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Telling Stories about Wong Fei Hung and Ip Man: The Evolution of a Heroic Type

A statue located in the Wong Fei Hung Temple in Foshan.
A statue located in the Wong Fei Hung Temple in Foshan.

****We recently completed the “500 Likes” challenge at the 功夫网 Facebook group.  As a result I let the readers vote on what two articles they would most like to see covered.  There were a lot of good suggestions but no overwhelming favorites.  However, a number of you wanted to see “something” related to Hung Gar.  So the following essay will discuss Wong Fei Hung’s evolving role in southern Chinese popular culture.

I also noticed that there was another group of readers who wanted a post on armed escort services in the late Qing/early Republic period.  If I can find some solid resources to work with, that will be the second essay that I write.  This one may take some time as its a tougher subject to research.  Once again, thanks for all of your support!****

Introduction: History in a World of Kung Fu Heroes

Some students have suggested that the residents of southern China are hopeless historians.  This is not because they lack an interest in historical subjects.  These are often featured in short stories, novels, operas, movies and television programs.  Rather the issue seems to be that some individuals have no interest in separating these fictional accounts from “real history.”

This has caused much frustration for researchers attempting to uncover the origins of the traditional southern Chinese martial arts.  Many popular accounts of the creation of these styles trace their roots back to the “Southern Shaolin Temple,” a institution which most historians now agree never existed (at least as it is described in 20th century legends.)  It would, however, be incorrect to assume that all of this is the result of carelessness.

In fact, popular culture in southern China is very interested in the preservation of certain stories, just not in a static format.  Some scholars have detected in this easy intertextuality and disregard for simple linear history a self-conscious postmodern aesthetic.   This is an interesting idea and it may help to interpret the work of certain film producers.

Other writers have pointed out that there are probably more direct ways of explaining how southern Chinese audiences experienced and understood these works.  Virgil Ho notes that this love of rewriting and splicing historical narratives has a long tradition (often explicitly criticized by Confucian trained cultural elites) in regional vernacular opera.  In his view it was a relatively simple way for traveling companies to create new scripts, easily tailored to a specific audience, which would attract a large and excited crowd.  The same tendency seems to have extended to other mediums, such as serialized novels and radio programs.

Gina Marchetti, in her 2006 paper “Martial Arts, North and South: Liu Jianliang’s Vision of Hung Gar in Shaw Brothers Films” goes somewhat further in her explanation of these anachronistic tendencies.  She claims that the martial arts appear in Hong Kong films as a universally understood allegory for Chinese history.  But this metaphor was not invoked out of a sense of pure nostalgia (at least not in the films that she discusses).  Rather conflicts between schools or practitioners were presented “as a way of understanding a common present and a possible future.”

In short, we make a mistake when we view the portrayal of the martial arts as a backwards looking exercise, or a yearning for a simpler time when China existed in isolation from the world.  Contemporary audiences love these stories precisely because they identify with the struggles of the protagonists and see in them ruminations on present and coming events.

Tony Williams has pointed out that there are a number of reasons why martial arts movies might be especially well adapted to these purposes, particularly for audiences in Hong Kong and the Chinese diaspora.  In “’Western Eyes’: The Personal Odyssey of Huang Fei-Hong in ‘Once Upon in China’” Williams argues that the realities of censorship mean that pressing political and social problems needed to approached discreetly.  The rich, yet historically flexible, world of Kung Fu provides a setting where arguments can be publicly stated which might not be acceptable if they were presented in a more “historically accurate” manner.

Williams argued that beyond their pure entertainment value, films such as Jet Li’s 1990s Wong Fei Hung series were part of a well understood social conversation.  While the details of historical events may not have been important to audiences, they were paying close attention to the evolution of these conversations about local and national issues.  Audiences were very much aware of examples of visual references, borrowing and intertextuality.  This was the realm where they demanded consistency.  The juxtaposition of various historical or mythic elements in new and creative ways was a tool for directors to provide that.

Simply put, it’s a mistake to look for historical accuracy in Kung Fu films.  Individual directors may be more or less interested in a “realistic” treatment of their material, but this is not really what the genera is about.  Rather we might better think of these stories as a continuation of Chinese opera’s embrace of abstraction.

This does not mean that we should ignore how Kung Fu films use history, or even the history of the genera itself.  On the contrary, I think that both are very important subjects.  The Chinese martial arts are both a specific technical practice embraced by discrete communities of like-minded students, and a potent force in Chinese popular culture.  Occasionally events in the first realm will influence the latter.  And it is almost always the case that media portrayals of the martial arts condition the expectations and enthusiasm of new students.  This interplay between these two realm, each with its own logic, is an important area for further study.

One of our best guides in this process is Paul A. Cohen’s landmark study History in Three Keys: The Boxers as Event, Experience and Myth (Columbia UP, 1997).  In this volume Cohen argues that no single approach will be sufficient to fully understand any historically complex event or process.  Through an examination of the Boxer Uprising he demonstrated that the “global” reconstructions offered by modern historians often differed substantially from the lived experiences of those who participated in these events.  The legends that emerged from these more specific experiences often became powerful motivating forces within Chinese society driving debate and action at different points in time.  Anyone wishing to understand the actual impact of the Boxer Uprising on the evolution of Chinese popular culture needs to look at each of these elements.

One could make much the same argument with regards to the Southern Chinese martial arts.  During the late 19th and early 20th century these practices, carried out by discrete groups, underwent a process of change and transformation that historians of the region are still trying to come to terms with.  However, the experience of any individual martial arts teacher or school will likely not reflect the totality of this social transformation.  Instead it will be a single set of experiences.

Some of these subjective understandings have been adopted by the local community as powerful myths and expressions of identity.  They are discussed, watched and shared even by those who have no contact with, or any interest in, the actual physical practice of boxing.  Just as Cohen argued, one cannot understand the full impact of these fighting systems on Southern Chinese society (let alone the global community) without coming to terms with each of these processes.

Wong Fei Hung battles a rival in an early film.
Wong Fei Hung battles a rival in an early film.

Wong Fei Hung: Creating a Metaphor for Southern Culture

Wong Fei Hung (1847-1924) is something of a mystery.  He is possibly the single most identifiable personality in the southern Chinese martial arts.  “He” has starred in more kung fu movies, TV shows, penny novels and radio dramas than any other figure.  Further, his story is tightly linked to the recent history of the Pearl River Delta region (specifically Guangzhou and Foshan).

For all of this cultural importance, we have very little concrete information (of the sort that a professional historian would be willing to accept) on his actual life.  We know a bit about his father, his career as a military trainer, his professional life and assorted family tragedies, and that is about it.  Yet through the stories passed on by his students, grand-students, and legions of newspaper and script writers who followed, he has become the preeminent symbol of the southern Chinese martial arts.

At some point I would like to explore Wong Fei Hung’s actual life and career in greater depth.  I suspect that this will have to wait until more abundant resources become available.  Still, it is clear that he had his greatest impact on the Chinese martial arts after his death.  As such this post asks what his story suggests about the evolution of popular culture and Chinese identity in Hong Kong.

Wong Fei Hung has been at the forefront of the entertainment industry’s engagement with the martial arts from the late 1940s onward.  One source reports that over 100 films and TV shows have been produced around the exploits of Wong and his most famous disciples.  With so many observations it is relatively easy to see how his character has evolved and changed with the times.

A full exploration of this topic could fill a hefty book.  As a result I have decided to limit our exploration of Wong’s character to two of his most important films.  The first of these is Wu Pang’s 1949 “Story of Wong Fei-Hung.”  This film was the first feature length production on the exploits of its eponymous star.

The origin of Wu’s script is actually somewhat complex and it demonstrates the emergence of the Kung Fu film genera out of preexisting modes of story-telling.  Much of the film is actually based around an earlier radio broadcast which had sought to dramatize the exploits of Wong Fei-Hung and his students.  Such programs were common around the world in the 1930s and 1940s, so it is not surprising to see that they were adapted to the martial arts in southern China.

Of course these radio broadcasts did not emerge in a vacuum.  They drew off of a large body of popular novels which recounted the exploits of various martial artists.  Prior to the 1950s these stories tended to focus on local heroes from the communities of the surrounding region.  Hamm has demonstrated how the influx of northern refugees following the 1949 liberation of the Mainland led to the growing popularity of an alternative school of historical dramas set against the backdrop of the northern plains.

The Wong Fei Hung narratives emerge from the earlier period of story-telling.  Here the emphasis was not of national issues, but rather the expression of strong regional identities through both local custom and martial excellence.  While both the novels of Jin Yong and the stories of Wong Fei Hung were very popular in Hong Kong during the 1950s and 1960s, it is potentially important to remember that these stories might not have been equally popular with all audiences, nor did they share the same basic thematic concerns.

“The Story of Wong Fei Hung” was a huge hit with working class Cantonese audiences.  In fact, it was the success of this film that the subsequent franchise was built on.  The movie starred Kwan Tak-hing, a veteran opera performer, as Wong.  Kwan had a strong martial arts background and a large imposing frame.  His presence on screen electrified audiences.

While quaint by modern standards, the martial arts in this film were meant to be as realistic and hard hitting as possible.  There were no magic swords or unrealistic wire work.  Even the poles, spears and butterfly swords seen throughout the production were unmistakably real weapons.

Wu interest in authenticity went beyond mere aesthetics.  It should be remembered that this film was released the same year that the Republican government fell on the mainland.  Looking at recent events and future trends (modernization, westernization, the influx of northern refugees) Wu was concerned that authentic southern Chinese cultural traditions and identity would be lost.  His response was to attempt to preserve them where possible in his films.  Apparently Hong Kong’s Cantonese speaking audiences shared his fears.

This is actually an important fact to keep in mind when watching “The Story of Wong Fei Hung.”  The plot evolves episodically.  The movie opens with a long scene focusing on Lion Dancing in Foshan.  Wong and his school have journeyed to the smaller city from the capital to participate in the festivities.  Wu, unexpectedly, does not linger on this plot point.  Instead he focuses his lens on the Lion Dance team as it goes through a protracted mock battle with a crab as part of its attempt to “pluck the greens” left out by a local shop.

Following this the audience is introduced to a lecture on the history of the Hung Gar style and its relationship with Shaolin.  After a confrontation with a local gangster who has kidnapped a shop owner’s wife, the action is again interrupted by a detailed performance (and discussion) of Hung Gar’s “Eight Direction Pole Form” which has no apparent connection to the rest of the story.

Wu’s film progresses in this episodic fashion from beginning to end.  Whether it was traditional Lion Dancing or working class “dragon boat songs,” the director made a concerted effort to showcase vanishing elements of southern Chinese popular culture.   The end result is an odd mixture ethnographic and kung fu film making.

 “The Story of Wong Fei Hung” is exciting precisely because it was a creative and original project.  It is not hard to imagine why Cantonese speaking audiences received it with such enthusiasm.  They too felt the dual threat to their way of life posed by westernization on the one hand and the recent Communist takeover on the other.  Given the important place of martial traditions in defining and creating a sense of local identity, who would not be excited to see Wong Fei Hung personally explaining and narrating the proper performance of the Eight Directional Pole Form as a top Hung Gar master demonstrated the set on the big screen?

While shot on sound stages, the film managed to include other elements of “realism.”  Wong Fei Hung was a strong leader, but he was not invulnerable.  At one point he was seriously injured and might have died if not for the intervention of two quick thinking women.  And while Wong was shown as being nothing if not upstanding, he still could not fully control his more unruly and adventurous disciples.  Of course the “troublesome disciple” is a stock figure in any good shaolin story, so perhaps we should not hold this against him.

At this point it might be instructive to take a moment to think about Kwan Tak-hing’s version of Wong.  While physically imposing he is never violent.  In fact, he is a master of the language of diplomacy and will attempt to solve any problem he has with his words before resorting to his fists.

Kwan’s Wong is also a leader of men in an almost exclusively male world.  He is the patriarch of a large clan, and he is never without this martial arts family.  This Wong Fei Hung is not a brash young hero.  He is older and seasoned.  He succeeds as a leader as much as he does as a fighter.  For lack of a better term, this vision of Wong Fei Hung is highly political.

There is also a darker side to this.  Kwan’s vision of Wong can be piercing and authoritarian.  He is utterly conservative in his martial arts teaching methods and has no reservations about throwing poorly behaved students in an ersatz dungeon that he keeps in the basement of his school.

Women are also a matter of some consternation in these films.  Following the lead of early martial arts novels, there are few genuinely positive portrayals of strong female characters.  At best women are seen as a complication or an intrusion into the manly world of “Rivers and Lakes” in which Wong’s plays the role of Patriarch.  They either make one a target of ill-intentioned villains or, by their mere existence, pose an almost existential threat to the hero’s virtue.

Kwan Tak-hing creates an unrelentingly Confucian vision of Wong Fei Hung.  In fact, this portrait of a Confucian Gentleman is more at home in the late 19th century than the Republican era that most of the audience of these films came of age in.  Nor does it seem to be a terribly accurate reflection of the historic Wong Fei Hung.  He is known to have married a number of times and even opened some of the region’s first martial arts classes for female students.

This is a unique dilemma that seems to reoccur in our collective memories of historic martial arts masters.  Very often these individuals succeeded and became more famous than their peers precisely because they were innovative in either their practice or approach to the art.  Yet in our collective memory they become an anchor for “traditional” culture, meaning and identity.

Of course what constitutes “tradition” is open to almost never-ending process of renegotiation.  Hung Gar is an interesting topic precisely because we can see that process happening overtime as its origin stories and major figures are reimagined and redrawn by each succeeding generation.

Original movie poster for "Once Upon a Time in China."
Movie poster for “Once Upon a Time in China.”

Once Upon a Time in China: The Adaptable Wong Fei Hung

Kwan Tak-hing vision of Wong Fei Hung defined the public memory of this master throughout the 1950s and 1960s.  Over the course of dozens of films audiences watched Wong dual with his arch enemy and negotiate the treacherous waters of local rivalries and conflicts.  This was a culturally conservative vision of Wong that never lost its regional focus.  It stayed true to its roots in what Hamm termed “Old School Guangdong Martial Arts Fiction.”

This should not be taken as a suggestion that these films were solely backwards looking.  Instead scholars might consider how they functioned as a reaction to the sudden displacement of Cantonese popular culture in Hong Kong by large number of Northern refugees in the late 1940s and 1950s.  These individuals often claimed that Southern China lacked any sophistication or authentic culture.  The upright Wong Fei Hung (and his many battles against unreliable neighbors) was seen by many as a convincing counterargument and demonstration of the value of southern Chinese culture.  In this way Hung Gar moved beyond the practice of a relatively small group of students and became central to the very nature of regional identity.

The character of Wong Fei Hung went through cycles of popularity in the 1970s and 1980s.  While never forgotten, by the 1990s audiences showed themselves to be ready for a new vision of Hung Gar’s patron saint.  They received this in Tsui Hark 1991 production of “Once Upon a Time in China” staring Jet Li as a younger and more active Wong Fei Hung.

It is actually interesting to sit down and watch the Wu and Tsui films back to back.  There are a number of visual references that the discerning viewer might be able to pick out.  Tsui knows the intellectual genealogy of his protagonist, yet he also has his own argument to make about what southern Chinese culture needs to do to survive in the current age.

Whereas geopolitical elements are entirely missing from Wu’s 1949 film, they dominate Tsui’s vision of a China under siege.  Like his predecessor’s movie, this one also begins with a Lion Dance.  But this time it is staged on a Chinese warship anchored in the Pearl River.  As the camera is panned around it quickly becomes evident that the harbor is packed with warships, all flying various flags (American, British, French, Chinese ect..).

As Lion Dance progresses fire crackers are lit.  Their explosions are misinterpreted by Western navel personal who believe they are under attack and return fire, only to kill the lead Lion Dancer.  At this point Wong Fei Hung (a guest of the Admiral) springs into action to catch the head of the Lion before it falls, and to redeem the honor of the Chinese fleet (and society) by skillfully “Picking the Green.”  This early tragic encounter sets the stage for the rest of the story in which Wong’s local militia repeatedly comes into conflict with callous western imperialists and the local gangs of thugs which they employ.  Wong’s life is also made more difficult by neighbors who would rather ignore problems than address them and the inept local authorities who distrust all Kung Fu schools due to their supposed ties with Triads.

Interestingly Williams never comments on this last aspect of the story in an otherwise comprehensives article.  Yet it is something that readers should consider.  Throughout the post-WWII period Hong Kong’s government demonstrated a high degree of distrust and dislike of martial arts schools.  It viewed these institutions as backwards and unproductive at best, and more often than not as a front for criminal activity.  In fact the sort of harassment that Wong Fei Hung suffers at the hands of the local government in this 1991 film probably would have elicited nods of sympathy from any martial artist in the audience.

This is actually an important interpretive clue that sheds light on other areas of the film.  Perhaps the easiest thing to do would be to read Tsui’s script as a move away from the parochial concerns of the 1950s towards a grander story with “nationalist” implications.  The frequent and bloody massacres committed by the imperialist forces in the film would certainly seem to suggest this.

But a closer reading of this story shows that it is resistant to such a simple interpretation.  Indeed, that in itself is interesting.  The strong Confucian ethics embodied in Wu’s vision of Wong Fei Hung served to create very clear moral dilemmas for the viewers.  There was never much doubt about who was really in the wrong in these stories, or the ability of traditional Chinese culture to handle whatever challenges might arise.

Tsui offers his viewers no such comfort.  In his vision the forces of imperialism and westernization are causing a crisis, but the way forward is not clear (at least not at first).  Nor does he allow members of the audience to make an easy identification between traditional Chinese culture and “good” or western culture and “evil.”  True, there are some cartoonishly evil western villains in this film.  But there is also Aunt Number 13 and her enthusiasm for western technology, the Christian missionary who testifies on Wong’s behalf when the rest of the town abandons him, and the Chinese-American disciple whose English skills save Wong’s life.

Even greater complexity is exhibited in the treatment of traditional Chinese culture.  In 1949 Wong Fei Hung cut an unapologetically conservative figure.  He was a master of traditional modes of conduct and norms of behavior and skillfully used these to avoid conflict wherever possible.

In 1991 the situation is more complex.  As often as not it is the villains, rather than the righteous patriarchs, who have become the masters of traditional culture and they use it to their advantage.  These modes of speech and behavior seem to cause Wong and his followers confusion.  They are employed to create conflict rather than smooth it over.

Likewise Master Yim, a traveling martial artist who has come to the south to challenge the local masters in the hopes of setting up his own school, seems trapped by tradition.  Williams reads him as backwards looking and resistant to change, as well as too eager to trade his martial skill for money.

I think that we can probably be a little more nuanced in our understanding of Yim’s character.  Indeed, he is supposed to be a largely sympathetic (if tragic) character.

Yim’s actions are simply those expected of any traveling swordsman in the “World of River and Lakes.”  His concern is not really with the foreigners at all.  Rather this is the process that one is expected to go through to set up a school.  It is the same process that Wong Fei Hung’s father would have gone through in the mythic world of Kung Fu stories.

The real tragedy of Master Yim was not that he sought to make a living by the martial arts, but it was that by following the prescribed social norms of the Rivers and Lakes he was forced into a confrontation with Wong rather than uniting with him to oppose foreign aggression.  Whereas Wu’s 1949 film sought to enshrine and preserve local culture, Tsui’s 1991 masterpiece set out to problematize it.  Wu’s protagonists are marked by their self-confidence, but Tsui’s Wong is forced to wrestle with self-doubt.

Williams argues that it is precisely this self-doubt that suggests that this film is not really about nationalist themes.  As the 1990s wore on Hong Kong’s residents became increasingly ambivalent about the 1997 return to Chinese control.  Hong Kong would remain tightly integrated with the global economy, yet it would increasingly be drawn into the Chinese political and cultural sphere.  Once again, local identity was seen as being threatened.

Tsui’s response to this was to warn viewers against a desire to return to a simpler time.  While still the leader of community, his vision of Wong’s surrenders his Confucian self-confidence precisely so that he can engage with, and eventually adopt, western tools and ideas.  Only by doing so is he able to maintain both his relevance and sense of identity.

Wu’s usage of Southern Chinese culture attempted to treat it as an object.  His impulse was to put it under glass so that it could be preserved.  Tsui, on the other hand, sees culture and identity as a process.  Wong Fei Hung’s challenge throughout this series of films (five sequels were later added to the original 1991 release) is to judiciously choose which path to follow.  Williams points out that the opponents who he faces are often not so much evil as sadly mistaken in their choice of strategies for negotiating the current climate of crisis.

Donny Yen reprises his role as Ip Man.
Donny Yen reprises his role as Ip Man.

Conclusion: Ip Man as a Southern Chinese Culture Hero

Wong Fei Hung has proved to be one of the most popular and enduring figures in the mythology of the southern Chinese martial arts.  Through dozens of novels, movies and television shows he has blazed a trail for what a local martial hero should be.  Such an individual needs to provide a clear anchor to a shared past.  This is necessary to unite a broad audience.  At the same time they must suggest ways to negotiate Hong Kong’s ever evolving engagement with both China and the global community.

Recently a number of films have been produced that focus on the life of Ip Man.  A Wing Chun master from Foshan, Ip immigrated to Hong Kong in 1949.  He eventually created a successful teaching organization and trained many students, including Bruce Lee.

Lee helped to make his teacher a known figure within the Chinese martial arts community, but it was really Wilson Yip’s 2008 film “Ip Man” that made him a household name.  A number of other films followed, the most notable being Wong Kar-wai’s “The Grandmaster” (2013) and Herman Yau’s “Ip Man: The Final Fight” (2013).

All of these films have been semi-biographical treatments that have mixed some historical material with healthy doses of creative storytelling.  Each of these projects has also created a sensation with audiences.  The popular response to Wilson Yip’s 2008 project was especially strong.  That title probably defines the current public perception of Ip Man as a local and national hero.  Wong Kar-wai’s film has received the most positive critical response and seems to have opened some new pathways for thinking about and producing martial arts films.

Ip Man’s rise of prominence has been remarkably swift.  It is also highly reminiscent of the Wong Fei Hung’s ascension into the public consciousness during the 1940s.  As such it seems reasonable to ask when Ip Man is walking on the trail that Wong created decades ago?

It is not too difficult to see Ip Man as a continuation of the same evolutionary process that I outlined above.  There are even some visual and structural references in in these films which suggest as much.  Consider for instance Wilson Yip’s original 2008 offering.

Following in the tradition of the Wong Fei Hung films, the first scene opens with a Lion Dance in Foshan.  Our titular hero is then faced with a dual dilemma.  On the one hand he is forced to deal with imperialist aggression (aided by elements of the Chinese community) while at the same time fending off a serious challenge by a desperate martial artist from northern China who seeks to make a name for himself by humiliating the local masters.

Structurally speaking, these stories are very similar.  Further, both were high profile project that sought to be a “game-changer” in the Hong Kong film industry.  Ip Man seems to directly follow in the tradition of Wong Fei Hung as a “modern” hero.  While initially reluctant to fight, he later attempts to reform our understanding of what a martial artist is while preserving the dignity of Southern China.

Like Wong, Ip’s story is set in a time of great social change.  In both cases imperialism and massacres are used to visually accentuate the existential threat facing Chinese culture.  And again in both cases we have every reason to suspect that the actual threats that audiences were most concerned with were not the historical ones, but rather the pressures that they felt as they were drawn ever closer into China’s embrace.

In “ Imagining Martial Arts in Hong Kong: Understanding Local Identity through ‘Ip Man’” (Journal of Chinese Martial Studies, Issue 3) Zhao Shiqing points out the ways in which Ip Man quickly became a touchstone for local identity and resistance.  Like Williams, he argued that many may be tempted to read the imperialist storyline in solely nationalist terms.  And indeed it has a potent national appeal.  But it also serves to frame, emphasize and reinforce Ip Man’s more immediate conflicts with those around him.  These are corrupt local officials, Japanese sympathizers and a misguided visitor from the north who seek to tear down southern culture before he can even understand it.

Of course the similarities between these fictional accounts of Ip Man and Wong Fei Hung only go so far.  The differences between the two figures are equally suggestive.  The most obvious issue is the protagonist’s relationship with the community.  Wong Fei Hung is always a leader.  In every one of his films his primary identification is as the Patriarch of a martial arts clan.  It is this responsibility that forces him to act, and eventually to innovate.

Ip Man represents a very different strain of Chinese society.  He is the shown as the consummate loner.  It is not that he is unfriendly.  Indeed, in both the films and real life he liked noting better than to sit around and chat with a wide group of friends.  But he also assiduously avoided any type of relationship that might lead to commitments or responsibility.  He does not run a martial arts school in Wilson Yip’s film.  Even in “The Final Fight,” when he actually does a run a school, he refuses to put up a sign board or to fully acknowledge his responsibilities to his students.

