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.


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