicated to vague notions of Chinese nationalism.  Its goals were much more statist in orientation. While encouraging patriotism was important, the group received enthusiastic government backing as it also sought to indoctrinate its practitioners with loyalty to the KMT, and to Chiang Kai-shek in particular. This became an issue as, his victory in the Northern Campaign notwithstanding, not all of the KMT’s notoriously independent cliques and generals were equally enthusiastic about aligning themselves with Chiang and his program.  As such, many regions of China actually resisted the spread of the Guoshu.  Or, to be more precise, while they may have enthusiastically embraced the name Guoshu, and certain philosophical notions about national strengthening through the reform of the martial arts, they were not about to turn local “paramilitary” assets over to Chiang and his allies.

Morris asks us to consider the case of Shanxi Province in the 1930s.  Long a stronghold of traditional boxing, readers may be surprised to learn that it had no official Guoshu chapter.  This fact may not at first be evident.  The province actually boasted over 500 registered martial arts societies in the 1930s, and many of them using the term Guoshu in their names (evidence of the fashionable nature of the word).  Yet the entire area was administered by the independent warlord Yan Xishan who carefully avoided any contact with a program that was (quite correctly) perceived as a tool of Chaing Kai-shek’s close backers.

A very similar pattern could be seen in Fujian and Guangdong.  Both provinces were formally administered by the KMT, yet in the post-1927 era their leadership was sometimes protective of their local autonomy.  This institutional weakness within the KMT impeded the expansive vision of the Guoshu Institute.

That is not to say that the new movement didn’t have important allies.  In October of 1928, General Li Jinshen (governor of Guangdong and an important military figure at the time) visited the first national martial arts examination hosted by the newly organized Central Guoshu Institute in Nanjing. He was so impressed with what he saw that he decided to commit substantial resources to promoting the Guoshu program in Guangxi and Guangdong.  He invited Wan Lai Sheng (a Six Harmonies and Shaolin Master) and Li Xian Wu (Taijiquan and a native of Guangdong), to return with him to Guangzhou.

Li quickly drew up plans that were approved by the local government. Wan Lai Sheng was formally appointed the head of the new provincial organization by General Li’s Eighth Army. Given the ambitious nature of Li’s plans, Wan then went about recruiting a number of high-profile instructors.  These included Fu Zhensong, Li Xian Wu, Wan Laimin and Gu Ru Zhang (who many readers will already be familiar with).  Gu would go on to become the central figure in the promotion of Bak Shaolin (Northern Shaolin) in Guangdong province.  These instructors, and Wan, were known in the press as the “The Five Southbound Tigers.”

Li’s Lianguang Guoshu Institute first opened its doors in March of 1929, hosting three sets of two-hour classes a day.  The organization had an initial enrollment of 140 students, which quickly increased to close to 500.  Still, a closer examination revealed something odd. Rather than filling its ranks with local martial artists looking to get on board with the new national program, almost all of these students were low ranking civil service personal. Still, there was enough “official” demand to both expand the class structure and to begin to offer off-campus instruction at any business or office which could meet the financial requirements and guarantee at least 20 students.  Chinese sources note that, once again, it was government offices that dominated the off-campus study program.

Despite these initial struggles to penetrate the local martial arts sub-culture, or perhaps because of them, Governor Li pressed ahead with an ambitious agenda for the Lianguang Guoshu Institute.  This was aided through the efforts of the local government.  First, an ordinance was passed mandating registration and licensing of all martial arts organizations or schools in the province.  Second, the creation of any new martial arts school or organization not administered by the institute’s (mostly Northern) staff was banned. Finally, money was set aside for the creation of a regional publication dedicated to advancing the nationalist and pro-KMT “Guoshu philosophy.”

Backed by the full might of the Eighth Army, the provincial government, and an enthusiastic governor, such a set of reforms could have had stifled Southern China’s vibrant martial culture. Indeed, that seems to have been precisely the goal of their effort.  General Li Jishen was quite sincere in his desire to bring the local martial arts community to heel, effectively transforming it into a tool to be exploited by the state. While it remains unclear to me whether these sorts of orders could have been enforced in the countryside, their impact on urban Choy Li Fut or Hung Gar schools would have been disastrous.  Deep pools of local knowledge and experience were about to be sacrificed on the altars of “national unity.”

It is interesting to speculate on whether, and how successfully, the local martial arts sector would have resisted these efforts.  Fortunately, historians have no answer to that question as Li’s ambitious plans fell apart almost immediately. Indeed, the great weakness of Guoshu’s rapid expansion was that its success depended not so much on popular demand as the political calculations of often unpredictable leaders.

