Wang Ziping (1881-1973) was an iconic figure within the world of the Republican martial arts. Having gained fame through his many feats of strength and public fights, the Muslim martial artist from Heibi province went on to hold important positions in the Central Guoshu Institute. Indeed, he was one of the few Chinese martial artists ever discussed by name in the New York Times prior to the Kung Fu Craze of the 1970s. Readers may recall that I recently wrote a brief biographical sketch of this important figure which you can review here.
Every essay must have a focus, and that piece was most concerned with the early years of Wang’s life and his contributions to the Guoshu movement. Unfortunately, I could only touch on his remarkable “second act.” While many important teachers fled to Taiwan, Hong Kong or South East Asia in 1949, Wang stayed in mainland China and went on to have a distinguished career both as a traditional Chinese medical practitioner and as an elder stateman of the martial arts. The Communist government would tap Wang for several important appointments and honors, all of which served to call him back into service as a supporter of the newly emerging Wushu program.
I hope to explore this later phase of Wang’s career in some of my future writings. Yet I think all would agree that the greatest honor came in 1960 when Zhou Enlai requested his presence on a state visit to Myanmar. Here he was once again called upon to demonstrate, and to be the public face of, the Chinese martial arts.
Multiple histories have already noted the significance of this trip. Less appreciated is the fact that in the years immediately following this expedition Wang was also used to educated English speaking Western audiences about the importance of the Chinese martial arts and their connection to the “New China.” In many respects, Wang’s role as “Kung Fu diplomat” was just getting started in 1949. His name would appear in publications such as China Reconstructs, one of the few official English language propaganda channels that the PRC sponsored during the period.
Still, I must admit that I have always had questions. When Wang was tapped to go to Myanmar he would have been close to 80 years old. After a lifetime of fights and punishing strength training (we often forget that in his youth Wang was also famous as a wrestler and professional strongman), what sort of demonstration would he have been able to offer? Did he undertake this trip primarily as a martial artist, or more as an elder statesman of what Western scholars refer to as “cultural diplomacy”? Short of finding some detailed film footage from the era, I assumed that this would be an impossible question to really answer. Many issues in the field of martial arts history will, by their very nature, remain a mystery.
Two Views of Wang Ziping
One can only imagine my surprise when I came across not one, but two, pieces of footage, both shot in 1963, that provided a pretty definitive answer to my question. Not only was Wang still active at the age of 80, he moved fantastically. Better yet, these films compliment the few other clips I had been able to locate on YouTube. Yet they did not come without some questions of their own.
Interested readers can link to these films here and here. Both clips are just under two minutes and offer a clear, well directed, vision of the period’s developing Wushu culture, complete with English language narration. Ironically, I came across both of these clips on the Getty Image database earlier in the Spring of 2018 when I was looking for newsreel footage of Chinese soldiers with dadao’s during the 1930s. I realized that both films were quite exciting, but it took a while for my own writing and research to catch up with them.
Sadly, Getty does not provide their properties with the types of citations that are generally required in academic publications, but we do have some information. Their labels make it clear that both clips came from some sort of English language “cultural survey” that the Chinese government completed in 1963. The actual title of this project, and how it was distributed to the West, are all left to the imaginations of the reader.
I have yet to resolve these questions and would appreciate any input that readers of this blog might have. Yet as I further explored the archive it became clear that there were many other clips from the same project. Some of these dealt with other traditional Chinese arts (such as the construction of miniature wood carvings). But the majority of them reflected the dominant discourses seen in other period propaganda pieces. China was shown as a technologically advanced, wealthy, nation that had already achieved a high degree of industrialization. Indeed, it was getting ready to challenge the West on its own terms. In one clip Chinese scientists were shown researching new petroleum products. In another Chinese surgeons successfully reattached a hand that had been severed in an industrial accident.
All of this should help us to properly frame and understand these clips. The view of China which this “cultural survey” set out to construct was overwhelming that of an advanced and industrialized nation. While clearly noting that the Wushu was an aspect of China’s traditional physical culture (or more specifically, a type “traditional calisthenics”), one got the sense that all of this was meant to underline the fundamental modernity that ran throughout the rest of the project. Foreign audiences were not meant to see in these scenes a romantic view of an unchanging China. Given the film’s avowedly Marxist viewpoint, its fundamental argument was that China had changed, and so had its martial arts.
These large themes can be seen in both clips. But beyond that, each clip seems to accomplish different goals for its Western audience. The first of these runs for 1:51 seconds. It opens with an establishing shot of senior citizens preforming Taijiquan in the park. Indeed, the age of the practitioners seems to be an organizing principal of this brief film. Having hailed the audience with what was already a fairly common trope, the camera then cuts to a shot of Wang Ziping leading a large group of children through a similar type of exercise. This scene seemed to have its own message. While “New China” was moving on, the younger generation would not forget their fundamental identity.
Questions of identity come up repeatedly in the narration of this brief clip. The next shot shows an enthusiastic young boy demonstrating a dynamic dao routine. The narrator informs the English speaking audience that Wushu was an art with uniquely “Chinese characteristics.” These could be found in its penchant for combining opposed sorts of movement.
As if to illustrate that point the camera then cut to Wang, who was demonstrating a sword set using a long, two handed jian. This is perhaps the best sequence in the film as it clearly establishes the virtuosity of his techniques. Yet rather than naming the master, the narrator simply informs the audience that such practices are “popular among the broad masses of the working people.”