If Wong Fei Hung represents an evolving view of Confucian patriarchy and morality, Ip Man wants nothing to do with either.  He is content to play the part of Bruce Wayne.  Publically he cultivates the image of a laidback playboy while privately he obsesses about Kung Fu to the point that he risks alienating his wife and child.

The irony of course is that we do not actually know much about Wong Fei Hung’s background or beliefs, but the historic Ip Man actually received a formal Confucian education.  Still, in his personal life he seems to have preferred to cultivate the air of a detached sage rather than an engaged community leader.

This has some important implications for our understanding of the recent films.  Wong Fei Hung is always motivated to act for the good of the community, even if the way forward is not clear.  With Ip Man the situation is more complex.  It is interesting to consider his motivations prior to the various fights in the 2008 film.

He accepts the challenge from the new martial arts teacher in town only because he is badgered into it.  He fights the Northern master (both at his house and at the cotton factory) to protect and avenge the honor of his friends.  He ends up fighting the ten Japanese Karate students not because he is looking for an excuse to stand up to imperialism, but because he seeks to avenge the deaths of his Kung Fu brothers.  In each of these cases Ip Man’s motivations to fight are based on very strong personal emotions.

He is shown as a humble and sincere person.  Yet in each of the above cases he is drawn into the realm of conflict not by a rigid sense of duty, but by an authentic emotional response.  It is not until his final confrontation with the Japanese officer that me makes a premeditated decision to fight, and potentially sacrifice himself, on behalf of the nation.

Clearly Ip Man’s choices have been leading him to that point.  But rather than taking the stage as a fully formed legend (as Wong Fei Hung always did), Wilson Yip’s 2008 movie is essentially a tale about how Ip Man becomes a hero.  And at the end of the day he still prefers the role of the “withdrawn sage,” the martial arts hermit, to that of community activist and leader.

One wonders if there is something about this image that appeals to current audiences in Hong Kong and Southern China.  In both of these places traditional social structures are dissolving at an alarming pace.  Social capital, defined as the expected bonds of trust and reciprocity between any two random members of the same community, has reached an all-time low.  Individuals are withdrawing from all sorts of community activities.  Even traditional martial arts schools are struggling to survive.  Yet at the same time rates of education, wealth and social mobility are all on the rise.

I suspect that these sorts of basic social changes are critical to understanding both Ip Man’s sudden rise to prominence, and the particular way in which he has entered the public imagination.  Young individuals today may have a difficult time envisioning the extended social community that Wong Fei Hung oversaw, let alone what it would be like to lead it.  They may very well find the isolated, and emotionally authentic, Ip Man a more accessible role model.  He provides a clear anchor to the past, while at the same time suggesting new ways of navigating the future.

In conclusion, this examination of the evolution of Wong Fei Hung, and the subsequent rise of Ip Man, suggests some interesting trends within southern Chinese popular culture.  Wong has proved to be among the most resilient and adaptable characters in martial arts mythology.  He has even helped to define the functions that new heroes must serve.  To a large extent the popular portrayal of Ip Man seems to follow this pathway.  However, certain aspects of his story point to the increased atomization and breakdown of a wide range of voluntary social structures.  Still, martial arts storytelling remains a means of creating and reinforcing local identity.  This has been an important aspect of southern China’s regional culture since at least the middle of the Qing dynasty.


if you enjoyed this post you might also want to read: Lives of Chinese Martial Artists (11): Mok Kwai Lan – The Mistress of Hung Gar.


What Master T. T. Liang can Teach us about Wing Chun: Improving the Retention of Advanced Students.

Ancient maple, struck by lightening. Conewango valley, October 2012. Photo Credit: Tara Judkins. 

Tao Te Ching, Chapter Thirty-three:

Knowing others is wisdom;
Knowing the self is enlightenment.
Mastering others requires force;
Mastering the self needs strength.
He who knows he has enough is rich.
Perseverance is a sign of willpower.
He who stays where he is endures.
To die but not to perish is to be eternally present.

I am currently reading, and quite enjoying, Steal My Art: The Life and Times of T’ai Chi Master, T.T. Liang(North Atlantic Books, 2002) by Stuart Olson.  The book reads more like a memoire written in the third person than an academic biography, but it does capture the flavor of Master Liang’s life and it has gotten me thinking about a number of things.  Master Liang is certainly going on my list of figures that need to be profiled in the “Lives of Chinese Martial Artists” series.  He lived through a seminal period of martial arts history and his mid-life “salvation via the martial arts” narrative is very interesting and something that we have not yet touched on.

That post will have to wait for another day.  Right now I am even more interested in a couple of ideas that he advanced which seem to be quite important for martial artists of any style.  While Liang taught Yang Style Taiji, and his ideas have a very specific technical application in that setting, I think that the principals that underlay them can be generalized and applied to the martial arts more generally.  In this post I would like to use his theories to address an issue that I have seen in the Wing Chun community.

Retention of older martial artists is a problem for a number of styles.  Sometimes the barriers are physical.  While it is not impossible, it is very difficult for the average 40 year old American to walk into a Tae Kwon Do school and succeed at the highest levels of the sport.  Nor does this just apply to new students.  Even longtime Tae Kwon Do, Shaolin and Karate students find their martial arts careers coming to an end as injuries mount and it becomes impossible to pick oneself up off the mat, time after time, night after night.

A handful of these individuals will go on to be teachers or business owners, but most will drift away from the sport.  This is a problem because as they drift away they take their collective years of experience and insight with them.  It is also a tragedy on a more personal level.  As their activity level wanes whatever self-defense and health benefits they derived from their years of training quickly vanish.

I am always depressed with the number of “former” martial artists that I meet and talk to as I do my research.  Still, for a certain set of styles this is simply accepted as the nature of the exercise.  As one local Judoka said “Its just the nature of the game.”

Nevertheless, some “games” are less forgiving than others.  One suspects that the average athletic career of a professional MMA fighter will probably be a couple of years, whereas the average Taiji instructor might be active for decades.  In fact, one of the reasons why I really admire the Taiji community is that they have come up with a workable solution to this problem.  Young martial artists can be taught physically demanding acrobatic and boxing techniques, middle aged individuals can focus on self-defense and pushing hands, and even the very elderly can be involved in ongoing teaching, education and Qigong practice.  It is really a much better system than abandoning everyone that you have trained for a decade or two once they turn 35.

Freshly cut corn in the Conewango valley. October, 2012. Photo Credit: Benjamin Judkins.

Tao Te Ching, Chapter Eleven:

Thirty spokes share the wheel’s hub;
It is the center hole that makes it useful.
Shape clay into a vessel;
It is the space within that makes it useful.
Cut doors and windows for a room;
It is the holes which make it useful.
Therefore benefit comes from what is there;
Usefulness from what is not there.

Age, Experience and Retention in the American Wing Chun Community

Then there are other arts that seem to be partway between these two extremes.  Wing Chun is one such case.  It seems to me that we pay a lot of lip service to this being an art that one can do even as a senior citizen.  We point to individuals like Ip Man or his sons who have practiced the art, at a high level, well into their golden years.  And yet in my admittedly limited, personal and unscientific experience, we don’t actually have too many students who stick around until they are middle aged.

This is something of a paradox.  Chi Sao can be done at a lot of different levels of intensity, and it has real value at all of them.  It is also a game that really rewards experience and good instincts.  Sure you might want to scale back the ground work and intensive iron palm training as you glide into your senior years, but there is nothing fundamental about Wing Chun that excludes individuals over the age of 45.  Just look at the Ip family.

I suspect that our problem is actually how we introduce the art to our students.  We talk a lot about self-defense.  And that is really important.  The possibility of real violence is that external check that keeps what we do “real” and on task.  And quite frankly, senior citizens need basic self-defense skills as much as anyone else, probably more.

However, if that is our only focus I think we end up limiting ourselves.  Most Wing Chun schools have a progression of classes that track the three unarmed forms, the dummy and then weapons.  I have noticed that a couple of my Kung Fu brothers have gone through the system, gotten to the end (or very close to it), and realizing that there was “nothing new to learn” just sort of fade out.  Once they stop training regularly it doesn’t take too long before their skills and knowledge fade.

Obviously a lot can happen in a life.  People get new jobs, move or their health deteriorates.  That sort of stuff is understandable.  But sticking around for five years just to quit when you “graduate” in year six?  That has always seemed like an odd approach to Wing Chun.  I don’t think anyone consciously intends to do it, and yet it seems to happen pretty frequently anyway.

One room schoolhouse. October 2012, Conewango Valley.  Photo credit: Tara Judkins.

Tao Te Ching, Chapter Twelve:

The five colors blind the eye.
The five tones deafen the ear.
The five flavors dull the taste.
Racing and hunting madden the mind.
Precious things lead one astray.
Therefore the sage is guided by what he feels and not by what he sees.
He lets go of that and chooses this.

T. T. Liang and the four goals of a martial artist.

Well, what would Master T. T. Liang have to say about this?  “Bullshit!” would almost inevitably be his answer.  Olson reports that this scatological outburst was his trademark invective, almost his catchphrase if you will.  On a more productive note Liang would probably remind us that that we need to think very seriously about our goals when starting a martial art, and to revisit those goals regularly throughout our training.

Liang claimed that any Taiji player (or in our case Wing Chun student) has four basic goals that define and allow one to navigate a lifetime of study.  These are health, self-defense, mental accomplishment and immortality.  In one sense you work on these goals one at a time, starting with basic health and moving on from there.  On a deeper level I think that you will find that they are all interconnected in profound ways and reinforce one another.

Starting with the basics, health and physical conditioning have got to be the foundation of any martial practice.  It does no good to start serious self-defense training if the student won’t be able to withstand the training and ends up injured.  We actually see that happen a lot in the martial arts world and its totally counterproductive.  Fundamentally we practice the martial arts because we want to accomplish something that we could not before (e.g., we seek power) and being injured or maimed is not really advancing that goal.  Yet this is what will almost certainly happen if we just throw our students in at the deep end of the pool.

So first you build basic core strength, physical condition, bone density, balance and cardiovascular fitness.  You need all of these things before you can Chi Sao at a high level, but you also need all of these things to fully enjoy an active and healthy life.  Like Taiji, Wing Chun understands that the best way to build up these health benefits is slowly, and in service of some other goal where students derive enjoyment and can see immediate feedback as to their progress.  I suspect that this why these sorts of martial arts work as a health building tool for so many people who might otherwise not succeed in a mundane gym environment.

Once the body has been strengthened and conditioned, you can turn your discussion to a serious study of self-defense.  Of course self-defense has never been absent from the class.  It was motivating the punching and stepping drills, gave purpose to the core-strengthening exercises and kept students motivated.

Still, there is something fundamentally different about the approach to self-defense that is seen at the Siu Lim Tao level verses at the Chum Kiu or Biu Jee level.  As my Sifu explained it to me, in Siu Lim Tao we were learning the basic motions, the “alphabet” of combat.  In Chum Kiu entire words and phrases became possible.

By Biu Jee students should be able to read the intentions of their opponents clearly and easily, and express their own creative “questions” in turn.  As the dummy and weapons are mastered one goes from having simple conversations to being empowered to make and understand complex arguments about the nature of violence and defense.  Health and conditioning never really go away in this process, but they do fade as a priority as students become more focused on the multiparty exchange that is self-defense.

It seems that this is as far as most students ever get in the Wing Chun system.  Self-defense is a sufficient goal to sustain you through the swords, but for reasons that I admit that I do not clearly understand, it doesn’t seem to be enough to justify the continued sacrifice which regular training demands once all of the “information” in the system has been acquired.

This is a shame, because on some level the “information” is not what Wing Chun is really about.  It is good to have it, and it is essential if you are planning on teaching.  But reading your opponent and “knowing what to do next” is less than 50% of the battle.  More important than controlling your opponent is learning to read and control yourself.

We have all had the experience in Chi Sao where an opponent comes at us repeatedly with a certain kind of energy.  Perhaps they are always advancing straight forward with penetrating blows, or maybe they always (and only) seek to unbalance you by sticking and shifting.  Once your opponent does the same thing a couple of times it is easy to figure out what is going on and counter it.  A skillful opponent will immediately switch tactics, but on a bad day we all might fail to adjust.  And some individuals just don’t seem to be able to shift gears.  Have you ever wondered why?

This is where “mental accomplishment” becomes critical to the performance of the martial arts.  Every physical technique you use is an expression of a prior mental impulse, and the hard truth is that we are all impulsive by nature.  Nor are most of us really aware of where these impulses come from.  As often as not deeply seated emotional complexes determine who we fight or react in life or death situations.  Sometimes, no matter how rational it would be to stop and adjust your strategy, you cannot do it.  Once you get tired, worn down, discouraged or angry your emotions are in control.

In Biu Jee and the dummy we teach our students not to extend any physical energy that your opponent can grab onto and manipulate against you.  Basically when in a bridged position you don’t want to commit to any given course of action first, but you would like to convince your opponent to commit to something that you can then manipulate.

The same principal is true on an emotional level as well.  You can’t afford to extend any emotional energy to your opponent that they can read, manipulate and use against you. Yes, you had better believe that your mental state effects your physical movements. You cannot afford to radiate fear, anger, hatred or even confidence.  The best Wing Chun fighters that I have seen are like a mask.  They are impossible to read emotionally when they engage in Chi Sao.  Lacking any preconceived intention, their movements are impossible to anticipate.  They simply do what is necessary and they do it without hesitation.

This is a skill that takes a lot more than five years to master.  Self-defense is critical, but at some point you realize that the enemy who is responsible for all of your losses, setbacks and humiliations is you.  Mental accomplishment is central to accomplishing the basic goals of Wing Chun, and if you achieve it the payoffs in every area of life are enormous.  But like health and self-defense skills, one must be mindful of this goal and continue to strive for it regularly.  Chi Sao is useful because it becomes a metaphor for your success more broadly, but most of the payoffs will come outside of the school.  Unfortunately few students in the Wing Chun community even seem to be aware that this is a goal worth striving for.

Lastly is the question of “immortality.”  This is one of those places where we will have to play a little fast and loose with Master Liang’s actual teachings to find some shared common ground.  Like many individuals in China, Liang was a staunch believer in the power of Qigong and traditional Taoist practices to increase both longevity and ones quality of life.  In fact, Liang made a fairly serious study of the Taoist arts of Longevity and lived to be 102 (103 in the Chinese system) meaning that he technically achieved the rank of “immortal.”  He recommended that Qigong practices be part of the repertoire of every Taiji student, and quite frankly, who am I to argue with results like the ones he demonstrated.

Nevertheless, esoteric longevity practices and Qigong have never had much of a place in traditional Wing Chun.  These sorts of concerns seem to be directly at odds with our “practical self-defense” orientation and they don’t jive with our modern western notions of science and medicine.

Still, lots of individual Wing Chun students have taken up Qigong as a separate art.  Even Ip Man used the Siu Lim Tao form for his own Qi building exercises.  This is certainly something that individuals in the Wing Chun community are free to experiment with and it might even be of great value as we age and more vigorous forms of exercise are no longer possible.  Of course Wing Chun’s once deep relationship with traditional Chinese medicine is in some ways the “last great frontier” of the art remaining to be discovered by students in the west.

It occurs to me that possibly a more metaphorical reading of this last goal might also help us to address the problem that I noted at the start of this blog.  We can achieve a different sort of immortality through the collective memory of the Wing Chun community.  I think that each one of us should make it a goal to contribute something to the art that will outlast us.  In some cases this might be the creation of a new lineage, in others it could be a book or an article.  Some might contribute time and resources to a local charity or teach classes at a community college.  But for most of us the greatest and most positive impact that we will be able to make will be contributing our unique knowledge and insights to the next generation.

Even if you don’t go off and start your own school, showing up for Chi Sao a couple of times a week and working with the younger students gives them access to literally decades of experience and insight that they might not otherwise have.  While a contribution like that may seem modest, it can have a huge impact on the overall quality of a local Wing Chun community.  I think that we should strive for “immortality,” and we should do so by strengthening our communities.

Of course to do this we need to first instill more of a “community ethos” in our students.  We need to be the ones to set a good example and to demonstrate by our actions what positive involvement in the local community looks like.  People yearn for community involvement, and if we provide a space I am sure that they will stay.

Pumpkins. Wyoming County, October 2012. Photo Credit: Benjamin Judkins.

Tao Te Ching, Chapter Eight

The highest good is like water.
Water give life to the ten thousand things and does not strive.
It flows in places men reject and so is like the Tao.
In dwelling, be close to the land.
In meditation, go deep in the heart.
In dealing with others, be gentle and kind.
In speech, be true.
In ruling, be just.
In daily life, be competent.
In action, be aware of the time and the season.

No fight: No blame.


It is hard to imagine two martial arts that could be more different theoretically or historically than Wing Chun and Taiji.  These obvious contrasts notwithstanding, I have always been interested in the Taiji community and how they do things.  I suspect that there are one or two things that we as a community can learn from them.  Ideally I would like to see all three generations of students, young adults, the middle aged and senior citizens coming together in a single space to celebrate Wing Chun more often than we do.

There are undoubtedly some technical issues I haven’t touched on.  It is probably easier for the Taiji community to have an open social structure as they meet in parks or other open spaces which, in China at least, tend to be the home turf of senior citizens anyway.  Wing Chun schools tend to meet in indoors.  Having regimented classes with a clear purpose is central to paying the rent or mortgage.    Having a lot of “former” students continuing to hang around might not fit with these sorts of short-term economic concerns.  Still, I am sure that with a little thought we can create structures that will increase and strengthen our retention of students in the long run.

Through a Lens Darkly (8): Butterfly Swords, Dadaos and the Local Militias of Guangdong, 1840 vs. 1940.

A studio image of two Chinese soldiers (local braves) produced probably in Hong Kong during the 1850s. Note the hudiedao (butterfly swords) carried by both individuals. Unknown Photographer.
A studio image of two Chinese soldiers (local braves) produced probably in Hong Kong during the 1850s. Note the hudiedao (butterfly swords) carried by both individuals.  The individual on the right seems to be carrying a single sword crafted in the style of a hudiedao, while the one on the left a true set of double swords. Unknown Photographer.

Introduction:  The Butterfly Swords and Southern Martial Arts Defend the Nation

I recently ran across two photographs that I think students of the southern Chinese martial arts may find very enlightening.  They speak to interesting tactical and cultural questions.  On the one hand they provide a record of how individuals fought and the specific weapons that they used.  But on a deeper level they reveal subtle cultural trends that were effecting the martial arts of Guangdong during the 1920s and 1930s, a key period in their evolution and development.

The martial arts have long been associated with military training and local defense.  These links, however, are more complex than they first appear.  From at least the time of the Song dynasty officials were able to make an increasingly clear distinction between the martial arts as a social practice (predominantly carried out by civilians) and actual military skills (as practiced by soldiers).  The two areas were seen as clearly distinct, if still related, fields of studies.  One might lead to a career in the other, or it could lead to a number of other things.

And that was the problem.  Many of the activities of martial artists tended to be less than savory.  During the Ming and Qing dynasty opera and other street performers were often associated with the martial arts.  These rootless individuals were looked down on by most elements of society.  Other martial artists got jobs as military escorts or guards for local businessmen or property owners.  The state was not always enthusiastic about the creation of independent pockets of military power controlled by these sorts of free agents.  Finally, a disproportionate number of martial artists seem to have run afoul of the law and ended up as bandits or pirates.

Surely some of the accounts of the associations between martial arts schools and criminal organizations are exaggerations, but there is a disturbing grain of truth behind many of these stories that needs to be acknowledged if one really wants to understand the place of the martial arts in Chinese society.  This reputation for links to the criminal underground was one of the main sources of tension between martial artists and mainstream society in Hong Kong during the 1970s and 1980s.  I have recently heard some disturbing reports that the same sort of reputation is starting to reemerge in the current era as more Chinese parents are actively discouraging their children from taking up the traditional arts.

Robert J. Anotony discusses one of the common strategies employed to deal with the problem of wayward tough kids (often with some training in boxing and weapons) in his monograph Like Froth Floating on the Sea: the World of Pirates and Seafarers in Late Imperial South China.  When the piracy or banditry problems flared up in Guangdong one of the first things that the local government often did was to start hiring “braves” (basically independent mercenaries) to stiffen the local regiments and to organizing village, clan and gentry led militia units.

This was not an entirely new strategy, though the south did tend to embrace it with a particular enthusiasm.  During the 1510 Rebellion a Confucian statesman named Yang Yiqing (1454-1530) proposed a strategy for containing the spread of the violence by actively absorbing into the state as many under-employed young men with military training as was financially possible.  He petitioned the throne to authorize the Minister of War to hire civilian volunteers for limited terms of service (most of the Ming army was hereditary at that point) and to institute a special set of military exams that would select civilians who possessed great strength, archery skills, the ability to ride, and martial artists who specialized in the pole, spear, sword, chain or unarmed boxing as well as those who had studied military texts.  These individuals were to be recruited on generous terms, payed and equipped well, and given low-level leadership posts, such as being named a “military trainer.”  The suggestion of Yang and others were accepted and this strategy became a common practice for dealing with security concerns during both the Ming and Qing (David Robinson, Bandits, Eunuchs and the Son of Heaven, pp. 84-85).

Both Robinson and Antony point out that there is one critical element of Yang’s plan at is often missed by modern readers.  Rather than just bolstering local defense, Yang was really attempting to engage in direct economic competition with local bandits chieftains, rebels leaders or invaders who might also wish to employ the services of these same young men.  Creating extensive militias in times of crisis not only gave the state a valuable source of reserve troops, but it also made the situation less volatile by controlling a large and unpredictable set of actors.

It is critical to understand this so that we can really grasp the full relationship between martial arts training and militia service in southern China during the Qing dynasty.  From at least the Ming period on both the state and society were making increasingly clear distinctions between the martial arts as a civilian social institution (which was sometimes implicated in low level violence) and the actual business of warfare (which involved rifles, cannons, fortifications and massed cavalry charges).

Yes knowing some boxing could be an asset to military training.  Knowing pole or spear fighting would be even better.  But martial artists were intentionally sought out for recruitment into militias in large part because of their social marginality.  This was a crowd that was overwhelming young, it worked cheap and local leaders were worried about what they might do if left to their own devices.  Putting them to work for the duration of the crisis seemed to be a good idea.

This brings us to our first picture.  This photograph probably dates from the 1850s.  The photographer or circumstances of its creation are unknown.  It was probably taken in Hong Kong some time after the First Opium War (and likely after the Red Turban Revolt), but prior to the Second Opium War.

The two “soldiers” in the photograph look to be teenagers.  I suspect a disproportionate percentage of local militia recruits during both the Ming and Qing were likely very young adults.  There certainly seems to be some demographic issues at play here that need to be more fully explored in a future post.

Obviously this photograph was taken in a staged studio setting.  Still, the uniforms, helmets and weapons are very real.  The models look to be quite real as well.  While a recreation, this is probably the most accurate and detailed representation of mid 19th century Cantonese militia members that I have ever seen.

Both boys are wearing a rough uniform that includes a dark tunic, shoes, a helmet and a label which reads “zhuàng yǒng.”  Translated literally these characters mean “strong and courageous,” but a more colloquial reading might be “valiant” or “brave.”  The uniforms, standardized weapons and the labels suggest that these individuals are mercenary martial artists, usually referred to in the historical literature simply as “braves,” who were so common in this period.  Its interesting to note that both of these individuals have been issued hudiedao as part of their “official” gear.  One individual carries this weapon as a sidearm accompanying his rifle, while in the other case they are the primary arms.  This matches quite closely the written descriptions of civilian troops from the period which we previously reviewed here.

We can now compare this photograph with another image of a militia unit.  This image clearly shows a local village militia group somewhere outside of Guangzhou.  Maybe it would be better thought of as a martial arts class that has been dressed and used as a militia.  These “soldiers” appear to be shockingly young.

Another picture of the same young militia group, thistime in their home village. Luckily the hudiedao of the leader have become dislodged in their sheath. We can now confirm that these are double blades, and they are of the long, narrow stabbing variety seen in some of the prior photographs. Source http:\
A local village militia group outside of Guangzhou, probably in the mid. 1850s. Source http:\

This village militia does not seem to have the same level of economic support as the “braves” hired in the major urban areas.  Most of the soldiers are without shoes, they have no semblance of uniforms, and their weapons vary greatly.  However, it is interesting to note that the leader of this group is clearly carrying a set of hudiedao (butterfly swords), and other photographs in this series suggest that the individuals with the shields are as well.

These two photographs represent two different elements of the late Qing militia strategy.  The first set of soldiers are likely youths from a city (sometimes referred to as “urban toughs” by local officials) who were likely involved in boxing and were recruited into military service directly by officers of the state.  The second photo shows a much more organic group.  These youths were likely part of a crop-watching society or martial arts class in a small village.  There is a very good chance that most of these kids are related to each other (either as siblings or cousins).  During a time of crisis a local landlord or degree holder would recruit multiple groups such as this, and organize them into a fighting unit.  This force would be supplied and coordinated through the gentry led militia system.  The standardized helmets and shields (as well as the presence of some rudimentary firearms and hudiedao) would seem to indicate that this organization had already happened, but there is no sign of the larger military or social structure that this unit is supposed to be embedded in.