In May of 1929, General Li Jishen took the spectacular step of resigning as governor and traveling to Nanjing with the intention of mediating a truce between Chiang Kai-shek and the “New Guangxi Clique.”  This was, to say the least, a serious strategic miscalculation.  Negotiations went badly and Chiang (quite predictably) was furious. He had General Li arrested and held until his eventual release in 1931, after which he drifted towards the Communist Party. This left Guangdong in need of a new governor. They received one in the form of Chen Jitang, who is still remembered for his social reforms (the creation of a very basic social safety net) and building programs (he paved the streets of Guangzhou).

One of Chen’s first acts upon taking office was to disband the Guoshu Institute. It is likely that Chen saw this organization as a potential political threat. After all, he did not create it, and many of the individuals within it were loyal to his predecessor. It is also likely that Chen did not want to be that closely associated with a group that was so much under of the influence of Chiang’s most ardent supporters. Whatever the actual reason, budget concerns were cited as the precipitating factor.  With a total budget of 4,500 Yuan a month, the Institute was a notable undertaking. But that figure hardly seems outrageous given Li’s expansive vision for the organization.  All told the Lianguang Guoshu Institute closed its doors after only two months, and without making any progress towards its ambitious goals.

That is where its story ends.  The initial attempts to establish Guoshu in Guangzhou immediately fell victim to internal politics within the KMT. In retrospect it is almost too predictable.

All of which is great, because what happened next had an actual shaping effect on the development of Southern martial culture. The surprising collapse of the Lianguang Institute left a number of extremely talented Northern martial arts exponents unemployed (and more or less stranded) in Guangzhou.  This seeming setback created new opportunities that spread the Northern arts more effectively than anything that Li had envisioned.  After all, most of the instruction that had been provided in these initial months was directed at a relatively small group of government employees.  Chen’s forced dissolution of the organization allowed its instructors to enter into a much broader (and truly competitive) marketplace for martial arts instruction. It was within these smaller commercial schools that arts such as Bak Siu Lam and Taijiquan really took off and came to be accepted by the general public.

Following the breakup of the Guoshu Institute, Li Xian Wu was hired by the Guangdong branch of the Jingwu Assocation as its new director of academic affairs. He later published a well-known guide to taijiquan. Gu Ru Zhang proved to be among the most influential of the remaining staff. Attempting to capitalize on the work that was already accomplished, he sought to create the Guangzhou Guoshu Institute (formally established in June of 1929).  Gu was selected as its president, Wang Shaozhou was named its vice president and Re Shen Ku, Li Jing Chun and Yang Ting Xia (the wife of Wang), were all hired as instructors.

This new, smaller, organization enjoyed a measure of official backing and was housed in the National Athletic Association building on Hui Fu East Road in Guangzhou.  That said, the new institute never subscribed to the grandiose policy objectives of its predecessors. Rather than regulating Southern China’s martial arts sector, it essentially entered the economic marketplace as one school among many.

And as fate would have it, Gu’s new efforts found some real success. In 1936 the Guangdong Province Athletic Association sponsored a martial arts exhibition at the Guangzhou Public Stadium.  Gu’s Guangzhou Guoshu Institute performed for an enthusiastic crowd and received an award from the local government.  Still, like most of the other local martial arts organizations it was forced to shut its doors in 1938 during the Japanese occupation. Yet it was due to the more private efforts of Gu and his fellow instructors, rather than the grandiose machinations of General Li, that the Northern arts established long lasting schools and lineages in Southern China.  They did so by entering the marketplace and providing a good that consumers actually wanted.


An image of a now famous postcard that Gu Ruzhang sent to his students.



Martial Arts and the Weakness of “Established Churches”

It would be impossible to tell the story of China’s twentieth century martial arts without carefully reviewing the political opportunities, alliances and entanglements that presented themselves in each era.  Still, as we review this material it quickly becomes evident that political sponsorship is a double-edged sword.  More than one martial arts organization was destroyed by the capricious winds of change blowing through China’s political history.  Political alliances proved to be a pathway to rapid growth, but also rapid obsolesce.

Leaders have repeatedly sought to use the martial arts as one element of larger campaigns to shape society more to their liking.  In the short-run this creates funding and promotional opportunities. But it also creates martial arts institutions that are more responsive to the demands of political elites than the public who must actually attend classes and pay their sifu’s rent.  Such a bargain is rarely good for the martial arts in the long-run as it prevents them from establishing the type of relationship with consumers that is necessary to survive periods of rapid social change.

The story of the Lianguang Guoshu Institute offers a critical insight into the strengths and weaknesses of “established” martial arts (to borrow a term of religious studies.) As a government backed institution, the only students it seemed capable of recruiting were individuals already dependent on the governor for their paychecks. Yet when its instructors were released into the competitive marketplace, they created popular schools and practices that quickly spread the northern styles across southern China. That has had a lasting impact on Guangdong’s martial culture.



If you want to delve deeper into these questions check out: Government Subsidization of the Martial Arts and the Question of “Established Churches”




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