Even when dealing with foreign audiences, China’s new government sought to define and justify the martial arts at least partially through a class-based narrative. Yes, this was “traditional” physical culture but, more importantly, it was property of the masses. Wang’s anonymous performance stood in technical contrast to what was about to come next. It seemed to exemplify the neo-historicism of certain aspects of the Republican period (such as a fascination with the archaic two handed jian) which was in contrast to the streamlined and socially conscious Wushu to come.
Having introduced both the very old, and the very young, the film then cut to the athletic performance of young adults in their prime. First an individual (who bears at least some resemblance to Wang’s son), dressed in a white silk performance costume, performed a more vigorous Jian set. The performance was spectacular and kinetic. After that we are introduced to the more acrobatic aspect of Wushu when an unarmed fighter is forced to “defend” himself from a dao wielding opponent. The visual tension was further escalated with a spear vs. double dagger performance. Both exciting and theatrical, such sets had been the mainstay of public demonstrations in the 1920s and 1930s. Finally, the clip ends with a female performing a solo set with the Emei piercers. She was dressed in the same silk uniform as the other university age performers who had come before.
None of the individuals in this clip were named. Rather, everyone was presented as a general cultural type: the group of old people doing Taijiquan in the park, the enthusiastic young students, and (most importantly) the mysterious teacher. Yet all of them were shown as contributing to the explosion of kinetic vigor seen in the final Wushu demonstrations. The narration of this film sought, in simple terms, to define this new Wushu for Western audience. Yet the director’s arrangement of visual images presented an equally compelling argument as to how a resurgent China was reframing and transforming its traditional cultural heritage.
The second film seeks to tell a very different story. Rather than defining Wushu, it uses traditional martial arts practice to explore the lives of a “typical Chinese family” living in a luxuriously furnished apartment in Shanghai. Of course, the patriarch of this multi-generational family is Wang Ziping.
If anything, the second clip is even more dramatic. It begins with a shot of Shanghai in the evening, focusing on the street lights and scenes of vehicles driving by the water. We then see the glowing windows of Wang’s residence as though we were visitors walking up the sidewalk.
As the camera moves inside, a family comes into focus. Whereas all of the figures in the previous clip were anonymous representation of the nation, we are now guests in a home. Introductions are in order. These begin with Wang himself, who is shown working on a piece of calligraphy. The audience is informed that Wang is a doctor of traditional Chinese medicine, and the camera cuts to a quick shot of his clinic where he can be seen manipulating a patient’s arm.
Next, we meet Wang’s son. While his father wears traditional clothing, the son, like everyone else, is smartly dressed in western attire. He plays some type of shuffle board game with a number of other family members. We learn that he too is a physician.
After that we are introduced to Wang’s daughter and her husband, both of whom are professors. The camera then pans from a shot of the two speaking with their children, to a framed photograph on the wall in which Mrs. Wang is putting a group of identically dressed Wushu students through their paces. This would seem to answer any question as to what subject she taught.
Once we have established for the Western audience that this is indeed a “typical” Chinese family, we are then told that the Wang’s do have one unique characteristic. Despite their many professional commitments, they all gather during their free time to practice various types of Wushu in the park. A set of traditional weapons are shown leaning against a park bench and one by one a set of hands appears to claim them. A long continuous shot then weaves through the family group showing everyone involved in their own solo practice.
Finally, the viewers gaze is allowed to settle on Wang. He has again resumed his role as teacher and cultural guardian. We can see his face as he happily instructs one of his grandchildren. The segment ends as the camera pulls back to reveal a family united by practice.
There are many remarkable things about this second film. Perhaps the most basic might be that Communist (and even Republican) authorities tended to treat family/lineage-based practices with a fair degree of suspicion. These were seen as being based on pre-modern modes of social arrangements, and individuals ended up investing their loyalty in the group rather than the party or the nation.
The advent of the Cultural Revolution in 1965 would see a forceful reemergence of these claims, and the subsequent suppression of much traditional martial arts practice. This film shows a very different vision of family practice, one in which there are no doubts as to anyone’s loyalties, or their equal value to the group. Indeed, Wushu has been adopted as a means to tell Western viewers something important about the modern Chinese family. Under the guiding hand of the CCP, practices that might have been harmful to individuals or the nation have been rectified and made socially useful. If this is true for the martial arts, we can also rest assured that it is true for gender and family relations.
Nor was the first clip actually content to simply define Wushu. If the second film sought to use a visual portrayal of these practices to explain the family, it appears that the first’s real subject is the Chinese nation. The intergenerational portrayal of the Wushu was not a coincidence. Indeed, it can be read as an argument about transmission. What exactly does the narrator mean when he notes that Wushu possesses “Chinese characteristics?” The virtuosity of the anonymous teacher, and the explosive potential of his adult students, suggest that the stabilization of these traits was not a random or automatic process. Rather it was one of refinement and discernment, the creation of something essential by those who worked under the authority of a benevolent state.
These clips are remarkable not just because of the technical prowess that Wang and his family display. They also indicate that even prior to the advent of the Cultural Revolution the Chinese government was seriously investigating the use of the martial arts as a soft power resource. More specifically, in these clips they sought to use visual representations of Wushu to convey basic principles about the nature of the new Chinese state and the reformed (yet still reassuring traditional) family. Wang himself can be seen not just as a leading figure within the traditional Chinese martial arts community, but as a pioneer of the basic Kung Fu Diplomacy strategy which would come to define much of the global view of these practices in the current era.
If you enjoyed this discussion you might also want to read: Lives of Chinese Martial Artists (22): Wang Ziping and the Strength of the Nation