Guangdong Militias of the 1930s and 1940s.

The martial arts continued to be associated with the formation of militias and the defense of local communities in the 1930s.  While hand combat was quickly disappearing from the battlefield, these skills remained an important part of the repertoire of local militia men.

In fact, there is a notable change on this front from the pattern that we just reviewed 100 years previously.  In that case the government was free to recruit martial artists in large numbers.  They did so both to bolster the number of fighting troops at their disposal, but also as a means of temporarily strengthening their control over local society at a potentially sensitive and volatile time.

During the 1930s and 1940s most residents of urban areas had no martial arts training.  It appears that many of these individuals were first introduced to the martial arts when they joined a local militia group, or “Big Sword” (Dadao) training class to help to defend the nation.  The Nationalist Party consciously used the martial arts (regulated though their Guoshu program) as a means of strengthening the people, both physically and psychologically.

In the countryside these steps were less necessary.  Farmers still had to form crop-watching societies, bandits still plagued the roads and the martial arts were a popular pastime in a number of agricultural communities.  In short, the situation for many of the province’s rural martial artists was not markedly different in 1940 than it had been in 1840.  The greatest difference between the time periods would be the sudden increase in urban middle class martial artists that started to be seen in the 1920s.  Yet most people still lived in the countryside, and there life went on pretty much the same as always.

As such you might guess that the sorts of militias, technologies and weapons used would be pretty similar.  This turns out to be only partially true.  It is still the case that most peasants could not afford to buy a rifle, but the rifles that were seen in the 1940s were overwhelmingly bolt action designs.  While their state of repair might be variable, they were actually broadly comparable to what the average Japanese infantryman might carry.

Those members of the militia and rebel groups that could not be armed with guns still carried traditional weapons.  The following two photographs are very instructive in this regard.  The first of these was part of a series of images of a rural militia group organizing outside of Guangzhou in 1938 taken by Robert Cappa.  Other images in the same series can be seen here.

Member of a local militia outside of Guangzhou, 1938. Source: Vintage war photography by Robert Cappa.
Member of a local militia outside of Guangzhou, 1938. Source: Vintage war photography by Robert Capa.

I quite like this image for a variety of reasons.  First and foremost it is simply an excellent photo that humanizes its subject.  That is something that many early western photographers of China utterly failed to do.  It seems that they took their task to be the illustration of “difference” rather than an exploration of our shared humanity.

On a more mundane level this photograph also offers one of the most detailed studies of actual spears from the 1940s that one is likely to ever see.  The nature and construction of the spearhead is clearly visible.  Again, some individuals in this unit are armed with rifles, and the others carried spears.

For all of their actual practicality, spears are not the weapon that most people associate with the patriotic martial artists of WWII.  That honor would go to the “Dadao” or the “Military Big-Saber.”  These large two handed swords are the most iconic weapon to emerge from China during the early 20th century.  I discussed the origins and social history of these blades here.

While a few regular units were issued this weapon and organized into “Big Sword Teams,” its important to remember that the vast majority of the regular KMT army was armed just like any other modern military of the time.  They were issued bolt action rifles, semi-automatic handguns, grenades and sub-machine guns.  I have spent quite a bit of time searching old books and photo archives for good images of soldiers with dadaos in the field (as opposed to in a photography studio or on a parade ground), and I can tell you that such images are rarer than one might think.  They certainly exist, but finding good shots is a challenge.

Most of the individuals who were issued these weapons were in fact second line troops such as militias, rural guerrilla groups, military police units and railway guards.  Issuing traditional arms to these groups freed up more advanced weapons for those soldiers actually fighting the Japanese.  Further, these groups actually spent the majority of their time securing villages, protecting fixed assets and dealing with Chinese civilians.  In those settings a dadao was both very intimidating and very effective.

Again, this is not to say that there were not a few important battlefield clashes where dadao were used, but those instances are remembered precisely because they were the exception rather than the rule.  For the regular army the dadao seems to have functioned as a moral boosting weapon.  Those individuals who actually used it in anger tended to be concentrated in guerrilla and militia units.

A Chinese guerrilla team armed with rifles and dadaos near Guangzhou in 1941. Source: Vintage War photograph, Everett Collection.
A Chinese guerrilla team armed with rifles and dadaos near Guangzhou in 1941. Source: Vintage War photograph, Everett Collection.

The preceding photograph was taken of a group of Chinese guerrillas who were actively resisting the Japanese outside of Guangzhou in 1941.  I have not been able to figure out who the original photographer was (though I have a couple of guesses).  The individuals in the image are dressed in the almost universal garb of insurgents in Asia and are armed with a variety of weapons including modern and older firearms, and dadaos.

A number of interesting features of these blades are visible.  To begin with both of the blades in the foreground have holes in the back of the spine near the tip of the blade.  On civilian swords these often contain a brass or metal ring.  In the current case I suspect the hole is meant to hold a cord or a sling so that the sword can be worn across the back.  Note that neither sword appears to have come with a scabbard.

The sword on the right also shows an intricately wrapped handle.  This contrasts markedly with the sword on the left.  While the blades appear to be absolutely identical, its handle has a plain cord wrap.  Given the humid wet conditions of southern China, period handle wraps in good condition are rare.  This photo yields some interesting evidence as to what these swords looked like and how they were used in the early 1940s.

On a deeper level it is interesting to ask why these troops are armed with dadaos at all.  At first glance this seems to be a very “traditional” weapon inherited from the ancient past.  Yet that is mostly an illusion.  While militia forces from the area traditionally did use a variety of different types of swords, the dadao was not one of them.  There are no accounts of troops using these sorts of swords against the British in Guangzhou in the 1840s.  At that time chopping weapons were common but they were always mounted on longer poles (pu dao) giving the wielder the advantage of leverage, speed and reach.

Instead the hudiedao seems to have been the favored sidearm of martial artists and militia members in the region for much of the 19th century.  During the 1840s and 1850s the government purchased huge numbers of these arms and trained thousands of people in their use.  Double swords really were an “official” weapon of local government backed paramilitary groups.

That may seem odd from a modern perspective.  We tend to treat butterfly swords as a highly exotic “Kung Fu” weapon.  They are regarded with an aura of supernal mystery.  But the truth is that if you already know how to box, its not that hard to give someone the rudimentary training they might need to use this weapon effectively.  Additionally the hudiedao were small enough to be treated as a sidearm that would not get in the way of a bow, rifle or spear (the primary arms of most local troops).  Given that the militias of the 19th century were actively recruiting martial artists and boxers, issuing hudiedao made a lot of sense.

By the 1930s this weapon had vanished from the battlefield.  Southern martial artists still practiced with it, and criminals occasionally employed it on the streets for their own nefarious reasons.  However I have never seen any indication that militia groups in Guangdong continued to use this familiar local weapon.  Instead most of them seem to have issued the dadao, a fundamentally different two handed saber from the north, as the predominant sidearm.

It would not be too difficult to teach most peasants to use a dadao as they all used two-handed tools in their daily lives.  Then again, many of these same peasants were already martial artists, swords were common, and very few individuals in southern China used double handed blades.  Introducing a totally new type of bladed weapon seems to be a needless complication.

Nor am I really convinced that the dadao was adopted simply because it could be made “cheaply and easily by anyone.”  Cheaply perhaps.  But given how heavy and clunky some of the dadao are that I have handled, their production must not have been all that “easy” for some facilities.  If the provincial government could produce somewhere between 3,000 and 10,000 hudiedao in the year 1838-1839, I am not sure why the much more efficient and industrial government of 1937 would not have been able to do the same thing.

Far from being a “traditional weapon,” the dadao is really better thought of as a new invention in the 1920s and 1930s.  While swords of this type had existed in the past they had never been issued on such a massive, near universal, scale.  Nor had they ever been asked to do so much.  The dadao succeeded not only because of its low price, but also because it reminded individuals of a mythic time in the past when the country was unified and strong.  Specifically, it reminded them of the Ming dynasty, when China had defeated the Japanese twice.

The dadao became a successful national icon only after it was imbued with these meanings.  It was adopted into the universalizing and modernizing vision of the Central Guoshu Institute and from there it was exported to southern China precisely because it spread these norms and identities.  Any sword could do what the dadao did in purely physical terms.  Many probably could have done it better.  Yet the image of the guerrilla savagely resisting the Japanese with his trusty dadao became a touchstone in the national discussion of resistance and identity.  And that is precisely what the martial arts were supposed to do under the guidance of the Central Guoshu Institute.  They were supposed to strengthen and unify the people.

Conclusion: A Complicating Twist

Can we then conclude that the dadao is an example of the export of a northern martial art and set of concepts into the southern hand combat marketplace?  Does its presence, popularity and wide scale adoption in Guangdong indicate a broader acceptance of, and standardization on, the northern martial arts in the 1930s?  Did this indicate that the traditional southern arts were seriously damaged by the various northern led reform movements that swept through the nation’s martial arts in the 1920s and 1930s?

Not necessarily.  It is true that the residents of southern China signed up for “Big Sword” classes with as much enthusiasm as anyone else.  But the entrepreneurial martial arts teachers of the south treated this new weapon as a way of drumming up interest in the martial arts more generally.  I have never seen anything to indicate that they viewed it as a threat or resisted its importation.  In fact, southern hand combat teachers were some of biggest material beneficiaries of the creation of Big Sword units and militias throughout the region.

Various police and military academies had to hire local martial arts instructors to teach dadao classes.  Very often these same schools had full time martial artists from the north, but these individuals were already quite busy teaching the “official” military, police or Guoshu curriculum.  The inclusion of additional material was thus an economic windfall for well connected local martial artists who competed for these side-jobs.  Not only did they come with a government backed paycheck, but they were an important way of networking and connecting with students from other parts of society.  One could even use these sorts of appointments to forge connections with various police and military officials, as was demonstrated by Cheung Lai Chuen, the creator of modern White Eyebrow, during his stint as a “Big Sword” instructor.

These teachers turned to their own stores of local knowledge to develop their own curriculum and style for “Big Sword” instruction.  Just as the physical details of these swords tend to differ from specimen to specimen, so to did the techniques and forms developed by different local matters.  For instance, in the south instructors from Choy Li Fut, Hung Gar and White Eyebrow all developed their own dadao techniques and trained their own students.  Presumably each of these styles drew on the martial insight of their respective styles.

The move from the hudiedao to the dadao in the Guangdong militia is interesting as it demonstrates the limits of what the Central Guoshu Institute could really accomplish in terms of promoting a modern universal standard of practice based on the northern martial arts.  Even in areas of the country where they were represented and could openly operate (mostly the coastal urban zone), their actual presence on the ground was pretty thin.  While they were able to craft a discourse and create the demand for certain types of knowledge and services, as often as not it was local martial artists who provided the actual training.  This was especially true when it came to the vital task of drilling militia and paramilitary groups.  On the surface it appears that the adoption of the dadao by China’s martial artists in the 1930s was a universal phenomenon.  But if you scratch beneath the surface it becomes apparent that even this trend was really reinforcing the local and the particular.

Sugong: Nick Hurst Explores South East Asia’s Shaolin Kung Fu Tradition.


Nick Hust.  Sugong: The Life of a Shaolin Grandmaster. Sports Books. 2012. pp. 291.

Introduction: Summer Reading for Chinese Martial Artists

It is that time of year again.  It is the season when literally everyone I know packs a bag, prints out a boarding pass and heads out in search of the nirvana that is “summer vacation.”  Yeah, I mostly hang out with other academics.  And who can blame them.  The pay is not that great, so it is critical to make the most of the “perks” of the job.  And if the Dean calls, remember, you are out of the country doing “research.”

In reality a distressing amount of research actually will be done by the end of the summer.  But everyone takes a few weeks off, and what you really need is a good book.  Something that is well written, engaging and refreshing.  You want something that addresses the Chinese martial arts, but does so in a way that will recharge your batteries, let you see things from a slightly different perspective and inspire you to come out swinging when it is time to get back to the research.

The one book you must read this summer is Sugong: The Life of a Shaolin Grandmaster by Nick Hurst (Sporting Books, 2012).  This volume has gotten some good press and I have even linked to a couple of positive reviews of it in previous posts.  Still, I haven’t really heard it discussed among the martial artists that I work with and talk to.  That is a shame because Hurst’s narrative has a lot to offer the Chinese martial arts community, and he has wrapped it all up in an attractive and easy to read package.

Nick Hurst, author of Sugong.
Nick Hurst, author of Sugong.

Sugong: Exploring the life of a Shaolin Grandmaster.

As regular readers know, most of the books that I review here at 功夫网 are decidedly scholarly in their manner and intended audience.  I have a hard time detaching myself from that mode of analysis.  Still, it has never been the case that only books by University Presses are worth reading.  In fact, keeping up with the commercial literature is especially important if you write on the martial arts because, at heart, what we study really is part of modern “popular culture.”

There are three things that we need when thinking about martial arts studies.  The first two are the most basic.  We need theories of how the martial arts evolve and function in society, and we need data to test those stories.  Sugong doesn’t really concern itself with the big theoretical questions.  That is just as well, there are a lot of other authors who specialize in that sort of thing.

What Sugong brings to the table is a truly gripping narrative that is absolutely packed with careful social observation, interviews and ethnographic analysis.  This is the sort of data that can only come from a painstakingly researched study of a small number of careers and schools in a given time and space.  Hurst offers the sort of highly granular observation and information that comes only from tightly focused studies.

If you are interested in how the monastic fighting monk tradition evolved in the modern era, if you are curious about the traditional Chinese martial arts in South East Asia, if you have questions about how the martial arts relate to identity and marginality, you will find this volume to be an incredibly rich source of data.  If you want to see how these large scale issues actually play themselves out in the lives of a handful of martial artists in the post-WWII period, this book is indispensable.

Truth be told, we in the field of Chinese martial studies, need more books like Sugong.  We just don’t have a large enough body of carefully written case studies, and few of the ones that we do have are this enjoyable to read.

In literary terms Hurst’s work is somewhat difficult to classify.  It is part biography, part memoir of a beloved teacher, part Kung Fu travelogue and part social history.  To make these various strains fit together Hurst made a number of interesting editorial decisions.  I think that he wisely allowed the “travelogue” aspect of his work serve as a thin framing mechanism for exploring the story’s social history, rather than actually attempting to make himself the hero of the volume.

Further, Hurst appears to have been pulled between two different goals.  On the one hand he attempts to let his primary source tell his own story in his own voice.  This is a very valuable exercise.  But on the other hand Hurst also appears to be drawn towards a more classical mode writing history, based on “the facts” and drawing on archival resources.  One might call this the “warts and all” mode of biographical history.

What emerged from this dual process was a remarkably nuanced portrait of at least two generations of Chinese Shaolin instructors in South East Asia.  Hurst presented a detailed personality sketch of his protagonists that did not attempt to hide their faults or shortcomings.  Yet at the same time they were contextualized and presented in such a way that it was still possible for the reader to understand how they could inspire such fierce devotion from their students.

Of course there is more to the exercise than simply presenting interesting observations and developing reliable character sketches.  The third thing that we really need any good book on the Chinese martial arts to do is to answer the “so what” question.  Why should readers care?  Why should martial artists today invest themselves in learning about the lives of individuals that they will never meet, in countries that most of us will never have a chance to visit?

Too often we seem content to languish in our myths.  In one sense there is nothing wrong with the story of the burning of the Shaolin temple.  Many people find it deeply inspiring.  It has a certain emotional power behind it.  But rarely do we stop to ask more serious and socially grounded questions about what it all means.  Why exactly do some monks, but not others (most), study martial arts?  What does this actually tell us about the martial arts themselves, and the role that they can play in the life of a community?

This is an area where Hurst really excels.  He shows us not one, but three or four (depending on how you split them) different aspects of how “Shaolin” training has happened, inside and outside of real temples with real monks and their apprentices.  In one instance we see monks (in Fujian) who teach martial arts to students as part of a more general education program at their temple.  In short, they teach martial arts to local students for the same reason that they teach literacy, because they are paid to do so by the local community.

In another instance we see a different martial monk being recruited by a local temple committee because their sanctuary has been taken over by squatters.  He is not expected to kick these individuals out with his bare hands, but as a “martial monk” he is expected to have expertise in dealing with these sorts of situations, as well as negotiating with the local government, police and triads.

These are remarkable portraits.  What emerges from these stories, and many others that I do not have the space to recount here, was how much traditional martial arts training was meant to be an education.  It may not have been a conventional education of the sort that we readily imagine in the west today.  But it was an education nonetheless.  It gave young adults the tools they needed to negotiate difficulties in society and to become community leaders.  Over and over again in Hurst’s narratives we see martial artists being called on to settle local disputes not with their hands, but through negotiations.

This is precisely why we should care about the Chinese martial arts in general and Hurst’s book in particular.  These systems have always been about more than combat.  They have played an important part in the political economy of traditional Chinese communities for hundreds of years.  Further, this is an aspect of community leadership or management that we have tended to overlook.  Our fantasies about Kung Fu fighting Buddhist monks have led us to neglect some much more interesting questions about how these monks interacted economically and socially with the community around them, and what role the martial arts actually played in all of this.

Sugong reminds us that these are interesting questions.  Further, it demonstrates that martial arts masters have continued to play a unique, if often overlooked, role in the life of the local community well into the post-WWII period.

Nick Hurst training with Queck Chong Tze, his "Sugong" or "Grandmaster" in the Hokkien dialect.
Nick Hurst training with Queck Chong Tze, his “Sugong” or “Grandmaster” in the Hokkien dialect.

Conclusion: Perfect Summer Reading for Kung Fu Geeks.

On a certain level I wish that Hurst had focused solely on the social history when writing this volume.  That is clearly the aspect of his work that I am the most drawn to.  Still, one of the things that gives his work punch is its page-turning narrative structure and easy reading style.  One cannot help but conclude that this is the perfect beach-book for Kung Fu geeks and students of Chinese martial studies alike.

I suspect that come fall, this work could also be used in a university classroom.  Undergraduate students in particular would likely respond well to the text.  It could easily be used to illustrate any number of theoretical arguments about the Chinese martial arts.  Further, the data that Hurst presents would probably be very helpful for students looking for arguments or topics for research papers.  Best of all, the characters in this book are so vividly written that they are likely to stick with students long after most of the more theoretical class material has been forgotten.

Sugong is an impressive work, especially when one considers that this was the author’s first book and first martial arts related research project.  There are a lot of other topics out there that could use a similar treatment.  Hopefully Hurst will consider following this volume up with another study in the same vein.

Click here to read 功夫网’s exclusive interview with Nick Hurst where he discusses the process of researching and writing Sugong.

Lau Bun-A Kung Fu Pioneer in America

Lau Bun demonstrating a form in the late 1960s. Source:


 Choy Li Fut’s place in southern Chinese martial culture.

Let me ask you a question.  What was the largest and most socially important martial art in Guangdong during the late 19th and early 20th century?  What was the first martial art to organize an extensive network of public commercial schools in all of the province’s major towns and cities?  Which southern Chinese martial art was the first to establish a permanent public school in the United States?

A few names often spring to mind.  Hung Gar is synonymous with southern boxing, and it was pretty popular.  But it’s not the answer we are looking for.  Wing Chun was an obscure regional style that few people had heard of until the 1960s.  And while many individuals studied one or more of the “Five Family Styles” they were highly fragmented.  White Crane was a popular import from Fujian (another southern province with a distinguished martial tradition), but that is not the answer either.

In the late 19th century Choy Li Fut became the public face of the southern martial arts throughout the Pearl River Delta and much of the province.  It was one of the most commercially successful schools of hand combat ever practiced in the region, and it commanded the loyalty of tens of thousands of students.  Through its various charitable associations and Lion Dance teams it managed to extend this reach even further.

Choy Li Fut tended to have strong working class associations in the early 20th century.  It was a popular martial art among handicraft artisans, porters, sailors and workers.  The Hung Sing Association became an early supporter of the Community Party and as a result was closed by the right-wing Nationalist Party (the GMD) after its purge of leftists elements in Shanghai (and around the country) in 1927.

Most southern martial arts schools were forced to close again with the Japanese invasion, and then with the Communist victory in 1949.  Needless to say, the Cultural Revolution also took a toll on the practice of all traditional martial arts in mainland China.  Like Wing Chun and Hung Gar, Choy Li Fut survived the 1960s and 1970s in exile.  It was practiced throughout the Chinese diaspora in places like Hong Kong, Singapore, and even California.

As a result of this highly disrupted history, many hand combat students today (both inside and outside of China) no longer understand the important role that Choy Li Fut played in the development of Southern China’s modern martial culture.  The art has yet to spawn a major media franchise (something that has benefited both Hung Gar and Wing Chun).  Still, if we wish to better understand the Southern Chinese martial arts, it is necessary to take a closer look at both the legends and history that surround this style.

Of course Choy Li Fut is also interesting as it was one of the first Chinese martial arts to be openly taught in the United States of America in the post-WWII era.  During the 19th century different Tong had engaged in military training, created militias and hired enforcers.  One of the first concerted efforts at southern “martial training” in the US that I am aware of occurred in 1854 in the months leading up to the Weaverville War.

Still, these early experiments did not lead to long-term public instruction in the martial arts.  It is also an interesting philosophical exercise to consider whether training with the trident and musket to fight in a battle would be considered to be an example of “martial arts practice” by most modern observers today.  When it came to hand combat, it appears that Chinese fighters in the US were just as likely to study western boxing as anything else for most of the late 19th and early 20th century.

San Francisco Chinatown circa 1950. Source: Vintage Postcard.
San Francisco Chinatown circa 1950. Source: Vintage Postcard.

Lau Bun: A Pioneer of the Chinese Martial Arts in America.

Most observers of the Chinese martial arts agree that Lau Bun was the first individual to open a permanent, somewhat-public, Chinese martial arts school on the American mainland.  That fact alone makes him an important figure to know about.  However, the details of his life are fascinating for other reasons as well.  As well as illustrating many aspects of the Chinese American experience, his career demonstrates the many ways in which the martial arts intersected with, and were useful to, the broader political-economy of immigrant communities.

Whether it was providing physical protection, settling disputes, or creating a sense of cultural continuity, Lau Bun’s life provides us with an interesting window into how the martial arts interacted with, and were used by, the broader Chinese society in the early 20th century.  For that reason I felt that a brief biographical sketch of his career would make a valuable contribution to our lives of the “Chinese Martial Artists” series.

Before starting I should state that my own background is not in Choy Li Fut.  Rather, my interests in this subject are purely historical and social.  When discussing the background of Choy Li Fut in China I have relied on Zeng Zhaosheng’s 1989 volume Guangdong Wushu Shi (A History of Guangdong Martial Arts).  I have drawn the basic facts of Lau Bun’s life from a 2002 article entitled “Remembering Lau Bun” by Doc Fei-Wong published in the July edition of Inside Kung Fu.  Lastly I would like to thank Derek Graeff for his insights into the history and development of the American Choy Li Fut community.

Lau Bun was born in Taishan in Guangdong province at the end of the Qing dynasty in 1891.  Taishan is southwest of Jiangmen and sits on a coastal region of the Pearl River Delta.  The area is known for both its musical traditions (something that Lau Bun enjoyed and promoted throughout his life) as well as its large expatriate community.  The local language spoken in the region is Taishanese, a cousin of Cantonese.

Large groups of Taishanese speaking immigrants left for the American west in the middle decades of the 19th century.  Some of these individuals worked for the railroad, while others took service jobs in gold mining communities or worked in San Francisco.  Until very recently, Taishanese was the most commonly encountered dialect spoken in Chinese American communities.

While the working conditions endured by these early immigrants were bleak, the wages they earned were often quite generous compared to what was being made in their home villages.  Family members in America often mailed home some of their salaries as “remittances” which became an important source of liquidity in the local economy.

Lau Bun was born into a family situation that was deeply dependent on the tides of late 19th century globalization.  His father worked in California and sent home the remittances that supported his mother and siblings.  This source of income allowed the divided family to enjoy a comfortable standard of living.

For Lau Bun this meant that his family could afford to hire martial arts teachers to instruct him (recall that at this point the idea of the “public commercial school” had not yet become standardized across the region).  Accounts state that his early teachers may have exposed him to Hung Gar and Mok Gar.  For whatever reason, the family continued to look for a teacher and eventually settled on a well-known Choy Li Fut teacher named Yuen Hai.

Yuen Hai was trained at the Hung Sing Association Hall in Foshan, north east of Taishan.  Following the death of the legendary Jeong Yim (who did much to establish Choy Li Fut as a major force in the Pearl River Delta region) Yuen Hai was sent to Taishan by the new leader of the organization (Chan Ngau Sing) for the express purpose of opening a Choy Li Fut school and promoting the spread of the style.  This probably happened in 1893-1894, but there is no universally accepted date for the death of Jeong Yim which complicates our account.  It is also important to note that these sorts of assignments are not all that uncommon in Choy Li Fut’s history and they may help to account for the arts rapid geographic spread in the late 19th century.

Yuen Hai’s career was rich and varied.  He quickly became caught up in the expatriate driven economy that was so important to the region.  When he first moved to the area he rented space in clan temples to conduct his classes.  This was a fairly common practice in the era, especially in Guangdong where clan associations were strong and owned most of the real estate.  Later Yuen Hai traveled to Indonesia where he worked a five year stint as a private bodyguard for a wealthy businessman.  After returning to the region he once again took up teaching Choy Li Fut.

It was at this point that Lau Bun began his studies with Yuen Hai.  He also is reported to have learned a “Shaolin Five Animals Form” from his teacher’s wife, who was also an accomplished martial artist.  Most accounts of Lau Bun’s life are brief and do not give exact years.  Still, we can make some informed guesses about when this instruction started.

The Boxer Uprising in 1900 proved to be a watershed moment for martial artists across the country.  In Guangdong the provincial governor had every martial arts school and association in the province closed in the wake of these events.  This order was taken quite seriously and was actually implemented by local officials.  The great fear was that local martial artists would seek revenge against foreign traders in the region, or engage in copy-cat anti-Christian violence, giving the British a pretext to seize the entire Pearl River.  Nor was this fear unreasonable.  The British were looking for an excuse to expand their holdings in the area.

As a result of this order the Hung Sing Association in Foshan was forced to close its doors, and many of its instructors actually ended up going to Hong Kong for a few years to seek other means of employment.  I expect that the same thing happened in Taishan, and that Yuen Hai’s five years contract working as a bodyguard in Indonesia probably spanned the period from 1900-1905.  It just wasn’t possible to teach for much of this time.

After 1903-1905, the order restricting martial arts schools was eased.  The Hung Sing Association in Foshan reopened its doors, Chan Wah Shun rented a new school space in the Ip family temple (effectively inaugurating the modern era of Wing Chun) and Yuen Hai returned to Taishan and resumed teaching Choy Li Fut.  Still, his teaching career had been disrupted at a critical time, and this may have limited the size of the organization that he could build.

Luckily the remittances from America allowed the families of his students to pay consistent tuition.  Lau Bun studied diligently and eventually became his teacher’s successor.  I point this out because I find it interesting that apparently none of Yuen Hai’s first generation of students (who studied with him from 1894-1900) remained in the lineage after the Boxer Uprising.  This is a valuable reminder of how volatile events were at the turn of the century and the impact that they had on the development of the martial arts.

Lau Bun had sufficient time to complete his martial arts training, but the situation in southern China was becoming strained by the middle of the 1920s.  Warlordism became a major problem and the Nationalist government struggled to assert control of the country.  The economy of Guangdong was slow to industrialize in the 1920s and did not receive the same level of investment as more quickly growing areas like Shanghai.  Economic opportunities started to dry up, crime and narcotics became an increasing problem, and in 1927 the Hung Sing Association was officially suppressed by the Nationalist Party because of its association with leftist political elements (the CCP).  Adding to this general sense of calamity, as some point during this period Lau Bun’s father appears to have died.

Sometime in the 1920s Lau Bun followed the path of so many of his countrymen before him and decided to seek his fortune in America.   However, this process was now vastly more complicated than it had been half a century years earlier.  A series of legislative acts passed between 1870 and 1924 essentially banned all legal immigration from China.

In fact, in the year 1924 the U.S. Border Patrol was created under the Department of Labor.  Its original task was to patrol the Mexican border.  Their assignment was to find and stop Chinese immigrants who entered Mexico as part of their effort to immigrate illegally to the United State.

Nevertheless, would be Chinese immigrants did have one thing on their side.  The great San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906 resulted in the destruction of most of the state’s immigrations records.  This allowed large numbers of illegal Chinese immigrants in the US to claim citizenship directly or to claim to be children of a family who were legally citizens.  This was the basic situation that Lau Bun faced when he decided to immigrate.

Lau Bun demonstrates the use of the Tiger Fork in the late 1960s. Source:
Lau Bun demonstrates the use of the Tiger Fork in the late 1960s. Source:

In the early 1920s, he left China and entered Mexico like many other immigrants of the period.  After crossing the border he became a “paper sons” by taking on the name Wong On.  This false identity allowed him to claim that he was the son of a legal resident.  Unfortunately there were some unanticipated complications in this plan.

American law enforcement officers were well aware of these schemes and continued to work to identify and deport recent Chinese immigrants.  Lau Bun’s rise to fame actually started in 1930 when he got in an altercation with a group of immigration officials in Los Angeles.  After fleeing from a regular police officer who tried to detain him, he found himself cornered in building by a number of immigration officials who had arrived as backup.  He fought with and successfully resisted four or five of these officers before jumping safely from a second story window and making his getaway.

News of Lau Bun’s adventure and “successful” confrontation with the immigration authorities spread quickly in the still relatively small Chinese American community.  When he arrived in San Francisco in 1931 his reputation assured him a hearty welcome from the powerful Hop Sing Tong.  He was hired to act as a guard or bouncer for various night clubs and gambling houses, and at some point during the 1930s (again, accounts vary) he established the Wah-Keung Kung Fu Club of Choy Li Fut.

This was a small private school.  Its original purpose was only to teach the martial arts to a group of younger members of the Hop Sing Tong who would likely also have gone on to work in the local community as guards or bouncers.  However, as Lau Bun’s stature in the community grew there was more interest in his martial arts background and his understanding of traditional Chinese medicine (both herbalism and bone-setting).

His school expanded and eventually evolved into the Hung Sing Studio of San Francisco.  By the early 1950s there was no longer a functioning Hung Sing school in Foshan, and so Lau Bun’s lineage took on added importance.

The new school quickly became heavily involved in community affairs.  Lau Bun enjoyed traditional music and he trained a Lion Dance society.  He provided traditional medical treatments to members of the local community, and was occasionally looked to as a broker or go-between to settle disputes.  Lau Bun also engaged in extensive fundraising (which sometimes included public Kung Fu displays, a rarity at the time) for the Chinese Hospital in San Francisco.

During the 1930s the demand for Kung Fu instruction, even within the Chinese American community, was quite slim.  However, as servicemen returned from fighting in the pacific in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, interest in the martial arts increased.  Some of this curiosity began to be directed at the Chinese fighting arts starting in the late 1950s, and by the late 1960s (thanks to the Bruce Lee phenomenon) what started as a trickle had become a flood of outside interest.

Lau Bun’s career is interesting precisely because it spans two eras.  When he first arrived, dominant white society had adopted a stance of active hostility towards Asian Americans.  Lau Bun was fiercely loyal to his community, and drawing on the tradition of the Foshan Hung Sing Association (which was famous in the 19th century for its “Three Exclusions” policy), refused to teach Kung Fu to non-Chinese individuals.  Still, given the active hostilities between these communities, and the general lack of knowledge that the Chinese fighting arts even existed, one suspects that that beatniks from San Francisco were not exactly knocking down the door of the Wah-Keung Ckung Fu Club demanding instruction.

In the late 1950s and 1960s things were different.  Lau Bun was now in his 70s.  Both his reputation and school were well established.  The “yellow peril” that had dominated the 1920s and 1930s had all but disappeared from the public discourse.  In some ways community relations were much freer than they had ever been in the past.

And now a new generation of young adults actually was banging on the door of the Hung Sing Association asking to be admitted as students.  Bing Chan was the first of the San Francisco instructors trained by Lau Bun to begin to openly admit non-Chinese students to his classes.  Jew Long, who was Lau Bun’s actual successor, also began to work with Caucasian students at almost exactly the same time.

Students of Choy Li Fut and martial historians are lucky to have some home movies shot at a public demonstration, probably sometime in the early 1960s.  The atmosphere in these films is festive.  They record Lau Bun performing a butterfly sword routine, which is probably the earliest footage of the hudiedao being used in America that I have seen.  A wide variety of other demonstrations are also performed by second and third generation students.  It is interesting to note that not all of these students are Chinese. Larry Johnson, a student of Jew Long, can clearly be seen demonstrating the Tiger Fork in one section of the film.

So while Lau Bun never taught any non-Chinese students as a younger man, and he clearly suffered racism at the hands of the dominant social group, by the 1960s he was happily presiding over what had become an open and multiracial school.  In fact, Lau Bun is often credited as having introduced Anthony Qinn, an important Mexican American actor, to Kung Fu.  These short films are worth watching as they record a critical moment in the emergence of the Chinese martial arts in America.

Dragon dance at a public festival in San Francisco. 1965. Source: UPI press photo.
Dragon dance at a public festival in San Francisco. 1965. Source: UPI press photo.


Determining who first accomplished some feat is usually a difficult and thankless task.  There are suggestions that western police officers in Shanghai in the 1920s studied Chinese boxing, and it is well-known that a wide variety of martial arts were openly taught to westerners in Taiwan from 1949 to the present.  Still, I find it remarkable that it took as long as it did to establish permanent Chinese martial arts schools in the US.

Lau Bun opened the first known school, and his students (along with Ark Yuey Wong) were among the first individuals to openly teach the Chinese martial arts to all races in the US.  Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to reduce his life to a series of “firsts” or colorful anecdotes.  I prefer to focus on the ways that his biography demonstrates how the martial arts interacted with other elements of Chinese society, both in Guangdong and throughout the diaspora.

His life experience points to the importance of globalization as a central force in the social destiny of both southern China and the Chinese martial arts.  Further, I find it fascinating that within his lifetime the martial arts were used both as a tool to police the boundaries between communities, and as a doorway to bridge them.  That is a valuable lesson to remember as we think about the shifting relationships between the traditional Chinese martial arts, identity and nationalism today.

If you were looking for a figure to act as the foundation for a major martial arts film franchise, Lau Bun’s life would provide plenty of material.  If instead you are interested in the development of modern Chinese martial culture, his biography would also make for interesting reading.  I hope that this brief sketch inspires other academic students to start to investigate and write about the history of Choy Li Fut and its leading figures both inside and outside of China.

An Updated and Revised Social History of the Hudiedao (Butterfly Swords)

Antique hudiedao or "butterfly swords." These weapons are commonly seen in a number of styles of southern Kung Fu including Choy Li Fut, Hung Gar and Wing Chun.
Antique hudiedao or “butterfly swords.” These weapons are commonly seen in a number of styles of southern Kung Fu including Choy Li Fut, Hung Gar and Wing Chun. Source: Author’s personal collection.


In January of 2013 I posted an essay titled “A Social and Visual History of the Hudiedao (Butterfly Sword) in the Southern Chinese Martial Arts.” As a student of Wing Chun I have always been fascinated by these weapons, and as a researcher in the field of martial arts studies I have been equally curious as to what they reveal about life in Southern China during the 19th and 20th centuries.  I was both surprised and gratified to discover just how many of you share my enthusiasm for these questions.  That post has become one of the most frequently visited articles here at 功夫网.  

While revisiting that document as part of my current research, it occurred to me that it was time to offer an updated and revised version.  Since writing that piece I have encountered a number of other important sources that have added to, and modified, our understanding of these iconic weapons. Some of those discoveries have been discussed in various places on the blog.  In truth, our current body of knowledge is too large to be contained in a single post. Nevertheless, I felt like 功夫网’s readership deserved a more up to date resource.

To maximize continuity I have kept the original text of the article where possible, deleted sections or made edits where necessary and added new discussions, images and topics where space would permit.  A notice has also been added to the top of the original post directing readers to the newly updated and expanded version.

I would like to extend a special note of thanks to Swords and Antique Weapons for allowing me to use a number of wonderful photographs of hudiedao that have passed through their collection over the years.  It would have been very difficult to present anything approaching a complete survey of the subject without their assistance.  Also, Peter Dekker has generously shared the fruits of his own extensive research on Chinese swords and weapons.  His insights have been most helpful.


Introduction:  What do we really know about butterfly swords?


No weapon is more closely linked to the martial heritage of southern China than the hudiedao (Cantonese: wu dip do), commonly referred to in English as “butterfly swords.”  In the hands of Wing Chun practitioners such as Bruce Lee and Ip Man, these blades became both a symbol of martial attainment and a source of regional pride for a generation of young martial artists.

Nor are these blades restricted to a single style.  Choy Li Fut, Hung Gar, Lau Gar and White Crane (among numerous others) all have lineages that employ this weapon.  Prior to the modern era these swords were also a standard issue item in the region’s many gentry led militias and private security forces.  Even ocean going merchant vessels would carry up to two dozen sets of these swords as part of their standard compliment of sailing gear.  The hudiedao are worthy of careful study precisely because they have functioned as a widespread and distinctive cultural marker of the southern Chinese martial arts.

This is not to say that hudiedaos are not occasionally seen in other places.  They have been carried across China by the adventurous people of Guangdong and Fujian.  By the late 19th century they were making regular appearances in diaspora communities in Singapore and even California.  Today they can be found in training halls around the world.

Of course there are a number of other Chinese fighting traditions which have focused on paired swords, daggers or maces that are very reminiscent of the butterfly swords of southern China.  Still, there are distinctive elements of this regional tradition that make it both easily identifiable and interesting to study.

The following post offers a brief history of the hudiedao.  In attempting to reconstruct the origin and uses of this weapon I employ three types of data.  First, I rely on dated photographs and engravings with a clear provenance.  These images are important because they provide evidence as to what different weapons looked like and who carried them.

Secondly, I discuss a number of period (1820s-1880s) English language accounts to help socially situate these weapons.  These have been largely neglected by martial artists, yet they provide some of the earliest references that we have to the widespread use of butterfly swords or, as they are always called in the period literature, “double swords.”  While the authors of these accounts are sometimes hostile observers (e.g., British military officers), they often supply surprisingly detailed discussions of the swords, their methods of use and carry, and the wider social and military setting that they appeared in.  These first-hand accounts are gold mines of information for military historians.

Lastly, we will look at a number of surviving examples of hudiedao from private collections.  It is hard to understand what these weapons were capable of (and hence the purpose of the various double sword fighting forms found in the southern Chinese martial arts) without actually handling them.

Modern martial artists expect both too much and too little from the hudiedao.  With a few exceptions, the modern reproductions of butterfly swords are either beautifully made a-historical “artifacts,” high tech simulacra of a type of weapon that never actually existed in 19th century China, or cheaply made copies of practice gear that was never meant to be a “weapon” in the first place.  This second class of “weapon” sets the bar much too low.  Yet it is also nearly impossible for any flesh and blood sword to live up to the mythology and hype that surrounds butterfly swords, especially in Wing Chun circles.  As these swords appear with ever greater frequency on TV programs and within video games, that mythology grows only more entrenched.

Unfortunately antique butterfly swords are hard to find and highly sought after by martial artists and collectors.  They are usually too expensive for most southern style kung fu students to actually study.  I hope that a detailed historical discussion of these swords may help to fill in some of these gaps.  While there is no substitute for holding a weapon in one’s hands, a good overview might give us a much better idea of what sort of weapon we are attempting to emulate.  It will also open valuable insights into the milieu from which these blades emerged.

This last point is an important one.  Rarely do students of Chinese martial studies inquire about the social status or meaning of weapons.  This is a serious oversight.  As we have seen in our previous discussions of Republic era dadaos and military kukris, the social evolution of these weapons is often the most interesting and illuminating aspect of their story.  Who used the hudiedao?  How were they employed in combat? When were they first created, and what did they mean to the martial artists of southern China?  Lastly, what does their spread tell us about the place of the Chinese martial arts in an increasingly globalized world?

The short answer to these questions is that butterfly swords were popular with civilian martial artists in the 19th century.  While never an official “regulation weapon” within the imperial Qing military they may have been a local adaptation of the “Green Standard Army Rolling Blanket Double Sabers” seen in official manuals outlining the weapons of both the Ming and Qing armies.  Based on his translations of  皇朝禮器圖式, Peter Dekker notes that these blades (shaped like small military sabers) had the following dimensions:

The left and right opposites are each 2 chi 1 cun and 1 fen long. [Approx. 73 cm]. The blades are 1 cun 6 fen long. [Approx. 56 cm]. Width is 1 cun [Approx 3.5 cm].


The Rolling Blanket Saber of the Green Standard Army. Source: Peter Dekker.
The Rolling Blanket Saber of the Green Standard Army as discussed in the 皇朝禮器圖式. 1766 woodblock print, based on a 1759 manuscript. Subsequent editions from 1801 and 1899 reproduced basically identical images. Source: Peter Dekker.


While dressed to look like standard issue sabers, these double blades were actually comparably sized to many of the “war era” hudiedao that can be found in collections today.  Thus there may be more of a military rational for the existence of such weapons than was previously thought.  While the vast majority of butterfly swords were owned or used by civilians, this might also suggest an explanation of why a few pairs have been found with military markings. It is hypothetically possible that at least some of these swords were seen as a locally produced variant of a known military weapon.

While exciting, we must be careful not to over-interpret this discovery.  When discussing the martial arts were are, by in large, referencing a civilian realm that, while related to military training, remained socially distinct from it.  To be a “martial artist” in 19th century China was to be a member of one or more other overlapping social groups.  For instance, many martial artists were one or more of the following: a professional soldier, a bandit or pirate, a member of a militia or clan defense society, a pharmacist or an entertainer.

As we review the historical accounts and pictures below, we will see butterfly swords employed by members of each of these categories.  That is precisely why this exercise is important.   Hudiedao are a basic technology that help to tie the southern martial arts together.  If we can demystify the development and spread of this one technology, we will make some progress toward understanding the background milieu that gave rise to the various schools of hand combat that we have today.

A set of mid. 19th century hudiedao. These swords are 63 cm long have strong blades with a thick triangular spine (14 mm at the forte). They were capable of cutting but clearly optimized for stabbing. The edge itself has a convex grind on one side, and a flat grind where it sits against the other sword when sheathed. The blades also feature steel D-guards and rosewood handles decorated with carved phoenixes. This images was provided courtesy of, a reliable source for authentic antique Chinese arms.

A set of mid. 19th century hudiedao. These swords are 63 cm long have strong blades with a thick triangular spine (14 mm at the forte). They were capable of cutting but clearly optimized for stabbing. The edge itself has a convex grind on one side, and a flat grind where it sits against the other sword when sheathed. The blades also feature steel D-guards and rosewood handles decorated with carved phoenixes. This image was provided courtesy of, a reliable source for authentic antique Chinese arms.


Hudiedao: Understanding the basic history of the butterfly sword.


The monks of the Shaolin Temple have left an indelible mark on the martial arts of Guangdong and Fujian.  This mark is none the less permanent given the fact that the majority of Chinese martial studies scholars have concluded that the “Southern Shaolin Temple” was a myth.  Still, myths reflect important social values.  Shaolin (as a symbol) has touched many aspects of the southern Chinese martial arts, including its weapons.

In Wing Chun Schools today, it is usually assumed that the art’s pole form came from Jee Shim (the former abbot of the destroyed Shaolin sanctuary), and that the swords must have came from the Red Boat Opera or possibly Ng Moy (a nun and another survivor of temple).  A rich body of lore linking the hudiedao to Shaolin has grown over the years.  These myths often start out by apologizing for the fact that these monks are carrying weapons at all, as this is a clear (and very serious) breach of monastic law.

It is frequently asserted that our monks needed protection on the road from highwaymen, especially when they were carrying payments of alms.  Some assert that butterfly swords were the only bladed weapons that the monks were allowed to carry because they were not as deadly as a regular dao.  The tips could be left blunt and the bottom half of the blade was often unsharpened.  Still, there are a number of problems with this story.

These blunt tips and unsharpened blades seem to actually be more of an apology for the low quality, oddly designed, practice swords that started to appear in the 1970s than an actual memory of any real weapons.

The first probable references to the hudiedao (or butterfly swords) that I have been able to find date to the 1820s.  Various internet discussions, some quite good and worth checking out, as well as Jeffery D. Modell’s article “History & Design of Butterfly Swords” (Kung Fu Tai Chi Magazine, April 2010, pp. 56-65) usually suggest a later date of popularization.  Modell concludes that the traditional butterfly sword is a product of the “late 19th century” while other credible sources generally point to the 1850s or 1860s.  The general consensus seems to be that while a few examples may have existed earlier, this weapon did not really gain prominence until the middle or end of the 19th century.

This opinion was formed mostly through the first hand examination of antique blades.  And it is correct so far as it goes.  Most of the existing antique blades do seem to date from the end of the 19th century or even the first few decades of the 20th.  Further, this would fit with our understanding of the late 19th century being a time of martial innovations, when much of the foundation for the modern Chinese hand combat systems was being set in place.

Recently uncovered textual evidence would seem to indicate that we may need to roll these dates back by a generation or more.  As we will see below, already in the 1820s western merchants and British military officers in Guangzhou were observing these, or very similar weapons, in the local environment.  They were even buying examples that are brought back to Europe and America where they enter important early private collections.

The movement of both goods and people was highly restricted in the “Old China Trade” system.  Westerners were confined to one district of the Guangzhou and they could only enter the city for a few months of the year.  The fact that multiple individuals were independently collecting examples of hudiedao, even under such tight restrictions, would seem to indicate that these weapons (or something very similar to them) must have already been fairly common in the 1820s.

Accounts of these unique blades become more frequent and more detailed in the 1830s and 1840s.  Eventually engravings were published showing a wide variety of arms (often destined for private collections or the “cabinets” of wealthy western individuals), and then from the 1850s onward a number of important photographs were produced.  The Hudiedao started to appear in images on both sides of the pacific, and it is clear that the weapon had a well-established place among gangsters and criminals in both San Francisco and New York.

But what exactly is a hudiedao?  What sorts of defining characteristics binds these weapons together and separate them from other various paired weapons that are seen in the Chinese martial arts from time to time?

Shaung jian.71 cm late 19th century

Readers should be aware that not every “double sword” is a hudiedao. This is a pair of jians dating to the late 19th century. Notice that this style of swords is quite distinct on a number of levels. Rather than being fit into a simple leather scabbard with a single opening, these swords each rest in their own specially carved compartment. As a result the blades are not flat-ground on one side (as is the case with true hudiedao) and instead have the normal diamond shaped profile. These sorts of double swords are more common in the northern Chinese martial arts and also became popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They are usually called Shuang Jain (or Shuang Dao for a single edged blade), literally “double swords.
Unfortunately, this is exactly the same term that many English language observers used when they encountered Hudiedao in Guangzhou and Hong Kong in the middle of the 19th century.  Further complicating the matter, some southern fighting forms call for the use of two normal sabers to be used simultaneously, one in each hand.  Interpreting 19th century accounts of “double swords” requires a certain amount of guess work.  Photos courtesy of

Note the construction of the scabbard.

Note the construction of the scabbard.  Period sources seem to imply that swords were classified in large part by their scabbard construction (how many openings the blades shared), and not just by the blades shape or function.  these images were provided courtesy of http://www.swordsantiqueweapons,com.


The term “hudiedao,” or “butterfly sword,” never appears in any of the 19th century English language accounts that I have examined.  Invariably these records and illustrations refer instead to “double swords.”  A number of them go to lengths to point out that this is a weapon unique to China.  Its defining characteristic seems to be that the two blades are fitted together in such a way that they can be placed in a shared opening to one sheath.  Some accounts (but not all) go on to describe heavy D guards and the general profile of the blade.  I used these more detailed accounts (from the 1830s) and engravings and photos (from the 1840s and 1850s) to try and interpret some of the earlier and briefer descriptions (from the 1820s).

Some of these collectors, Dunn in particular, were quite interested in Chinese culture and had knowledgeable native agents helping them to acquire and catalog their collections.  It is thus very interesting that these European observers, almost without exception, referred to these weapons as “double swords” rather than “butterfly swords.”  Not to put too fine a point on it, but some western observers seemed to revel in pointing out the contradictory or ridiculous in Chinese culture, and if any of them had heard this name it would have recorded, if only for the ridicule and edification of future generations.

I looked at a couple of period dictionaries (relevant to southern China) that included military terms.  None of them mentioned the word “Hudiedao,” though they generally did include a word for double swords (雙股劍: “shwang koo keem,” or in modern Pinyin, “shuang goo gim.”  See Medhurst, English and Chinese Dictionary 1848; Morrison, Dictionary of the Chinese Language, 1819.)

Multiple important early Chinese novels, including the Romance of the Three Kingdoms and Water Margin (All Men are Brothers) include protagonists who use these weapons, so for that reason alone this would be a commonly understood term.  Even individuals who were not martial artists would have known about these literary characters and their weapons.  In fact, the literary legacy of those two novels could very well explain how these blades have managed to capture the imagination of so many martial artists up through the 21st century.

In modern martial arts parlance, “double swords” (shuang jian or shuang dao) refer to two medium or full size jians (or daos) that are fitted into a single scabbard.  These weapons also became increasingly popular in the late 19th century and are still used in a variety of styles.  It is possible that they are a different regional expression of the same basic impulse that led to the massive popularization of hudiedao in the south, but they are a fairly different weapon.

The real complicating factor here is that neither type of weapons (shuang dao vs. hudiedao) was ever adopted or issued by the Imperial military, so strictly speaking, neither of them have a proper or “official name.”  (Again, while similar in size and function, the “Rolling Blanket Double Sabers” clearly followed the forging and aesthetic guidelines seen in all other military sabers and were categorized accordingly.)  When looking at these largely civilian traditions, we are left with a wide variety of, often poetic, ever evolving terms favored by different martial arts styles.  Occasionally it is unclear whether these style names are actually meant to refer to the weapons themselves, or the routines that they are employed in.

The evolution of the popular names of these weapons seems almost calculated to cause confusion.  For our present purposes I will be referring to any medium length, single edged, pair of blades fitted into a shared scabbard, as “hudiedaos.”  Readers should be aware of the existence of a related class of weapon which resembles a longer, single, hudiedao.  These were meant to be used in conjunction with a rattan shield.  They are only included in my discussion only if they exhibit the heavy D-guard and quillion that is often seen on other butterfly swords.

Hudiedao were made by a large number of local smiths and they exhibit a great variability in form and intended function.  Some of these swords are fitted with heavy brass D-guards (very similar to a European hanger or cutlass), but in other cases the guard is made of steel.  On some examples the D-guard is replaced with the more common Chinese S-guard.   And in a small minority of cases no guard was used at all.

Another set of Hudieda exhibiting different styling. An S-guard is used on these swords, which are more common on Chinese weapons. These knives are 45 cm long and are both shorter and lighter than some of the preceding examples. Photo courtesy of

Another set of Hudiedao exhibiting different styling. An S-guard is used on these swords, which are more common on Chinese weapons. These knives are 45 cm long and are both shorter and lighter than some of the preceding examples. Photo courtesy of


The sorts of blades seen on hudiedao from southern China can also vary immensely.  Two types are most commonly encountered on 19thcentury weapons.  Some are long and narrow with a thick triangular cross section.  These blades superficially resemble shortened European rapiers and are clearly designed with stabbing in mind.  Other blades are wider and heavier, and exhibit a sturdy hatchet point.  While still capable of stabbing through heavy clothing or leather, these knives can also chop and slice.

Most hudiedao from the 19th century seem to be medium sized weapons, ranging from 50-60 cm (20-24 inches) in length.  It is obvious that arms of this size were not meant to be carried in a concealed manner.  To the extent that these weapons were issued to mercenaries (or “braves”), local militia units or civilian guards, there would be no point in concealing them at all.  Instead, one would hope that they would be rather conspicuous, like the gun on the hip of a police officer.

These hudiedaos have thick brass grips, a wider blade better suited for chopping and a strong hatchet point. Their total length is just over 60 cm. This was the most commonly produced type of “butterfly sword” during the middle of the 19th century. Photo courtesy of

These hudiedaos have thick brass grips, a wider blade better suited for chopping and a strong hatchet point. Their total length is just over 60 cm. This was the most commonly produced type of “butterfly sword” during the middle of the 19th century. Photo courtesy of

While these two blade types are the most common (making up about 70% of the swords that I have encountered), other shapes are also seen.  Some hudiedao exhibit the “coffin” shaped blades of traditional southern Chinese fighting knives.  These specimens are very interesting and often lack any sort of hand guard at all, yet they are large enough that they could not easily be used like their smaller cousins.

One also encounters blades that are shaped like half-sized versions of the “ox-tail” dao.  This style of sword was very popular among civilian martial artists in the 19th century.  Occasionally blades in this configuration also show elaborate decorations that are not often evident on other types of hudiedao.

This set of Butterfly Swords has a number of unusual features. Perhaps the most striking are its wood (rather than leather) scabbard and high degree on ornamentation. These probably date to the late 19th century and are 49 cm in length. Photo courtesy of

This set of Butterfly Swords has a number of unusual features. Perhaps the most striking are its wood (rather than leather) scabbard and high degree on ornamentation. These were almost certainly collected in French Indo-China and likely date to 1900-1930. They are 49 cm in length and show a pronounced point. Photo courtesy of

These unusual hudiedao feature handles and blades that are both based on traditional Chinese fighting knives. In this case the blade has been made both longer and wider. Fighting knives do not commonly have hand guards, which are also missing from this example. I have seen a couple of sets of knives in this configuration, though they seem to be quite rare. These knives are 49 cm long and 65 mm wide at the broadest point. Probably early 20th century. Photo courtesy of

These unusual hudiedao feature handles and blades that are loosely based on traditional Chinese fighting knives. In this case the blade has been made both longer and wider. Fighting knives do not commonly have hand guards, which are also missing from this example. I have seen a couple of sets of knives in this configuration, though they seem to be quite rare. These knives are 49 cm long and 65 mm wide at the broadest point. Possibly early 20th century. Photo courtesy of

These hudiedaos have thick brass grips, a wider blade better suited for chopping and a strong hatchet point. Their total length is just over 60 cm. This was the most commonly produced type of “butterfly sword” during the middle of the 19th century. Photo courtesy of

These hudiedao are more reminiscent of the blades favored by modern Wing Chun students. They show considerable wear and date to either the middle or end of the 19th century. The tips of the blades are missing and may have been broken or rounded off through repeated sharpening. I suspect that when these swords were new they had a more hatchet shaped tip. Their total length is 49 cm. Photo courtesy of

Lastly there are shorter, thicker blades, designed with cutting and hacking in mind.  These more closely resemble the type favored by Wushu performers and modern martial artists.  Some of  these weapons could be carried in a concealed manner, yet they are also better balanced and have a stronger stabbing point than most of the inexpensive replicas being made today.  It is also interesting to note that these shorter, more modern looking knives, can be quite uncommon compared to the other blade types listed above.

I am hesitant to assign names or labels to these different sorts of blades.  That may seem counter-intuitive, but the very existence of “labels” implies a degree of order and standardization that may not have actually existed when these swords were made.  19th century western observers simply referred to everything that they saw as a “double sword” and chances are good that their Chinese agents did the same.  Given that most of these weapons were probably made in small shops and to the exact specifications of the individuals who commissioned them the idea of different “types” of hudiedao seems a little misleading.

What defined a “double sword” to both 19th century Chinese and western observers in Guangdong, was actually how they were fitted and carried in the scabbard.  These scabbards were almost always leather, and they did not separate the blades into two different channels or compartments (something that is occasionally seen in northern double weapons).  Beyond that, a wide variety of blade configurations, hand guards and levels of ornamentation could be used.  I am still unclear when the term “hudiedao” came into common use, or how so many independent observers and careful collectors could have missed it.

This engraving, published in 1801, is typical of the challenges faced when using cross-cultural sources in an attempt to reconstruct Chinese martial history. The image is plate number 20 from Major George Henry Mason’s popular 1801 publication Punishments of China (St James: W. Bulmer and Co.). Mason was in Guangzou (recovering from an illness) in 1789-1790. Given his experience in China, and interests in day to day life, he should have been a keen social observer. So how reliable are his prints? Does this image really show a soldier holding a set of “Rolling Blanket Double Sabers”, or something like them?
It is impossible to know what Mason actually saw or what to make of a print like this. Mason’s engravings were all based on watercolor paintings that he purchased from a Cantonese artist in Guangzhou named Pu Qua (Timothy Brook, Jérôme Bourgon, Gregory Blue. Death by a Thousand Cuts. Harvard University Press. 2008. P. 171). So what we really have here is an impressionistic engraving based off of a quickly sketched water color. While this image clearly suggests that some members of the local Yamen were using two medium sized swords, it is difficult to hazard a guess as to what the exact details of these weapons were. I attempt to avoid this type of problem by relying on first-hand accounts and more detailed (often photographic) images.


The First Written Accounts: Chinese “double swords” in Guangzhou in the 1820s-1830s.


The first English language written account of what is most likely a hudiedao that I have been able to find is a small note in the appendix of the Transactions of the Royal Asiatic Society for the year 1827.  Lieutenant Colonel Charles Joseph Doyle had evidently acquired an extensive collection of oriental arms that he wished to donate to the society.  In an era before public museums, building private collections, or “cabinets,” was a popular pastime for members of a certain social class.

The expansion of the British Empire into Asia vastly broadened the scope of what could be collected.  In fact, many critical artistic and philosophical ideas first entered Europe through the private collections of gentlemen like Charles Joseph Doyle.  Deep in the inventory list of his “cabinet of oriental arms” we find a single tantalizing reference to “A Chinese Double Sword.”

I have not been able to locate much information on Col. Doyle’s career so I cannot yet make a guess as to when he collected this example.  Still, if the donation was made in 1825, the swords cannot have been acquired any later than the early 1820s.  (Transactions of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland, Volume 1.  London: Royal Asiatic Society. 1827.  “A Chinese double Sword.  Donated on Nov. 5, 1825.” P. 636)

If Doyle’s entry in the records of the Royal Asiatic Society was terse, another prominent collector from the 1820 was more effusive.  Nathan Dunn is an important figure in America’s growing understanding of China.  He was involved in the “Old China Trade” and imported teas, silks and other goods from Guangdong to the US.  Eventually he became very wealthy and strove to create a more sympathetic understanding of China and its people in the west.

For a successful merchant, his story begins somewhat inauspiciously.  Historical records show that in 1816 Nathan Dunn was disowned (excommunicated) by the Philadelphia Monthly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends (the Quakers) for bankruptcy.  While socially devastating, this bankruptcy may have been the best thing that ever happened to Dunn.  In 1818 he left for China on a risky trading mission in an attempt to rebuild his fortune.  He succeeded in that task many times over.

Unlike most western merchants Dunn found the Chinese to be very intelligent and worthy of close study and contemplation.  He objected strenuously to the selling of opium (an artifact of his prior Quaker faith) and made valuable friendships and alliances with individuals from all levels of Chinese society.  Appreciating his open outlook these individuals helped Dunn to amass the largest collection of Chinese artifacts in the hands of any one individual.  In fact, the Chinese helped Dunn to acquire a collection many times larger than the entire cabinets of both the British East India Company and the British Government, which had been trying to build a vast display of its own for years.

Dunn’s collection was also quite interesting for its genuine breadth.  It included both great works of art and everyday objects.  It paid attention to issues of business, culture, horticulture and philosophy.  Dunn made a point of studying the lives of individuals from different social and economic classes, and he paid attention to the lives and material artifacts of women.  Finally, like any good 19th century gentleman living abroad, he collected arms.

Dunn’s collection went on display in Philadelphia in the 1838’s.  When it opened to the public he had an extensive catalog printed (poetically titled 10,000 Chinese Things), that included in-depth discussions of many of the displays.  This sort of contextual data is quite valuable.  It is interesting to not only see double swords mentioned multiple times in Dunn’s collection, but to look at the other weapons that were also employed in the 1820s when these swords were actually being bought in Guangdong.

“The warrior is armed with a rude matchlock, the only kind of fire-arms known among the Chinese.  There is hung up on the wall a shield, constructed of rattan turned spirally round a center, very similar in shape and appearance to our basket lids.  Besides the matchlock and shield, a variety of weapons offensive and defensive, are in use in China; such as helmets, bows and arrows, cross-bows, spears, javelins, pikes, halberds, double and single swords, daggers, maces, a species of quilted armour of cloth studded with metal buttons, &c.” pp. 32-33.

“Besides these large articles, there are, in the case we are describing, an air-gun wooden barrel; a duck-gun with matchlock; a curious double sword, capable of being used as one, and having but one sheath; specimens of Chinese Bullets, shot powder, powder –horns, and match ropes…..” p. 42

“444. Pair of Swords, to be used by both hands but having one sheath.  The object of which is to hamstring the enemy.” P. 51

“In addition to the spears upon the wall, there are two bows; one strung, and the other unstrung; two pair of double swords; one pair with a tortoise shell, and the other a leather sheath; besides several other swords and caps, and a jinjall, or a heavy gun on a pivot, which has three movable chambers, in which the powder and ball are put, and which serve to replace each other as often as the gun is discharged.” P. 93.

Enoch Cobb Wines.  A Peep at China in Mr. Dunn’s Chinese Collection.  Philadelphia: Printed for Nathan Dunn. 1839.

I found it interesting that Dunn would associate the double sword with “hamstringing” (the intentional cutting of the Achilles tendon) an opponent.  In his 1801 volume on crime and punishment George Henry Mason included an illustration of a prisoner being “hamstrung” with a short, straight bladed knife.  This was said to be a punishment for attempting to escape prison or exile.  He noted that there was some controversy as to whether this punishment was still in use or if legal reformers in China had succeeded in doing away with it.  It is possible that Dunn’s description (or more likely, that of his Chinese agent) on page 51 is a memory of the “judicial” use of the hudiedao by officers of the state against socially deviant aspects of society.

It is hard to overstate the importance of Dunn’s “Museum” in shaping China’s image in the popular imagination.  As such, descriptions of his ethnographic objects reached the public through many outlets.  One of these was the writings of W. W. Wood.  Wood was a friend and collaborator of Dunn’s while in Canton.  In fact, Wood was actually responsible for assembling most of the natural history section of the “China Museum.”  Still, his writings touched on other aspects of the collecting enterprise as well.


A great variety of weapons, offensive and defensive, are in use in China; such as matchlocks, bows and arrows, cross-bows, spears, javelins, pikes, halberds, double and single swords, daggers, maces, &c. Shields and armor of various kinds, serve as protection against the weapons of their adversaries. The artillery is very incomplete, owing to the bad mountings of the cannon, and efficient execution is out of the question, from the ignorance of the people in gunnery. Many of the implements of war are calculated for inflicting very cruel wounds, especially some kinds of spears and barbed arrows, the extraction of which is extremely difficult, and the injuries caused by them dreadful. A kind of sword, composed of an iron bar, about eighteen inches long, and an inch and a half thick, or two inches in circumference, is used to break the limbs of their adversaries, by repeated and violent blows.

The double swords are very short, not longer in the blade than a large dagger, the inside surfaces are ground very flat, so that when placed in contact, they lie close to each other, and go into a single scabbard. The blades are very wide at the base, and decrease very much towards the point. Being ground very sharp, and having great weight, the wounds given by them are severe. I am informed, that the principal object in using them, is to hamstring the enemy, and thus entirely disable him.

Most of the arms made in canton, are exceedingly rude and unfinished in comparison with our own, In the sword-making art they are better than in other departments, but the metal is generally of inferior quality, and the form of these weapons bad; the mountings are handsome, but there is little or no guard for the protection of the hand.

W. W. Wood. 1830. Sketches of China: with Illustrations from Original Drawings. Philadelphia: Carey & Lead. pp. 162-163

Woods descriptions of the hudieado are important on a number of counts.  To begin with, they prove that European collectors had started to acquire these specimens by the 1820s.  Further, the swords that he describes are relatively broad and short, similar to the weapons favored by many modern Wing Chun students.  Lastly, his contextualization of these blades is invaluable.

These are the earliest references to “double swords” in southern China that I have been able to locate.  Already by the 1820s these weapons were seen as something uniquely Chinese, hence it is not surprising that they would find their way into the collections and cabinets of early merchants and military officers.

Still, the 1820s was a time of relatively peaceful relations between China and the West.  Tensions built throughout the 1830s and boiled over into open conflict in the 1840s.  As one might expect, this deterioration in diplomatic relations led to increased interest in military matters on the part of many western observers.  Numerous detailed descriptions of “double swords” emerge out of this period.  It is also when the first engravings to actually depict these weapons in a detailed way were commissioned and executed.

Karl Friedrich A. Gutzlaff (English: Charles Gutzlaff; Chinese: Guō Shìlì) was a German protestant missionary in south-eastern China.  He was active in the area in the 1830s and 1840s and is notable for his work on multiple biblical translations.  He was the first protestant missionary to dress in Chinese style and was generally more in favor of enculturation than most of his brethren.  He was also a close observer of the Opium Wars and served as a member of a British diplomatic mission in 1840.

One of his many literary goals was to produce a reliable and up to date geography of China.  Volume II of this work spends some time talking about the Chinese military situation in Guangdong.  While discussing the leadership structure of the Imperial military we find the following note:

(In a discussion of the “Chamber for the superintendent of stores and the examination of military candidates.):

“Chinese bows are famous for carrying to a great distance; their match-locks are wretched fire-arms; and upon their cannon they have not yet improved, since they were taught by the Europeans.  Swords, spears, halberts, and partisans, are likewise in use in the army.  Two swords in one scabbard, which enable the warrior to fight with the left and right hands, are given to various divisions.  They carry rattan shields, made of wicker work, and in several detachments they receive armour to protect their whole body.  The officers, in the day of battle, are always thus accoutered.  Of their military engines we can say very little, they having, during a long peace, fallen into disuse.” P. 446.

Karl Friedrich A. Gützlaff. China opened; or, A display of the topography, history… etc. of the Chinese Empire. London: Smith, Elder and Co. 1838.

This is an interesting passage for a variety of reasons.  It seems to very strongly suggest that the Green Standard Army in Guangdong was using large numbers of either Rolling Blanket Double Sabers or hudiedao in the 1830s, or at least stockpiling them.  Occasionally I hear references to hudiedao being found that have official “reign marks” on them, or property marks of the Chinese military.  Accounts such as this one might explain their existence.

The conventional wisdom (as we will see below) is that the hudiedao were never a “regulation” weapon and were issued only to civilian “braves” and gentry led militia units which were recruited by the governor of Guangdong in his various clashes with the British.  Still, this note falls right in the middle of an extensive discussion of the command structure of the Imperial military.  Who these various divisions were, and what relationship they had with militia troops, is an interesting question for further research.

This is an interesting example of a single “hudiedao.” It was never issued with a companion and has a fully round handle meaning that it cannot be slid into a scabbard besides another weapon. Short swords such as these were often issued to milita members who were armed with rattan shields. While not strictly the same as a hudiedao, its clear that this weapon is taking its styling cues from these other swords. The style of its leather scabbard, hilt and hand-guard are all identical to what was see on period “butterfly swords.” This example measures 60 cm in length and would have been a good general short-range weapon. Photo courtesy of

This short saber might be thought of as an example of a single “hudiedao” given its aesthetic styling. It was never issued with a companion and has a fully round handle meaning that it cannot be slid into a scabbard besides another weapon. Short swords such as these were often issued to militia members who were armed with rattan shields. While not strictly the same as a hudiedao, its clear that this weapon is taking its styling cues from these other swords. The style of its leather scabbard, hilt and hand-guard are all identical to what was seen on period “butterfly swords.” This example measures 60 cm in length and would have been a good general short-range weapon. Photo courtesy of

More specific descriptions of hudiedao and their use in the field started to pour in from reporters and government officers as the security situation along the Pearl River Delta disintegrated.  The May 1840 edition of the Asiatic Journal includes the following notice:

“Governor Lin has enlisted about 3,000 recruits, who are being drilled daily near Canton in the military exercise of the bow, the spear and the double sword.  The latter weapon is peculiar to China.  Each soldier is armed with two short and straight swords, one in each hand, which being knocked against each other, produce a clangour [sic], which, it is thought, will midate [sic] the enemy.” P. 327

The Asiatic Journal and Monthly Register for British and Foreign India, China and Australia.  May-August, 1840. London: Wm. H. Allen and Co.

Such new recruits would clearly have been both “Braves” and members of the gentry led militia system.  So this would seem to indicate that the hudiedao was a weapon favored by martial artists and citizen soldiers.  This is also the first reference I have seen to soldiers beating their hudiedao together to make a clamor before charging into battle.  While this tactic is usually noted with disdain by British observers, it is well worth noting that their own infantry often put on a similar display before commencing a bayonet charge.

Another set of hudiedao from the private collection of Gavin Nugent. These blades are some of the earliest seen in this post. They also show signs of significant use. Note the complex profile of the blades and how the spine flattens out as it approaches the tip. This allows the weapon to have reach while not feeling "top heavy." The owner notes that these are the most comfortable hudiedao that he has handled. Source:

Another set of hudiedao from the private collection of Gavin Nugent. These blades are some of the earliest seen in this post. They also show signs of significant period use. Note the complex profile of the blades and how the spine flattens out as it approaches the tip. This allows the weapon to have reach while not feeling “top heavy.” The owner notes that these are the most comfortable hudiedao that he has handled. The nicely executed brass tunkou (collar around the blade) are an interesting and rarely seen feature.  Source:

Born in 1805 (1805-1878) J. Elliot Bingham served for 21 years in the Royal Navy.  In the late 1830s he had the rank of First Lieutenant (he later retired as a Commander) and was assigned to the H. M. S. Modeste.  Launched in 1837, this 18 Gun Sloop or corvette was crewed by 120 sailors and marines.  It saw repeated combat along the Guangdong coast and the Pearl River between 1839 and 1841.

As a military man Commander Bingham was a close observer of Chinese weapons and he leaves us with what must be considered the very best account of the use of hudiedao by militia troops in the late 1830s.

“March the 21st, Lin was busy drilling 3,000 troops, a third portion of which was to consist of double-sworded men.  These twin swords, when in scabbard, appear as one thick clumsy weapon, about two feet in length; the guard for the hand continuing straight, rather beyond the “fort” of the sword turns toward the point, forming a hook about two inches long.  When in use, the thumb of each hand is passed under this hook, on which the sword hangs, until a twist of the wrist brings the grip within the grasp of the swordsman.  Clashing and beating them together and cutting the air in every direction, accompanying the action with abuse, noisy shouts and hideous grimaces, these dread heroes advance, increasing their gesticulations and distortions of visage as they approach the enemy, when they expect the foe to become alarmed and fly before them.  Lin had great faith in the power of these men.” P. 177-178.

J. Elliot Bingham.  Narrative of the Expedition to China, from the Commencement of the Present Period. Volume 1.  London: Henry Colburn Publisher.  1842.

Commander Bingham was not much impressed by the Chinese militia or their exotic weaponry.  In truth, Lin led his forces into a situation where they were badly outgunned, and more importantly “out generaled,” by the seasoned and well led British Navy.  Still, his brief account contains a treasure trove of information.  To begin with, it confirms that the earlier accounts of “double swords” used by the militia in and around Guangzhou in the 1830s were in fact references to hudiedao.

Fredric Wakeman, in his important study Stranger at the Gate: Social Disorder in Southern China 1839-1861, cites intelligence reports sent to the British Foreign Office which claim that Lin had in fact raised a 3,000 man force to repel a foreign attach on Guangzhou.  Apparently Lin distrusted the ability of the Green Standard Army to get the job done, and the Manchu Banner Army was so poorly disciplined and run that he actually considered it to be a greater threat to the peace and safety of the local countryside than the British.

He planned on defending the provincial capital with a two pronged strategy.  First, he attempted to strengthen and update his coastal batteries.  Secondly, he called up the gentry led militia (and a large number of mercenary braves) because these troops were considered more committed and reliable than the official army.  Bingham was correct, Lin did put a lot of confidence in the militia.

The Foreign Office reported that Lin ordered every member of the militia to be armed with a spear, a rattan helmet, and a set of “double swords” (Wakeman 95).  Other reports note that members of the militia were also drilled in archery and received a number of old heavy muskets from the government stores in Guangdong.  Bingham’s observations can leave no doubt that the “double swords” that the Foreign Office noted were in fact hudiedao.

Local members of the gentry worked cooperatively out of specially built (or appropriated) Confucian “schools” to raise money, procure arms and supplies for their units, to organize communications systems, and even to create insurance programs.  It seems likely that the hudiedao used by the militia would have been hurriedly produced in a number of small shops around the Pearl River Delta.

Much of this production likely happened in Foshan (the home of important parts of the Wing Chun, Choy Li Fut and Hung Gar movements).  Foshan was a critical center of regional handicraft production, and it held the Imperial iron and steel monopoly (He Yimin. “Thrive and Decline:The Comparison of the Fate of “The Four Famous Towns” in Modern Times.” Academic Monthly. December 2008.)  This made it a natural center for weapons production.

We know, for instance, that important cannon foundries were located in Foshan.  The battle for control of these weapon producing resources was actually a major element of the “Opera Rebellion,” or “Red Turban Revolt,” that would rip through the area 15 years later. (See Wakeman’s account in Stranger at the Gate for the most detailed reconstruction of the actual fighting in and around Foshan.)

Given that this is where most of the craftsmen capable of making butterfly swords would have been located, it seems reasonable to assume that this was where a lot of the militia weaponry was actually produced.  Further, the town’s centralized location on the nexus of multiple waterways, and its long history of involvement in regional trade, would have made it a natural place to distribute weapons from.

While all 3,000 troops may have been armed with hudiedao, it is very interesting that these weapons were the primary arms of about 1/3 of the militia.  Presumably the rest of their comrades were armed with spears, bows and a small number of matchlocks.

Bingham also gives us the first clear description of the unique hilts of these double swords.  He notes in an off-handed way that they have hand-guards.  More interesting is the quillion that terminates in a hook that extends parallel to the blade for a few inches.  This description closely matches the historic weapons that we currently possess.

This style of guard, while not seen on every hudiedo, is fairly common.  It is also restricted to weapons from southern China.  Given that this is not a traditional Chinese construction method, various guesses have been given as to how these guards developed and why they were adopted.

There is at least a superficial resemblance between these guards and the hilts of some western hangers and naval cutlasses of the period.  It is possible that the D-guard was adopted and popularized as a result of increased contact with western arms in southern China.  If so, it would make sense that western collectors in Guangzhou in the 1820s would be the first observers to become aware of the new weapon.

The actual use of the hooked quillion is also open to debate.  Many modern martial artists claim that it is used to catch and trap an opponent’s blade.  In another essay I have reviewed a martial arts training manual from the 1870s that shows local boxers attempting to do exactly this.  However, as the British translator of that manual points out (and I am in total agreement with him), this cannot possibly work against a longer blade or a skilled and determined opponent.  While this type of trapping is a commonly rehearsed “application” in Wing Chun circles, after years of fencing practice and full contact sparring, my own school has basically decided that it is too dangerous to attempt and rarely works in realistic situations.

Another theory that has been advanced is that the hook is basically symbolic.  It is highly reminiscent of the ears on a “Sai,” a simple weapon that is seen in the martial arts of China, Japan and South East Asia.  Arguments have been made that the sai got its unique shape by imitating tridents in Hindu and Buddhist art.  Perhaps we should not look quite so hard for a “practical” function for everything that we see in martial culture (Donn F. Draeger. The Weapons and Fighting Arts of Indonesia.  Tuttle Publishing.  2001. p. 33).

Bingham makes a different observation about the use of the quillion.  He notes that it can be used to manipulate the knife when switching between a “reverse grip” and a standard fencing or “brush grip.”  Of course the issue of “sword flipping” is tremendously controversial in some Wing Chun circles, so it is interesting to see a historical report of the practice in a military setting in the 1830s.

It is also worth noting that Commander Bingham was not the only Western observer to describe hudiedao training and to doubt its effectiveness.

Of swords the Chinese have an abundant variety.  Some are single-handed swords, and there is one device by which two swords are carried in the same sheath and are used one in each hand.  I have seen the two sword exercise performed, and can understand that, when opposed to any person not acquainted with the weapon, the Chinese swordsman would seem irresistible.  But in spite of the two swords, which fly about the wielder’s head like the sails of a mill, and the agility with which the Chinese fencer leaps about and presents first one side and then the other to this antagonist, I cannot think but that any ordinary fencer would be able to keep himself out of reach, and also to get in his point, in spite of the whirling blades of the adversary.

J. G. Wood. 1876. The Uncivilized Races of All Men in All Countries. Vol. II. Hartford: the J. B. Burr Publishing Co. Chapter, CLIV China—continued. Warfare.—Chinese Swords. pp. 1434-1435. (Originally published in 1868.)

J. G. Wood, while responsible for few discoveries of his own, was one of the great promoters and popularizers of scientific knowledge in his generation.  Most of his writings focused on natural history, but occasionally he ventured into the realm of ethnography. Like Dunn, Wood was a collector by nature.  So its not hard to imagine him amassing a number of Chinese swords.

Yet where would he have seen these skills demonstrated?  While Wood traveled to North America on a lecture tour, I am aware of no indication that he ever ventured as far as China.  Of course, one did not have to go to Hong Kong or Shanghai to see a martial arts demonstration.  Between 1848 and 1851 the crew of the Keying (a Chinese Junk) staged twice daily Kung Fu performances in London.

Stephen Davies, who is an expert of the voyages of the Keying, has hypothesized that by the time the ship reached London almost all of its original Chinese crew had already left and returned home.  If this is true, the Keying would have had to recruit a replacement “crew” from London’s small Victorian era Chinese community.  If his supposition is correct (and to be clear, I feel this still needs additional confirmation), by the middle of the 19th century the UK may have had its own population of indigenous martial artists, more than willing to perform their skills in public.  J. G. Wood’s account suggests that the butterfly sword was a well established part of their repertoire.



A very nice set of mid. 19th century hudiedao. These pointed stabbing blades are 63 cm long, 40 mm wide at the base, and the spine in 14 mm across, giving the entire weapon a strong triangular profile. Image courtesy of

A very nice set of mid. 19th century hudiedao. These pointed stabbing blades are 63 cm long, 40 mm wide at the base, and the spine in 14 mm across, giving the entire weapon a strong triangular profile. Image courtesy of


Early Images of the Hudiedao: Western Engravings of Chinese Arms.


It was rare to encounter collections of Chinese artifacts of any kind in the 1820s and 1830s.  However, the situation changed dramatically after the First and Second Opium Wars.  The expansion of trade that followed these conflicts, the opening of new treaty ports, and the creation and growth of Hong Kong all created new zones where Chinese citizens and westerners could meet to change goods and artifacts of material culture.  Unfortunately these meetings were not always peaceful and a large number of Chinese weapons started to be brought back to Europe as trophies.  Many of these arms subsequently found their way into works of art.  As a quintessentially exotic Chinese weapon, “double swords” were featured in early engravings and photographs.

Our first example comes from an engraving of Chinese weapons captured by the Royal Navy and presented to Queen Victoria in 1844.   The London Illustrated News published an interesting description of what they found.  In addition to a somewhat archaic collection of firearms, the Navy recovered a large number of double handed choppers.  These most closely resemble weapon that most martial artists today refer to as a “horse knife” (pu dao).

Featured prominently in the front of the engraving is something that looks quite familiar.  The accompanying article describes this blade as having “two sharpened edges” and a “modern guard.”  I have encountered a number of hudiedao with a false edge, but I do not think that I have found one that was actually sharpened.  I suspect that the sword in this particular picture was of the single variety and originally intended for use with a wicker shield.

London Illustrated News, January 6th, 1844. P. 8.

London Illustrated News, January 6th, 1844. P. 8.

Another useful engraving of “Chinese and Tartar Arms” can be found in Evariste R. Huc’s Travels in Tartary, Thibet and China (London, 1852).  Unlike some of the previous sources this one is not overly focused on military matters.  Still, the publishers include a fascinating engraving of Chinese arms.  The models for these were likely war trophies that were brought to the UK in the 1840s and 1850s.  They may have even been items from Nathan Dunn’s (now deceased) vast collection which was auctioned at Sotheby in 1844 following a tour of London and then the countryside.

Featured prominently in the middle of the picture is a set of hudiedao.  The engraving shows two swords with long narrow blades and D-guards resting in a single scabbard.  It is very hard to judge size in this print as the artist let scale slide to serve the interests of symmetry, but it appears that the “double swords” are only slightly shorter than the regulation Qing dao that hangs with them.

London Illustrated News, January 6th, 1844. P. 8.

“Chinese and Tartar Arms.” Published in Evariste R. Huc. Travels in Tartary, Thibet and China, 1844-5-6. Volume 1. P. 237. Office of the National Illustrated Library. London: 1852.

While it would appear that hudiedao had been in use in southern China since the 1820s, they make their first documented appearance on the West coast of America in the 1850s.  The Bancroft Library at UC Berkley has an important collection of documents and images relating to the Chinese American experience.  Better yet, many of their holdings have been digitized and are available on-line to the public.

Most of the Chinese individuals who settled in California (to work in both the railroads and mining camps) were from Fujian and Guangdong.  They brought with them their local dialects, modes of social organization, tensions and propensity for community feuding and violence.  They also brought with them a wide variety of weapons.

Newspaper accounts and illustrations from this side of the pacific actually provide us with some of our best studies of what we now think of as “martial arts” weapons.  Of course, it is unlike that this is how they were actually viewed by immigrants in the 1850s.  In that environment they were simply “weapons.”

The coasts of both Guangdong and Fujian province were literally covered in pirates in the 1840s, and the interiors of both provinces were infested with banditry.  Many individuals have long suspected that the hudiedao were in fact associated with these less savory elements of China’s criminal underground.  Butterfly swords, either as a pair or a single weapon, are sometimes marketed as “river pirate knives.”

The Armory of the Wang-Ho as seen on an early 20th century postcard. Note the Hudiedao in the rack on the back wall. Source: Author's personal collection.
The Armory of the Wang-Ho as seen on an early 20th century postcard. Note the Hudiedao in the rack on the back wall. Source: Author’s personal collection.


Perhaps it would be more correct to note that these versatile short swords were an ubiquitous part of Chinese maritime life.  In a period account describing (in great detail) the outfitting of typical Chinese merchant vessels we find the following note:


The armament is as follows: one cannon, twelve pounder, one do., six pounder; twelve gingalls or small rampart pieces, on pivots; one English musket; twenty pairs of double swords; thirty rattan shields, 2000 pikes, sixty oars; fifteen mats to cover the vessel, two cables, one of them bamboo, and the other coir, fifty fathoms long, one pump of bamboo tubes; one European telescope: one compass, which is rarely used, their voyages being near shore.

R. Montgomery Martin, Esq. 1847. China; Political, Commercial and Social: In an Official Report to Her Majesty’s Government . Vol. I. London: James Madden, 8 Leadenhall Street. p. 99


As Chinese sailors and immigrants traveled to new areas they brought their traditional arms with them.  Early observers in the American West noted that these weapons were often favored by the Tongs, gangs and drifters who monopolized the political economy of violence within the Chinese community.

The Bancroft library provides the earliest evidence I have yet found for hudiedao-type weapons in an engraving produced by the “Wild West Office, San Francisco.”  This picture depicts a battle between two rival Tongs (communal organizations that were often implicated in violence) at Weaverville in October, 1854.  Earlier that year the two groups, Tuolomne County’s Sam Yap Company and the Calaveras County Yan Wo Company, had nearly come to blows.

Both groups closed ranks, began to order weapons (including helmets, swords and shields) from local craftsmen, and spent months drilling as militia units.  However, the two sides were far from evenly matched.  The Sam Yap Company ordered 150 bayonets and muskets in San Francisco and hired 15 white drill instructors.  The Yan Wo Company may also have had access to some firearms, but was generally more poorly provided.

Period accounts indicate that about 2,000 individuals (including the 15 western military advisers) clashed at a place called “5 Cent Gulch.”  The fighting between the two sides was brief.  After a number of volleys of musket fire the much more poorly armed Yan Wo Company broke ranks and retreated.  Casualty figures vary but seem to have been light.  Some reports indicate that seven individuals died in the initial clash and another 26 were seriously wounded.

The conflict between these two companies was a matter of some amusement to the local white community who watch events unfold like a spectator sport and put bets on the contending sides.  An engraving of the event was sold in San Francisco.

While a sad historical chapter, the 1854 Weaverville War is interesting to students of Chinese Martial Studies on a number of fronts.  It is a relatively well documented example of militia organization and communal violence in the southern Chinese diaspora.  The use of outside military instructors, reliance on elite networks and mixing of locally produced traditional weaponry with a small number of more advanced firearms are all typical of the sorts of military activity that we have already seen in Guangdong.   Of course these were not disciplined, community based, gentry led militias.  Instead this was inter-communal violence organized by Tongs and largely carried out by hired muscle.  This general pattern would remain common within immigrant Chinese communities through the 1930s.

"A Chinese Battle in California." Depiction of rival tongs of Chinese miners at Weaverville in June 1854. Contributing Institution: California Historical Society. Bancroft Library, UC Berkley.
“A Chinese Battle in California.” Depiction of rival Tongs of Chinese miners at Weaverville in June 1854. Contributing Institution: California Historical Society. Bancroft Library, UC Berkley.

Given that the first known Chinese martial arts schools did not open in California until the 1930s, the accounts of the militia training in Weaverville are also one of our earliest examples of the teaching of traditional Chinese fighting methods in the US.  The degree to which any of this is actually similar to the modern martial arts is an interesting philosophical question.


Volkerkunde by F.Ratzel.Printed in Germany,1890. This 19th century illustration shows a number of interesting Japanese and Chinese arms including hudiedao.

Volkerkunde by F.Ratzel.Printed in Germany,1890. This 19th century illustration shows a number of interesting Asian arms including hudiedao.  The print does a good job of conveying what a 19th century arms collection in a great house would have looked like.


The Hudiedao as a Marker of the “Exotic East” in Early Photography


While the origins of photography stretch back to the late 1820s, reliable and popular imaging systems did not come into general use until the 1850s.  This is the same decade in which the expansion of the treaty port system and the creation of Hong Kong increased contact between the Chinese and Westerners.  Increasingly photography replaced private collections, travelogues and newspapers illustrations as the main means by which Westerners attempted to imagine and understand life in China.

Various forms of double swords occasionally show up in photos taken in southern China.  One of the most interesting images shows a rural militia in the Pearl River Delta region near Guangzhou sometime in the late 1850s (Second Opium War).  The unit is comprised of seven individuals, all quite young.  Four of them are armed with shields, and they include a single gunner.  Everyone is wearing a wicker helmet (commonly issued to village militia members in this period).  The most interesting figure is the group’s standard bearer.  In addition to being armed with a spear he has what appears to be a set of hudiedao stuck in his belt.

The D-guards, quillions and leather sheath are all clearly visible.  Due to the construction of this type of weapon, it is actually impossible to tell when it is a single sword, or a double blade fitted in one sheath, when photographed from the side.  Nevertheless, given what we know about the official orders for arming the militia in this period, it seems likely that this is a set of “double swords.”

The next image in the series confirms that these are true hudiedao and also suggests that the blades are of the long narrow stabbing variety.  This style of sword is also evident in the third photograph behind the large rattan shield.  These images are an invaluable record of the variety of arms carried by village militias in Guangdong during the early and mid. 19th century.

Rural militia in Guangdong, Pearl River Delta, taken sometime during the Second Opium War (1856-1860). Source http:\

Rural militia in Guangdong, Pearl River Delta, taken sometime during the Second Opium War (1856-1860). Source

Another picture of the same young militia group, thistime in their home village. Luckily the hudiedao of the leader have become dislodged in their sheath. We can now confirm that these are double blades, and they are of the long, narrow stabbing variety seen in some of the prior photographs. Source http:\

Another picture of the same young militia group. Luckily the hudiedao of the leader have become dislodged in their sheath. We can now confirm that these are double blades.  They are of the long narrow stabbing variety seen in some of the prior photographs. Source

A third picture from the same series. Note the long thin blade being held behind the rattan shield by the kneeling individual. source

A third picture from the same series. Note the long thin blade being held behind the rattan shield by the kneeling soldier. The individual with the spear also appears to be armed with a matchlock handgun.  Source

The next photograph from the same period presents us with the opposite challenge.  It gives us a wonderfully detailed view of the weapons, but any appropriate context for understanding their use or meaning is missing.  Given it’s physical size and technology of production, this undated photograph was probably taken in the 1860s.  It was likely taken in either San Francisco or Hong Kong, though it is impossible to rule out some other location.

On the verso we find an ink stamp for “G. Harrison Gray” (evidently the photographer).  Images like this might be produced either for sale to the subject (hence all of the civil war portraits that one sees in American antique circles), or they might have been reproduced for sale to the general public.  Given the colorful subject matter of this image I would guess that the latter is most likely the case, but again, it is impossible to be totally certain.

The young man in the photo (labeled “Chinese Soldier”) is shown in the ubiquitous wicker helmet and is armed only with a set of exceptionally long hudedao.  These swords feature a slashing and chopping blade that terminates in a hatchet point, commonly seen on existing examples.  The guards on these knives appear to be relatively thin and the quillion is not as long or wide as some examples.  I would hazard a guess that both are made of steel rather than brass.  Given the long blade and light handle, these weapons likely felt top heavy, though there are steps that a skilled swordsmith could take to lessen the effect.

1860s photograph of a "Chinese Soldier" with butterfly swords. Subject unknown, taken by G. Harrison Grey.

1860s photograph of a “Chinese Soldier” with butterfly swords. Subject unknown, taken by G. Harrison Gray.

It is interesting to note that the subject of the photograph is holding the horizontal blade backwards.  It was a common practice for photographers of the time to acquire costumes, furniture and even weapons to be used as props in a photograph.  It is likely that these swords actually belonged to G. Harrison Gray or his studio and the subject has merely been dressed to look like a “soldier.”  In reality he may never have handled a set of hudiedao before.

A studio image of two Chinese soldiers (local braves) produced probably in Hong Kong during the 1850s. Note the hudiedao (butterfly swords) carried by both individuals. Unknown Photographer.
A studio image of two Chinese soldiers (local braves) produced probably in Hong Kong during the 1850s or the 1860s. This mix of weapons would have been typical of the middle years of the 19th century.  Note the hudiedao (butterfly swords) carried by both individuals. Unknown Photographer.


The Hudiedo and the Gun


While guns came to dominate the world of violence in China during the late 19th century, traditional weaponry never disappeared.  There are probably both economic and tactical reasons behind the continued presence of certain types of traditional arms.  In general, fighting knives and hudiedao seem to have remained popular throughout this period.

The same trend was also seen in America.  On Feb. 13th, 1886,  Harper’s Weekly published a richly illustrated article titled “Chinese Highbinders”  (p. 103).  This is an important document for students of the Chinese-American experience, especially when asking questions about how Asian-Americans were viewed by the rest of society.

Readers should carefully examine the banner of the engraving on page 100.  It contains a surprisingly detailed study of weapons confiscated from various criminals and enforcers.  As one would expect, handguns and knives play a leading role in this arsenal.  The stereotypical hatchet and cleaver are also present.

More interesting, from a martial arts perspective, is the presence of various types of maces (double iron rulers and a sai), as well as an armored shirt and wristlets.  The collection is finished off with a classic hudiedao, complete with D-guard and shared leather scabbard.  It seems that the hudiedao actually held a certain amount of mystic among gangsters in the mid 1880s.  The author notes that these weapons were imported directly from China.

Highbinder's favorite weapons

This image was scanned by UC Berkeley, Bancroft Library.

“The weapons of the Highbinder are all brought from China, with the exception of the hatchet and the pistol. The illustration shows a collection of Chinese knives and swords taken from criminals, and now in the possession of the San Francisco police. The murderous weapon is what is called the double sword. Two swords, each about two feet long, are worn in a single scabbard. A Chinese draws these, one in each hand, and chops his way through a crowd of enemies. Only one side is sharpened, but the blade, like that of all the Chinese knives, is ground to a razor edge. An effective weapon at close quarters is the two-edged knife, usually worn in a leather sheath. The handle is of brass, generally richly ornamented, while the blade is of the finest steel. Most of the assassinations in Chinatown have been committed with this weapon, one blow being sufficient to ensure a mortal wound. The cleaver used by the Highbinders is smaller and lighter than the ordinary butcher’s cleaver. The iron club, about a foot and a half long, is enclosed in a sheath, and worn at the side like a sword. Another weapon is a curious sword with a large guard for the hand. The hatchet is usually of American make, but ground as sharp as a razor.

The coat of mail shown is the sketch, which was taken from a Chinese Highbinder, is of cloth, heavily padded with layers of rice paper that make it proof against a bullet, or even a rifle ball. This garment is worn by the most desperate men when they undertake a peculiarly dangerous bit of assassination. More common than this is the leather wristlet. This comes halfway up to the elbow, and pieces of iron inserted in the leather serve to ward off even a heavy stroke of a sword or hatchet.” (Feb 13, 1887.  Harper’s Weekly. P. 103).

These passages, based on interviews with law enforcement officers, provide one of the most interesting period discussions of the use of “double swords” among the criminal element that we currently possess.  These weapons were not uncommon, but they were feared.  They seem to have been especially useful when confronting crowds of unarmed opponents and were frequently employed in targeted killings.  It is also interesting to note that their strong hatchet-points and triangular profiles may have been a response to the expectation that at least some enemies would be wearing armor.

Desperate men and hired thugs were not the only inhabitants of San Francisco’s Chinatown to employ hudiedao in the 19th century.  Both Cantonese Opera singers and street performers also used these swords.

During the early 1900s, a photographer named Arnold Genthe took a series of now historically important photographs of San Francisco’s Chinese residents.  These are mostly street scenes portraying the patterns of daily life, and are not overly sensational or concerned with martial culture.  One photo, however, stands out.  In it a martial artist is shown performing some type of fighting routine with two short, roughly made, hudiedao.

Behind him on the ground are two single-tailed wooden poles.  These were probably also used in his performance and may have helped to display a banner.  Period accounts from Guangzhou and other cities in southern China frequently note these sorts of transient street performers.  They would use their martial skills to attract a crowd and then either sell patent medicines, charms, or pass a hat at the end of the performance.  This is the only 19th century photograph that I am aware of showing such a performer in California.

The lives of these wandering martial artists were not easy, and often involved violence and extortion at the hands of either the authorities or other denizens of the “Rivers and Lakes.”  Many of them were forced to use their skills for purposes other than performing.

Arnold Genthe collected information on his subjects, so we have some idea who posed for in around 1900.

 “The Mountainbank,” “The Peking Two Knife Man,” “The Sword dancer” – Genthe’s various titles for this portrait of Sung Chi Liang, well known for his martial arts skills. Nicknamed Daniu, or “Big Ox,” referring to his great strength, he also sold an herbal medicine rub after performing a martial art routine in the street. The medicine, tiedayanjiu (tit daa yeuk jau), was commonly used to help heal bruises sustained in fights or falls. This scene is in front of 32, 34, and 36 Waverly Place, on the east side of the street, between Clay and Washington Streets. Next to the two onlookers on the right is a wooden stand which, with a wash basin, would advertise a Chinese barbershop open for business. The adjacent basement stairwell leads to an inexpensive Chinese restaurant specializing in morning zhou (juk), or rice porridge.”

Genthe’s Photographs of San Francisco’s Old Chinatown by Arnold Genthe, John Kuo Wei Tche. p. 29

Arnold Genthe and Will Irwin. Genthe’s Photographs of San Francisco’s Old Chinatown. New York: Mitchell Kennerley. 1913. (First published in 1908). A high resolution scan of the original photograph can be found at the Bancroft Library, UC Berkley).

Arnold Genthe and Will Irwin. Genthe’s Photographs of San Francisco’s Old Chinatown. New York: Mitchell Kennerley. 1913. (First published in 1908). A high resolution scan of the original photograph can be found at the Bancroft Library, UC Berkley).


Dainu’s hudiedao are shorter and fatter than most of the earlier 19th century models that have been described or shown above.  One wonders whether this style of shorter, more easily concealed, blade was becoming popular at the start of the 20th century.  These knives seem to be more designed for chopping than stabbing and are reminiscent of the types of swords (bat cham dao) seen hanging on the walls of most Wing Chun schools today.

Lin expected his militia to fight the British with these weapons, and the swords shown in G. Harrison Gray’s photograph are clearly long enough to fence with.  In contrast, Dainu’s “swords” are basically the size of large 19th century bowie knives.  They are probably too short for complex trapping of an enemy’s weapons and were likely intended to be used against an unarmed opponent, or one armed only with a hatchet or knife.

The next photograph was also taken in San Francisco around 1900.  It shows a Cantonese opera company putting on a “military” play.  The image may have originally been either a press or advertising picture.  I have not been able to discover who the original photographer was.

It is interesting to consider the assortment of weapons seen in this photograph.  A number of lower status soldiers are armed with a shield and single hudiedao shaped knife.  More important figures in heroic roles are armed with a pair of true hudiedaos.  Lastly the main protagonists are all armed with pole weapons (spears and tridents).

Cantonese Opera Performers in San Francisco, circa 1900. This picture came out of the same milieu as the one above it. Notice the wide but short blades used by these performers. Such weapons had a lot visual impact but were relatively safe to use on stage.

Cantonese Opera Performers in San Francisco, circa 1900. This picture came out of the same milieu as the one above it. Notice the wide but short blades used by these performers. Such weapons had a lot visual impact but were relatively safe to use on stage.

Cantonese opera troops paid close attention to martial arts and weapons in their acting.  While their goal was to entertain rather than provide pure realism, they knew that many members of the audience would have some experience with the martial arts.  This was a surprisingly sophisticated audience and people expected a certain degree of plausibility from a “military” play.

It was not uncommon for Opera troops to compete with one another by being the first to display a new fighting style or to bring an exotic weapon onstage.  Hence the association of different weapons with individuals of certain social classes in this photo may not be a total coincidence.  It is likely an idealized representation of one aspect of Cantonese martial culture.  Fighting effectively with a spear or halberd requires a degree of subtlety and expertise that is not necessary (or even possible) when wielding a short sword and a one meter wicker shield.

We also know that the government of Guangdong was issuing hudiedao to mercenary martial artists and village militias.  Higher status imperial soldiers were expected to have mastered the matchlock, the bow, the spear and the dao (a single edged saber).   While many surviving antique hudiedao do have finely carved handles and show laminated blades when polished and etched, I suspect that in historic terms these finely produced weapons there were probably the exception rather than the rule.

Confiscated weapons. Shanghai Municipal Police Department, 1925. University of Bristol, Historical Photographs of China.
Confiscated weapons. Shanghai Municipal Police Department, 1925. University of Bristol, Historical Photographs of China.



The Hudiedao as a Weapon, Symbol and Historical Argument


Butterfly Swords remained in use as a weapon among various Triad members and Tong enforcers through the early 20th century.  For instance, an evidence photo of confiscated weapons in California shows a variety of knives, a handgun and a pair of hudiedao.  This set has relatively thick chopping blades and is shorter than some of the earlier examples, but it retains powerful stabbing points.

Chinese Highbinder weapons collected by H. H. North, U. S. Commission of Immigration, forwarded to Bureau of Immigration, Washington D. C., about 1900. Note the coexistence of hudiedao (butterfly swords), guns and knives all in the same raid. This collection of weapons is identical to what might have been found from the 1860s onward.Courtesy the digital collection of the Bancroft Library, UC Berkley.

Chinese Highbinder weapons collected by H. H. North, U. S. Commission of Immigration, forwarded to Bureau of Immigration, Washington D. C., about 1900. Note the coexistence of hudiedao (butterfly swords), guns and knives all in the same raid. This collection of weapons is identical to what might have been found in either China or America from the 1860s onward.
Courtesy the digital collection of the Bancroft Library, UC Berkley.

Chinese coat of mail used by Chinese highbinders in San Fransisco. Contributing Institution: UC Berkeley, Bancroft Library. The possibility of meeting a foe wearing armor (also noted in the Harper's Weekly article) would certainly explain the popularity of strong stabbing points on some 19th century Hudiedao.

Chinese coat of mail used by Chinese highbinders in San Fransisco. Contributing Institution: UC Berkeley, Bancroft Library. The possibility of meeting a foe wearing armor (also noted in the Harper’s Weekly article) would certainly explain the popularity of strong stabbing points on some 19th century Hudiedao.

Still, “cold weapons” of all types saw less use in the second and third decades of the 20th century as they were replaced with increasingly plentiful and inexpensive firearms.  We know that in Republican China almost all bandit gangs were armed with modern repeating rifles by the 1920s.  Gangsters and criminal enforcers in America were equally quick to take up firearms.

The transition was not automatic.  Lau Bun, a Choy Li Fut master trained in the Hung Sing Association style, is often cited as the first individual in America to open a permanent semi-public martial arts school.  He also worked as an enforcer and guard for local Tong interests, and is sometimes said to have carried concealed butterfly swords on his person in the 1920s and 1930s.


Weapons confiscated in Chinatown, New York City, 1922. This haul shows a remarkable mixture of modern and traditional weapons. Source: NYPD Public Records.
Weapons confiscated in Chinatown, New York City, 1922. This haul shows a remarkable mixture of modern and traditional weapons. Source: NYPD Public Records.


On the opposite coast, New York newspapers ran a number of pictures of butterfly swords that reinforced many of the mythologies of the period. These portrayed Chinese-Americans as violent and untrustworthy individuals.  While a certain level community violence is (unfortunately) a constant in American life, such photos of exotic weapons (sometimes at crime scenes) seem to have closely tied such incidents to supposedly “timeless” and “unchanging” ethno-nationalist traits.  In a very real way butterfly swords and hatchets became identifying symbols of the Chinese American community prior to WWII.

Eddie Gong holding a pair of Hudiedao.
“Chinese With Knives. Ready for a Hammer and Tong War?” June, 1930.


Consider the iconic photograph of the Tong leader Eddie Gong inspecting a pair of hudiedao in 1930.   The caption that originally ran with this image promised violence as local Chinese-American hatchet men shined up their “cleavers” before turning them on their enemies.  In truth much of the violence in this period was carried out with guns, but the hudiedao remained a powerful symbol within the public imagination.

On a more technical level these swords have broad blades which show little narrowing as you approach the tip.  The actual point of the sword is rounded and not well adapted to stabbing.  In fact, they seem to be built more along the lines of a performance weapon than anything else.  On the one hand they are too large for concealed carry, yet they also lack the reach and stabbing ability that one would want in an offensive weapon.

Still, Eddie Gong’s hudiedao compare favorably with many of the more cheaply produced copies available to martial artists today.  Many experienced fencers and sword collectors are utterly perplexed when they pick up their first set of “bat cham dao,” and openly express wonder that these short, rounded, and poorly balanced blades could actually function as a weapon.  Their disbelief is well founded, but it usually evaporates when you place a set of well-made mid-19th century swords in their hands instead.

Hudiedao, like many other weapons, developed a certain mystique during the 19th century.  They were used in the poorly executed defense of Guangdong against the British.  In the hand of the Triads they were a symbol of personal empowerment and government opposition.  They were widely used by groups as diverse as local law enforcement officials, traveling martial artists, opera singers and community militias.  Their iconic nature probably helped them to survive in the urban landscape well after most other forms of the sword had been abandoned (the dadao being the notable exception).  However, by the 1920s these weapons were finally being relegated to the training hall and the opera state.  In those environments length, cutting ability and a powerful tip were not only unnecessary, they were an unrewarded hazard.  The symbolic value of these weapons was no longer tied to their actual cutting ability.

The San Francisco Call, 1898.
When not found within the training hall, butterfly swords made frequent appearances within Western “Yellow Peril” literature. The San Francisco Call, 1898.


Consider for instance the “bat cham dao” (the Wing Chun style name for butterfly swords) owned by Ip Man.  In a recent interview Ip Ching (his son),confirmed that his father never brought a set of functional hudiedao to Hong Kong when he left Foshan in 1949.  Instead, he actually brought a set of “swords” carved out of peach wood.  These were the “swords” that he used when establishing Wing Chun in Hong Kong in the 1950s and laying the foundations for its global expansion.

Obviously some wooden swords are more accurate than others, but none of them are exactly like the objects they represent.  It also makes a good deal of sense that Ip Man in 1949 would not really care that much about iron swords.  He was not a gangster or a Triad member.  He was not an opera performer.  As a police officer he had carried a gun and had a good sense of what real street violence was.

Ip Man had been (and aspired to once again become) a man of leisure.  He was relatively well educated, sophisticated and urbane.  More than anything else he saw himself as a Confucian gentleman, and as such he was more likely to display a work of art in his home than a cold-blooded weapon.

Swords carved of peach wood have an important significance in Chinese society that goes well beyond their safety and convience when practicing martial arts forms.  Peach wood swords are used in Daoist exorcisms and are thought to have demon slaying powers.  In the extended version of the story of the destruction of the Shaolin Temple favored by the Triads, Heaven sends a peach wood sword to the survivors of Shaolin that they use to slay thousands of their Qing pursuers.

Hung on the wall in a home or studio, these swords are thought to convey good fortune and a certain type of energy.  In fact, it was not uncommon for Confucian scholars to display a prized antique blade or a peach wood sword in their studies.  Ip Man’s hudiedao appear to be a (uniquely southern) adaptation of this broader cultural tradition.  As carved wooden works of art, they were only meant to have a superficial resemblance to the militia weapons of the early 19th century.

Ip Ching also relates that at a later date one of his students took these swords and had exact aluminum replicas of them created.  Later these were reworked again to have a flat stainless steel blade and aluminum (latter brass) handles.  Still, I think there is much to be said for the symbolism of the peach wood blade.

Butterfly swords remain one of the most iconic and easily recognizable artifacts of Southern China’s unique martial culture.  Their initial creation in the late 18th or early 19th century may have been aided by recent encounters with European cutlasses and military hangers.  This unique D-grip (seen in many, though not all cases) was then married to an older tradition of using double weapons housed in a single sheath.

By the 1820s, these swords were popular enough that American and British merchants in Guangdong were encountering them and adding them to their collections.  By the 1830’s, we have multiple accounts of these weapons being supplied to the gentry led militia troops and braves hired by Lin in his conflicts with the British.  Descriptions by Commander Bingham indicate the existence of a fully formed martial tradition in which thousands of troops were trained to fight in the open field with these swords, and even to flip them when switching between grips.  (Whether flipping them is really a good idea is another matter entirely).

Increased contact between Europeans and Chinese citizens in the 1840s and 1850s resulted in more accounts of “double swords” and clear photographs and engravings showing a variety of features that are shared with modern hudiedao.  The biggest difference is that most of these mid-century swords were longer and more pointed than modern swords.

Interestingly these weapons also start to appear on America’s shores as Chinese immigration from Guangdong and Fujian increased in the middle of the 19th century.  Period accounts from the 1880s indicate that they were commonly employed by criminals and enforcers, and photographs from the turn of the century show that they were also used by both street performers and opera singers.

Later, in the 1950s, when T. Y. Wong and other reformers wished to reeducate the American public about the nature of the Chinese martial arts they turned to public demonstrations and even the occasional TV appearances.  Once again the hudiedao were deployed to help them make their point.


Together with Lau Bun, TY Wong would oversee the martial arts culture in San Francisco's Chinatown for more than a quarter century. (Photo courtesy of Gilman Wong)
TY Wong demonstrating the use of the hudiedao on network television in 1955.  In this instance he appears to be using a very nice set of vintage blades. (Photo courtesy of Gilman Wong)

Still, these blades were in general shorter, wider and with less pronounced points, than their mid. 19th century siblings.  While some individuals may have continued to carry these into the 1930s, hudiedao started to disappear from the streets as they were replaced by more modern and economical firearms.  By the middle of the 20th century these items, if encountered at all, were no longer thought of as fearsome weapons of community defense or organized crime.  Instead they survived as the tools of the “traditional martial arts” and opera props.



While it has touched on a variety of points, I feel that this article has made two substantive contributions to our understanding of these weapons.  First, it pushed their probable date of creation back a generation or more.  Rather than being the product of the late 19th century or the 1850s, we now have clear evidence of the widespread use of the hudiedao in Guangdong dating back to the 1820s.

These weapons were indeed favored by civilian martial artists and various members of the “Rivers and Lakes” of southern China.  Yet we have also seen that they were employed by the thousands to arm militias, braves and guards in southern China.  Not only that we have accounts of thousands of individuals in the Pearl River Delta region receiving active daily instruction in their use in the late 1830s.

The popular view of hudiedao as exotic weapons of martial artists, rebels and eccentric pirates needs to be modified.  These blades also symbolized the forces of “law and order.”  They were produced by the thousands for government backed elite networks and paid for with public taxes.  This was a reasonable choice as many members of these local militias already had some boxing experience.  It would have been relatively easy to train them to hold and use these swords given what they already knew.  While butterfly swords may have appeared mysterious and quintessentially “Chinese” to western observers in the 1830s, Lin supported their large scale adoption as a practical solution to a pressing problem.

This may also change how we think about the martial arts that arose in this region.  For instance, the two weapons typically taught in the Wing Chun system are the “long pole” and the “bat cham do” (the style name for hudiedao).  The explanations for these weapons that one normally encounters are highly exotic and focus on the wandering Shaolin monks (who were famous for their pole fighting) or secret rebel groups intent on exterminating local government officials.  Often the “easily concealable” nature of the hudiedao are supposed to have made them ideal for this task (as opposed to handguns and high explosives, which are the weapons that were actually used for political assassinations during the late Qing).

Our new understanding of the historical record shows that what Wing Chun actually teaches are the two standard weapons taught to almost every militia member in the region.  One typically learns pole fighting as a prelude to more sophisticated spear fighting.  However, the Six and a Half Point pole form could easily work for either when training a peasant militia.  And we now know that the butterfly swords were the single most common side arm issued to peasant-soldiers during the mid. 19th century in the Pearl River Delta region.

The first historically verifiable appearance of Wing Chun in Foshan was during the 1850s-1860s.  This important commercial town is located literally in the heartland of the southern gentry-led militia movement.  It had been the scene of intense fighting in 1854-1856 and more conflict was expected in the future.

We have no indication that Leung Jan was a secret revolutionary.  He was a well known and well liked successful local businessman.  Still, there are understandable reasons that the martial art which he developed would allow a highly educated and wealthy individual, to train a group of people in the use of the pole and the hudiedao.  Wing Chun contains within it all of the skills one needs to raise and train a gentry led militia unit.

The evolution of Wing Chun was likely influenced by this region’s unique history of militia activity and widespread (government backed) military education.  I would not be at all surprised to see some of these same processes at work in other martial arts that were forming in the Pearl River Delta at the same time.



The Creation of Wing Chun by Judkins and Nielson.
The Creation of Wing Chun by Judkins and Nielson.




If you enjoyed this essay you might also want to read: The Creation of Wing Chun – A Social History of the Southern Chinese Martial Arts.



Yim Wing Chun and Gender: the Stories of Ip Man and Yuen Woo Ping in a Comparative Perspective

Chinese postcard showing a young girl studying a sword routine as her teacher looks on.

Why Talk About Gender in the Chinese Martial Arts?

In my years of teaching I have noticed that any discussion of “gender” will usually elicit great interest from a certain percentage of my students, while you can literally watch the remainder of the classes eyes glaze over as they mentally check out. We all know that gender is one of those trendy, oh so politically correct, subjects that you are required to discuss in college. These sorts of discussions are routinely held up as examples of “intellectual navel-gazing” that have no value in the real world.

Gender also comes up in quite a few academic studies of the martial arts, particularly among anthropologists or those who are interested in martial fiction and film.  Historians have generally been slower to tackle this question.  Henning and others have quite correctly pointed out that there is less variability here than one might suppose.  Historically speaking the vast majority of Chinese martial artists have always been young men. Nevertheless, I think that this is an incredibly important subject and we need to consider it very carefully.  Nor are my concerns solely academic (though they may shed some light on popular academic theories).

I love the traditional Asian martial arts, and it is increasingly impossible to ignore the fact that they are faced with a number of troubling trends in the west.  While a handful of martial arts are doing rather well, others are struggling.  Taiji and Wing Chun are doing fine, but Judo and traditional Karate are both declining.  Most Chinese martial arts have seen their student bases decline since 2000.  In the west this trend is evident among both traditional schools like Choy Li Fut and modern sport Wushu.  Tae Kwon Do, which for years dominated the commercial martial arts scene, appears to be in actual free fall and is going through a period of institutional meltdown.

Only two things appear to be doing well. On the one hand schools that focus on serious self-defense seem to be prospering.  Krav Maga is picking up steam, and this same trend seems to be supporting Wing Chun as well.  On the other hand, extreme combat sports like Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) and the UFC are exploding in popularity.

Gene Ching, an observer and writer on the martial arts whom I very much respect, has argued that it is not a zero-sum game between the traditional styles and MMA.  One could lead to greater vitality and strength in the other and both can prosper together.  I would like to believe that this is true, but I have recently seen some troubling trend data that seems to indicate otherwise.  Maybe the public only has so much time, money and attention.  Increasingly MMA is dominating the small percentage of their budgets that they are willing to dedicate to “combat sports.”

I am starting to suspect that we are not in a positive sum situation here. Individual schools and gifted instructors are always going to do well.  Yet from a systemic perspective it looks very much like MMA is about to consume the traditional martial arts in the west leaving a smaller, hallowed out, community.

I speculate that this may have something to do with gender and our inability to seriously deal with the subject in the western martial arts community.  In reality the traditional arts of China and Japan have always been very tightly tied to the performance of certain gender roles. Avron Boretz has demonstrated in great detail how martial arts schools in China function as workshops for the “self-creation” of masculinity among teenage boys and marginal adults that would otherwise be denied “male” status in China’s highly structured society.

An image of Hua Mulan wearing armor.

Kung Fu: It’s a “Yang” thing (most of the time).

While his book Gods, Ghosts and Gangsters: Ritual Violence, Martial Arts, and Masculinity on the Margins of Chinese Society (University of Hawaii Press, 2011) does not address the day to day minutia of life in a hand combat school, it is without a doubt one of the most important books on Chinese martial studies to be published in recent years. In it Boretz demonstrates how the idea of “martial virtue” and “eating bitter” constitute an alternate, or subaltern, discourse about the achievement of masculinity. To engage in martial arts training is almost a protest against dominant social values, but it is a very careful sort of protest.  Its purpose is not to overthrow the hierarchy, yet to assert that there is another way to the top.

And what is at the top? What values are the Chinese folk martial arts seeking to express? Overwhelming they are concerned with “Yang” or masculine virtue.  In Chinese folk religion these are seen as the central ordering and productive forces of the universe.  “Yin,” or “female” values, are not only not seen as being equally valuable, but they are often seen as a subversive representation of chaos, destruction and decay.  These “Yin forces” need to be contained through strict social legislation and ritualized exorcism.

This is very different from the sublimely balance of Yin and Yang imagined in Taiji theory or discussed by so many philosophically minded American martial artists. This shouldn’t really be a surprise as philosophical Taoism has never been all that popular in China or Taiwan.  Actual folk Taoism tends to be dominated by ritual rather than learned discourse, and one of the most common rituals practiced are public exorcisms to banish the dark and misty threads of Yin from the public sphere.  Beyond this ritual bias, the association of Yang with “virtue” is deeply embedded in many, maybe most, Chinese folk martial traditions.

I often find it somewhat humorous that so much of what western martial artists see as inscrutable Chinese mysticism is, at its essence, a means of actualizing and demonstrating gender.  All of that “eating bitter” that seems useless under the logic of modern western athletic training?  The stuff that seem like needless sadism?  Yeah, it is useless.  It was never supposed to build up your body.  It was supposed to build up your…(cough)…Yang.  Lets call it “character” for lack of a better term.  Of course the Chinese are by no means the only society that has sought to refine masculinity through asceticism.

I can’t review everything that Boretz discusses in his book, but that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t know it. So go order this book and read it.

In the meantime, here are a few issues to consider. How we imagine gender in the US today is very different from how it is constructed in the “Rivers and Lakes” of contemporary Chinese culture. To further complicate things, how gender is constructed and expressed in China today isn’t even the same as how the project was pursued a hundred years ago.

Much of what goes on in a “traditional” Kung Fu class is tied to the production of masculinity, but these symbols and pathways make no sense to an American teenager or young adult seeking to develop or express his masculinity in a different cultural context.  Most of the time no one really explains what is going on, and even if they did, would the average American teen really believe that hard Qigong training makes them “more of a man?”  It is doubtful that this line of thought, which is pretty commonly discussed in Chinese sources, would make any sense to them at all.  Do you know what does make sense? MMA.

MMA is an engine for a certain type of gender construction, which turns out to be vastly more important to your average teenage boy than actually learning how to box or wrestle.  Those are indirect means to an end.  The MMA lifestyle is like bottled testosterone.  It will be much more appealing to a large group of youngsters who in a prior generation might have taken up Judo.

Likewise a lot of the female students I have dealt with are very interested in real, practical, self-defense strategies.  I strongly believe that the traditional martial arts have a moral imperative to help these people. Making the weak strong, dispelling the darkness with knowledge, that is what we do. If we can’t do this the martial arts don’t really have much of a reason to exist.

Still, women tend to drop out of training in higher numbers than men and they are less likely to make it to the top levels of their respective arts.  Is this because they are “too weak” or “don’t want to be hit?”  I don’t think so.  I suspect that the first of these reasons misunderstands how actual self-defense happens (it’s a lot of evasion, quick shocks of pain, followed by running for help), and the second is a matter of cultural values.

So let’s take a closer look at the cultural values that you will find in the average martial arts school today. People are very sensitive to subtle symbols. Experiments have shown that female students do less well in chemistry classrooms that only have pictures of male scientists on the walls, than in classrooms with a more balanced portrayal of those who can succeed in the field.

Let’s face it, the structure and operation of a lot of traditional training halls just exudes “male” values. This is, after all, what they were designed to do.  This “male bias” may not be able to compete with the multimillion dollar advertising campaigns of the MMA industry, but its still there.

We structure our sparing in such a way that people will get a hit a lot, and the biggest toughest guy has a huge advantage. We always tell our students that real self-defense isn’t like boxing, but then our training is basically boxing (or wrestling). I am not surprised that most females aren’t interested in this, even though they are interested in self-defense. The traditional martial arts school is structured in a way that makes it hard for them succeed.  Nor is this structural bias an accident.  It is embedded in the deep structure of the arts that we have inhered from Asia.  While it certainly can be overcome (and a number of schools have) you first have to realize that female students are facing a variety of problems not of their own creation.

So, on the one hand modern martial arts schools in America don’t always do a good job of reaching women and teaching them self-defense. On the other hand they are hemorrhaging young men who would much rather prove their masculinity in the octagon and through intense weight-lifting sessions with their buddies.  It should come as no surprise that the traditional martial arts are declining in popularity.

While a handful of consumers are deeply interested in Chinese or Japanese culture, it turns out that most are not.  When there is a ready substitute that addresses their core concerns, they take it.  I do not want to see the traditional martial arts become more like MMA, but it is pretty clear a lot of schools are going to have to adapt if they want to survive.  And there are enough thriving schools and successful teachers out there to give us some hope that this can happen.

Before you create an adaptive strategy you need to understand the problem.  In our case that means knowing a little more about how martial arts interact with gender identities (both male and female) in China and the west. That will be the subject of this group of posts.

An earlier painting of Hua Mulan.  Note the more realistic armor and the bow on her back.

Taking a Second Look at Yim Wing Chun

We are all familiar with the orthodox version of the Yim Wing Chun story and the creation of Wing Chun boxing. If not you can read the story here.

While a short story by any standard this account has proved to have immense fictive power. Since its first appearance it has been popular with students.  More recently movie and television directors have recognized the power of this parable.

One of the most interesting of these efforts was the 1994 film “Wing Chun.” Directed by Woo-ping Yuen and starring both Michelle Yeoh and Donnie Yen (who would later play Ip Man).  This movie is one of the all-time great Hong Kong Kung Fu films. I don’t normally do top ten lists, but if I did this one would make the top half. While a “comedy” it manages to achieve more real pathos than most Kung Fu films.

The plot follows the familiar character Yim Wing Chun about ten to fifteen years after her defeat of the market place bully related in the Ip Man tale.  After returning to town Yim Wing Chun has not been able to fully adjust to life in conservative Chinese society.  She continues to practice martial arts and has become a well-known local hero. This bothers both her father (who worries about her marriage prospects) and the other local male martial artists who feel emasculated by her superior fighting skills and bravery.

Yim Wing Chun lives with a spinster aunt who is a merchant and runs the family tofu business. These two women are shortly joined by a young widow who Yim Wing Chun rescues after the town’s people demonstrate a spectacular lack of bravery, followed by a stunning lack of hospitality.  Of course both bravery and hospitality are key martial virtues and Yim Wing Chun demonstrates them in abundance.

The lives of these three women give Yuen Woo Ping a chance to explore female society in the absence of male leadership. The director is very aware of this opportunity and fills the movie with all sorts of asides about gender roles and expectations.  Most of these are cloaked in comedy, and if you don’t understand something of the Cantonese sense of humor (and the stereotypes of “correct behavior” seen in Kung Fu films) you are likely to miss the nuance.

I realized this disconnect while re-watching the film with my family.  Yim Wing Chun seems to put on the proper gender performance for a woman involved in the martial arts. She turns away from any sign of femininity or weakness, and instead showcases the more masculine and self-assured aspects of her personality. In other words, in her public performance of her own gender she minimizes the “Yin” and seeks to accentuate the “Yang.”

This is evident in a number of instances. The most obvious of them is her habit of dressing in men’s cloths and wearing her hair in the style of a male queue. This is a very interesting point to consider. There is absolutely no indication that Ip Man’s Yim Wing Chun was a cross-dresser. It is only stated that she was very young and beautiful and had a habit of attracting the “wrong sort” of attention.  Her story is powerful precisely because she didn’t seem to have any natural affinity for the martial arts.

The cross dressing is evidently an invention of Yuen Woo Ping, but when placed in the larger context of martial arts story telling (outside of the Wing Chun community) this move makes perfect sense. Many of female martial heroes explored in Chinese fiction demonstrated their “virtue” and abundance of “Yang” (masculine characteristics) by dressing in male cloths. Mulan is probably the patron saint of these gender bending “sword maidens,” but there are a number of other such heroines in the classics, such as Water Margin, and more recently works, like Jin Yong’s novel the Book and the Sword.

This stereotypical view of female martial artists has even bled over into real life. The noted Chinese poet, revolutionary, terrorist and martial artist Qiu Jin outraged local society by dressing as a man and carrying arms in public.  In fact, Qiu Jin’s memory influenced public perception of what a martial heroine should be.

A number of gender and queer theorists have commented on Qiu Jin and her clothing, but divorced from a solid understanding of Chinese martial culture, and its close association with the quest for masculinity, these speculations can be distracting.  Mulan and Qiu Jin dressed as men not in an attempt to emulate western modes of queer behavior, but to demonstrate their attainment of “martial virtue” within the hand combat community.  In short, these women are not rebelling against the gender hierarchies of society.  Rather they are attempting to change their place in the social structure while leaving its essential form intact.  This is probably one of the reasons why Qiu Jin actually had so much trouble relating to non-radicalized, working class women.

At the start of our film Yim Wing Chun is shown to be following the same basic social pattern. She defeats male martial artists by working harder, sacrificing more, and displaying more Yang-type virtue than any of them can muster. The real challenge comes halfway through the movie when she meets the main antagonist. The first time she battles him they fight to draw and she is unable to overcome his …. giant … wooden …. spear …. (there are a lot of visual puns in this movie, it’s a comedy).

Yim Wing Chun then seeks out her old master, the venerable Ng Moy, and asks for help.  Ng Moy points out that Yim Wing Chun has been running away from being a female her whole life and that it’s time for her embrace her nature. Taking this advice to heart she sheds her tough exterior, defeats the villain (using a “womanly” weapon) and marries her long time fiance (who she had previously refused to acknowledge).

On the surface this seems like a “get back in the kitchen” sort of a story. That is certainly one way of looking at it.  Yim Wing Chun gives up the romance of life on the “Rivers and Lakes” for a marriage, white picket fence and 2.5 kids.  She helps the town, but only by surrendering to its demands for social propriety.

While a valid reading of the film from a western point of view, I think that this badly misunderstands what a Cantonese speaking Kung Fu geek might get out of exactly the same movie. Such a Kung Fu geek would no doubt remember the original story of Yim Wing Chun. Thanks to Bruce Lee its one of the most widely spread myths out there.

In this story the younger Wing Chun does not defeat the market place bully by being stronger or faster than he is. These are the skills that she practices for the next 15 years, and Yuen Woo Ping shows her defeating some minor local villains with her raw athleticism in the first half of the movie.  still, relying on strength, speed or even skill in combat is problematic. There is always someone stronger, faster or better trained than you, and, chances are, that is the guy you will meet in the dark alley.  It is the law of the west, if you rely on speed, there is always a faster gun out there somewhere.

Ng Moy understood that.  When she trained Wing Chun to fight the first time she trained her to fight as a woman, and not simply as an emulation of a man.  She defeated her first opponent by drawing on the corrosive and corrupting powers of “Yin.”  Decay, darkness, confusion, destruction are all characteristics associated with Yin. That is why in Taiwan if there is a street corner with a history of fatal traffic accidents people will hire a performance troop of martial artists from a local Taoist temple to come and perform the proper exorcism rid the area of the cloud of “Yin” that has gathered there.  Drawing on “Yin” and using it against your opponent in this sort of metaphysical setting is a little like witchcraft.  Its not the sort of thing you expect the hero of Kung Fu tale to do.

That is the really interesting thing about the Yim Wing Chun story. It accepts and even glorifies “Yin,” but almost no one else in the very conservative world of Hung Mun Kung Fu did (especially not in the 1920s or 1930s).

How does this look in an actual fight?  It is pure pragmatism over any sense of “honor” or “fairplay.” If your opponent advances, retreat. If they make a bridge, dissolve it. If they see your movement, blind them.  If they pull their punches, maim them. If they salute, take that as an opportunity to ambush. And don’t forget the running away part. Get in a couple of solid shots, disable your opponent, and get the heck out of there. Don’t stand around attempting to “reestablish order” because what “Yin” knows is that order is a lie. It can always be dissolved.

When you ask a Wing Chun teacher in Hong Kong about “Yin” and “Yin-values” you will usually get a pretty technical discussion about shifting, evading and counter-force punches. Which is all good. That’s certainly part of it. But by in large, this is something that no one talks about because it is just not all that comfortable. “Show no mercy” is a central value in Wing Chun, but it’s not the sort of thing that civilized individuals advertise in public.  Ultimately Wing Chun is about doing whatever it takes to disable your opponent. “Yin” means surviving a fight, not winning.

How do you practice this in a controlled class room? That is something we struggle with when we teach “practical” self-defense, but it is also the reason that why we must pursue it with single minded focus. Only through the ethos and mindset of radically contingent self-defense scenarios can “Yin” based approach to fighting be cultivated and passed on. This is what keeps Wing Chun students focused on street fighting rather than tournaments. It is what keeps them focused on breaking their opponents rather than “defeating” them. The “Yin” in the Yim Wing Chun story has precious little to do with the Yin and Yang that you might run into at a self-help or New Age book shop.

Ng Moy’s advice to Yim Wing Chun in the movie may seem underwhelming, but this is what she is reminding her student. If you fight on the other guy’s terms you always loose. So fight on your own terms. In the case of Yim Wing Chun, that meant acknowledging the “Yin” side of combat. It also means giving up the illusion of being the perfect martial hero (they exist only in Jin Yong novels) and getting on with the business of life. Remember, we don’t fight to win; we fight to survive. That is what is really at stake.

Rather than acknowledging the primacy of a deeply flawed patriarchal system, a system that Yim Wing Chun has spent the entire movie fighting to uphold, in the end she rejects it entirely. She is no longer willing to concede that martial virtue is a subspecies of masculinity. Having defeated the bandits, she no longer seeks to control them.

Rather than accepting a “conservative” set of values, Yim Wing Chun totally upends the carefully cultivated gender hierarchy. Once she has done that there is no longer any reason to continue dressing as a man or to reject her fiance. Only by totally and violently challenging the constraints of society could Yim Wing Chun find a way to live a “normal life.”

I am sometimes sad that Yuen Woo Ping decided to present this film as a comedy.  There is something subtly profound about it, and I think it gets less critical respect than might otherwise be the case.  Still, laughter can make people receptive to a difficult social message that they might otherwise reject. There is certainly much more that could be written on this subject. In fact Sasha Vojkovic has written a book on the portrayal of gender in this film. If you are a fan of the movie and interested in film studies it is worth checking out.

Vintage American postcard showing Tibetian girls performing a sword-dance.

Conclusion: Coming to Terms with Yim Wing Chun.

We sometimes treat the story of Yim Wing Chun as a fairytale, something to be overcome or transcended so that we can get on with the serious business of understanding the historical origins of Wing Chun. This is a grave mistake. I am as interested in the historical origins of the style as anyone else.  However the Yim Wing Chun creation narrative encapsulates the unique fighting philosophy of its eponymous fighting style.  It is the foundation on which the self-defense orientation of Wing Chun rests.  Further, while it is probably a historical myth that Wing Chun was created by a woman, this story serves as a reminder that women can succeed in this style.  And they are more likely to succeed if we follow the advice of Yuen Woo Ping and avoid adopting false gender hierarchies, of either the western or eastern variety.

Changes in how we deal with gender are having a profound impact on both the popularity and the practice of the traditional martial arts. To date Wing Chun has shown more flexibility in dealing with these issues than many styles. It is partially insulated by a female-centric creation myth and a strong self-defense ethos. Still teachers need to be sensitive to how gender is being constructed and modeled in our own schools. Our ultimate goal is not to empower young people to “look tough” or achieve greater social status.

Dr. Yang, Jwing-Ming on the Development of the TCMA in North America

Dr. Yang, Jwing-Ming. Source: from the personal collection of Dr. Yang, Jwing-Ming.



Dr. Yang Jwing-Ming generously sat down with 功夫网 for a lengthy and wide ranging discussion of his martial arts experiences in both Taiwan and the United States. A major topic of conversation was the creation of YMAA Publications which remains one of the most important martial arts publishing houses. Also intriguing were Dr. Yang’s thoughts on the future direction of the Chinese martial arts and the role that they might play as modern societies continue to grapple with the disruption of labor markets by the rapid development of artificial intelligence and automation. The notes from that interview have been edited for length and clarity.

By way of introduction, Dr. Yang started his martial arts training at the age of fifteen under white crane Master Cheng Gin Gsao (曾金灶). The following year Dr. Yang began the study of Yang style taijiquan with Master Kao, Tao (高濤). He studied physics at Tamkang College in Taipei Xian and also began to practice Shaolin long fist with Master Li, Mao-Ching at the Tamkang College Guoshu Club (1964-1968). In 1971 Dr. Yang completed his M.S. degree in Physics at the National Taiwan University before serving in the Chinese Air Force from 1971 to 1972. In 1978 he completed his Doctorate in Mechanical Engineering at Perdue University in the United States. In 1984, Dr. Yang retired from his engineering career and undertook his life-long dream of teaching and researching the Chinese arts and introducing them to the West through his numerous books and publications.



功夫网 (KFT): I understand that as a youth in Taiwan you studied white crane, taijiquan and then Shaolin long fist while at university.  What do you think inspired your interest in the martial arts as a teenager?  Why, in your opinion, are we generally seeing less interest among young people in the traditional Chinese martial arts today?

Dr. Yang Jwing-Ming (YJM): First off, you have to understand what it was like in Taiwan in the 1960s. Military education was compulsory. When you became a teenager, they took you out and taught you how to shoot an M1 rifle and everyone was getting ready to fight the Chinese Communist army in a continuation of the civil war. And to actually fight the Chinese Communists was to die! As a result, many young people were trying to build up their inner courage, or just process their own mortality. They wanted to prove that they were brave. This led some people to fight or join gangs, and others studied martial arts.


Dr. Yang while serving in the Air Force. Source: from the personal collection of Dr. Yang, Jwing-Ming.


When I first asked my parents about studying the martial arts, I was surprised that my father quickly said yes because some people used martial arts in gang activities.  When I asked my grandmother about this she explained that we were from a martial arts village.  In Yang village, before the war, everyone studied martial arts.  It was a simple family style for farmers. The number of techniques was limited but people really perfected them.

Everything is different today. We haven’t had society wide wars in a long time.  Young people are not scared or thinking about their own mortality. It was after the Vietnam War that martial arts really became popular in the United States.  There was such an explosion of interest in the early 1970s.  I remember watching Kung Fu with David Carradine and thinking that the martial arts choreography was not great, but at least people were really trying to explore a philosophy, which was good.  

All of that changed in the 1980s. There came to be so much violence in all of the media about martial arts. There was also an increasing emphasis on how things looked rather than actual technique or application.  The Chinese martial arts became like plastic flowers, a societal fashion rather than a pursuit of serious self-cultivation. “Gongfu” means time and energy, but most people have so little patience today.


Master Master Cheng Gin Gsao’s class photo, 1965. Source: from the personal collection of Dr. Yang, Jwing-Ming.


Can you tell us a little more about what it was like to study in Taiwan? For instance, how did the training or instructional methods you experienced vary between a relatively traditional and southern art like white crane and the northern shaolin long fist your encountered later?

I started off studying white crane, which is a southern art.  It has very strong hands. My white crane teacher was a farmer and he was like a father to me. In those days everything was a “secret,” very traditional. 

It was also a matter of lifestyle.  People had a life in ways that most do not today.  I still have many friends who are engineers and all they do is go to work, come home exhausted, eat, go to sleep, and do it all over again the next day.  They work like that for forty years and then, when they are 60, their company fires them because they can hire two younger engineers for the same salary.  

I once asked my white crane teacher, how much time does it actually take to irrigate and tend your crops? He thought about it and said that except for planting and harvesting seasons, it generally took about two hours a day.  The rest of the time he trained his martial arts, practiced musical instruments or chatted with friends.  People in that environment had a life. 

Because of famine and poor nutrition as a child I developed an ulcer and I suffered from them as a teenager.  One day I had an attack in class with lots of pain. I turned pale and had to sit down.  My teacher took my pulse and said “You have something wrong with your stomach” and then he told me that I had his permission to study taijiquan as that would help. People always wondered why a young kid like me studied taijiquan when, fundamentally, I loved to run and jump. Taijiquan is an internal art, and as I learned to focus on (and feel) my organs the ulcers improved. I am still free of them today.

Finally, I learned the long fist in a university club, and a club environment is very different. I had a friend who studied long fist and I was amazed at how fast his kicks were. He had all of this reach with his legs, but if I could get in close, I had the advantage in boxing.  After grabbing a room and just fighting with him for five or six days I asked him to teach me long fist.  He asked why he should teach me when we could just invite his master?  After that we invited his teacher and started a club.

1928, and the formation of the Nanking Central Guoshu Institute, is a very important year for the Chinese martial arts. I often wonder how the Chinese martial arts would have developed if the Japanese had not attacked. After 1928, and the war with Japan, all of the martial artists were military men.  And many of them came to Taiwan.  Both my taijiquan and long fist masters were military men and discipline was central to their instructional style.  They were like commanders.  There were over a hundred students at the first day of the long fist club.  At the next meeting only 36 came back.  When we graduated only six of us were left.  But that was typical.

In all of my martial arts training I never paid a penny.  Not to my white crane teacher, or anyone else. No money was involved. This means that the groups of students being taught were generally small. If my white crane teacher didn’t like your character, he just wouldn’t teach you.

As for the future, I think this is going to be spiritual century. Our lives are regimented by schedules and regimes that are all the product of the industrial revolution and the last century. We are all stuck in that matrix. Yet we are approaching a time when artificial intelligence and robots are going to start to take over a huge number of jobs.  But the one thing they can’t do is anything having to do with human feelings. It is like a pendulum that has swung in one direction, towards the external or violent, and is now swinging back towards the internal and spiritual.  For instance, there is so much more interest in learning Qigong now than there was even ten years ago. 


Dr. Yang practicing with twin Iron Whips, 1965. Source: from the personal collection of Dr. Yang, Jwing-Ming.


You formed YMAA publishing in 1984, which makes you one of the pioneers of martial arts publishing in the West.  When you arrived in the United States for your doctoral work at Purdue, what was your impression of the sorts of martial arts media (books, magazine, TV programs) that you encountered?

I wasn’t impressed. There was so much interest in the martial arts, it was everywhere in the media, which I guess was good. But it had spread too fast and the American public’s understanding of it was shallow. It was clear that people were making money off of the martial arts, but they weren’t conveying the applications or philosophy.

When I first came to America to attend Purdue I had three stops.  It was cheaper in those days to fly with three layovers. I stopped first in Los Angeles and then San Francisco. Everywhere I went I found some martial arts schools. At that point you had to pay a dollar just to observe a martial arts class. I paid my dollar and I watched what was going on and I said, “that is not a martial art,” there was no actual application. It was just a martial dance.

Again, gongfu is time and energy, you can’t rush it.  Most arts, with the exceptions of things like xingyi quan, were developed or cultivated in monasteries. As such they have an emphasis on self-cultivation and self-defense.  They weren’t directly used on battlefields and this gives them their unique character. But America, especially as you moved into the 1980s, had a fast-food culture. I still have people who come to the retreat center and in six lessons they want to become a Jedi. I am sorry, you can’t do that.

Chinese martial arts are a complex subject with deep theories that have developed over thousands of years. In that sense they are like classical music. Nuance and background are key to project.  But again, who listens to classical music today?  Who has the patience for it?  I look and I can’t even find a classical channel on the radio. Instead of deep exploration there is an emphasis on appearance or fads, it is like picking up a flower and discovering that its plastic.


Dr. Yang practices the Jian under the watchful eye of Mater Li. Source: from the personal collection of Dr. Yang, Jwing-Ming.


Why did you decide that it was necessary to create your own publishing company at that point in time?

I thought it was the best way to correct some of the issues that I had observed with the Chinese martial arts in America.  I thought that by publishing books I could redirect the general public onto a better path.  Every movement in these systems has its deeper meaning and applications. Application, in particular, take time and energy to become instinctive reflexes.

What I saw was that due to commercial pressures, where the martial arts had become a business, the standards were being downgraded.  Teachers and students had basically switched roles.  In Taiwan it was about discipline.  But now students were the masters because they paid the fees, and teachers had become businessmen who provided whatever the students demanded.

There were other problems as well.  I actually published my first four books with Unique Publications. But they kept demanding changes, basically taking all of the philosophy or deeper discussion out of the books and turning them into shallow technical manuals, because they thought that this was what excited consumers. Everything was for business rather than actual education. They even tried to change the way I wrote. But I wanted to write in a way that would help people to understand what was real in the traditional martial arts.

  What were some of the major challenges that you faced in the early days of publishing martial arts books?  

There were so many challenges! People think that the creation of YMAA was a single smooth ascent but in fact there were repeated setbacks. The first challenge would have to be a total lack of money. When I came to the United States, I literally had nothing.  

I was working alone in 1984 because I could not afford to hire editors, typesetters, photographers or anyone else. I had to learn how to do my own photography, and I took a course in typesetting at Harvard. There were not word processers then, so “cutting and pasting” was a very literal thing.  And I didn’t have any experience in marketing books.  

Then one of my students, David Ripianzi, came along and said “Let me help.”  I asked how he could do that as he was a college student.  David responded that he didn’t really like college, so we got to work.

  How has the advent social media (YouTube, Facebook, etc.) effected the market for martial arts material?  How has YMAA adjusted to this shifting landscape?

I sold the publication company to David about 15 years ago now, so we would have to bring him into the conversation to get his answer on that. At the time there was still no YouTube or Facebook, etc. We had regular mail for distribution, telephones and advertisement through martial arts magazine. Later on we also advertised through book distributors. Everything is so different now. But I guess I was lucky to get out when the market was still in a good place.


Dr. Yang in a demonstration at the YMCA in Boston in 1983. Source: from the personal collection of Dr. Yang, Jwing-Ming.


I think it is impossible to discuss any aspect of martial arts right now and not reflect on the impact that COVID-19 is having on our community.  How have your teaching, travel and publishing activities been affected by the current situation?

It is very unfortunate. I don’t have a regular school like other teachers, but we still had to cancel all of the events and seminars at our retreat center here in California. There is not much travel and we can’t bring anyone here right now. And of course, I can’t travel for seminars in other places. At the moment we are getting zero income from these traditional sources.

Fortunately, my disciples Jonathan and Michelle have been able to set up some webinars. These have been surprisingly successful, and they do bring in income, but not at the same level as before.  There are just limits to how many little screens you can keep track of at one time.

Still, as someone in my 70s there are other aspects of the current situation that may not be so bad. I have had time to focus on my writing, which is something that I have wanted to do. I have also been working on my meditation. I have even started to learn how to play some musical instruments that I have always dreamed of playing. Ironically, it feels a bit like I finally have my life back.


One of the things that I have noticed watching on-line discussions since the start of this crisis is that taolu, which many individuals in the combat sports community had been telling us was very problematic for years, is getting a second look in the current era of solo training and social distancing. Given the controversies that have surrounded the TCMA in recent years, what do you see as the major benefits of taolu and other forms of solo practice?

The main value of taolu, or “sequences” as I tend to call them, is to give people a chance to develop the strength and reflexes (and muscle memory) to do certain things. In the traditional martial arts we train everyone to be a teacher. So your taolu functions as deep library of knowledge that acts as a curriculum for the preservation of the entire system.  Everything is in there.  

Of course, most people can really only specialize in a few things that they are well suited to. Look at modern martial arts like Thai kickboxing. They are amazing because they take a limited number of skills and really perfect them! There is so much depth in taolu that no one can really specialize in all of it, but it is the key to passing on the system.  At the same time, you have to choose the things that you as a student will specialize in. One of the issues that I see is that students spend all of their time “learning,” but not training, and as a result they can’t fight. So I tell people to just focus on a few of the more practical ones.

  Obviously, all kinds of schools are scrambling to adjust their teaching methods and programs to survive in the current era.  Do you think that any of the changes that we are seeing in the face of COVID-19 are likely to have a long-term impact on the traditional Chinese martial arts are taught and practiced (at least in the North American marketplace)? 

I don’t think that most martial artists realize how fundamental the changes already are at this point. If there is a positive side to the current tragedy, it is that by really causing pain it is forcing us to evolve. Humans don’t react, they don’t change or evolve, without pain. It is when we are trapped that we start looking for new solutions. 

For instance, webinars will continue to be popular in ways that they were not in the past. Here are a couple of reasons why. Students have discovered that they actually can learn from home. And given the time constraints that everyone is under, the realization that you may not have to constantly travel is an important one. Likewise, instructors have learned that they can now reach a global audience, effectively expanding their network of students, without all of the time and expense that was involved in traveling between America and Europe or Asia. Basically, we have discovered that more training can be done remotely, with occasional in-person visits (a couple of times a year), than we had previously guessed.

Not all instructors or schools will benefit from this new system. I can give webinars because of my books and other publications.  I always told other teachers that they needed to publish. Now, if you haven’t, it is very hard to attract that global audience.  But all sorts of remote learning will become more popular.  And with people’s increasingly fragmented schedules they can even follow along when it works for them.


Dr. Yang Teaching a for credit martial arts class while at Purdue in 1975. Source: from the personal collection of Dr. Yang, Jwing-Ming.


While reviewing your bibliography I noticed that you during your academic career you always seems to have been pursuing dual tracks.  On the one hand you taught and studies physics, but at the same time you also taught and studied martial arts (sometimes as a course for university credit).  Given that 功夫网 is basically a blog about the academic study of martial arts, I was wondering whether you see universities as having a role in the promotion and preservation of global martial arts movements? If so, what is it?

There are already many universities in Asia that do this. In China and Taiwan we commonly see wushu departments, which works because wushu can be practiced as a traditional art, but also as a very effective and popular sport. Like any other art (painting, classical music, etc.) there has to be some mechanism to pass it down through the years. And if you can emphasize the philosophy, or the history of the martial arts, universities can play a role.

Today, it is widely recognized that learning traditional martial arts can help a student develop their self-discipline and cultivate higher levels of alertness and awareness. Those are important attributes. However, the greatest benefits that traditional martial arts (especially the internal ones) can bestow is long-term mental and physical health.


 One of the exciting developments in the last ten years has been the creation of a robust interdisciplinary research area dedicated to the study of martial arts and combat sports in European and North American Universities. A lot of the work currently being produced focuses on the sociology, culture and history of martial arts communities and practices. What aspects of the Chinese martial arts do you feel could benefit from more scholarly engagement? If you could suggest a title for scholarly book or article on some aspect of the TCMA that you would really want to read, what would it be?

First off, I am very excited to hear more people are starting to take martial arts seriously. Too often since the 1980s these things have been understood in a very shallow way. Chinese martial arts have been practiced for thousands of years. Again, I see it as similar to classical music. Existing ancient documents and skills passed down from those experienced martial arts teachers are precious. That is why I always translate these documents and interpret them. I hope that through this effort, I am able to bring back public interest in researching the deep theoretical aspect of martial arts. Manuals that were produced during the Republic period (especially the 1920s and 1930s) are especially important for understanding the Chinese martial arts, but there has not been much interest in them.

The theory and techniques that developed in today’s martial society are built upon on today’s mentality and social goals. Older traditional arts that have been developed through thousand years with real battle experience were often more practical. For example, sparring in today’s tournaments is not the same as a real-life situation. When you are in a life and death situation, your mental and physical responses are different. Since we don’t have the same environment, or face the same violence, it is not easy to create martial arts that reaches the same level.

What are the goals of Chinese martial culture or martial society?  What were the traditional martial arts really trying to cultivate? First bravery, second power, third gongfu (in the traditional sense of the term). Or to put it slightly differently; first, speed; second, power; third, proper techniques.

In terms of the books that I would want to see, I think maybe a comparative collection and study of translations of some of the Chinese martial arts classics which lay this foundation. 


Thank you so much for stopping by 功夫网 and sharing your insights on the nature and the development of the Chinese Martial Arts. Readers interesting in further exploring Dr. Yang’s teaching may wish to check out any one of his many publications including Tai Chi Push Hands: The Martial Foundation of Tai Chi Chuan, with David W. Grantham, and Tai Chi Secrets of the Yang Style—Chinese Classics, Translations, Commentary.



Ip Man and the Roots of Wing Chun’s “Multiple Attacker” Principle, Part 1

City Scape.probably northern 1911

Law Enforcement and the Martial Arts in Republican China

The intersection between law enforcement and the development of the modern Chinese martial arts is a fascinating topic that deserves a lot more attention than it normally gets.  In many ways the police are an ideal place to look when you are trying to capture recent trends in hand combat.  The military never wants to engage in “hand to hand” combat.  They would prefer to do their killing with artillery or bombs.  Most civilian martial artists actively try to avoid trouble and they train their students to do the same.  That makes perfect sense.  Avoiding street violence whenever possible is a great self-preservation strategy.  It’s what society expects of them.

Law enforcement officers are in a very different situation.  Their job requires them to go out looking for trouble.  And when they locate a criminal they cannot just call in an artillery strike.  They are expected to apprehend the suspect so that the individual can be questioned or put on trial.  There is every reason to expect that wanted criminals will violently resist arrest.  As a result police departments the world over tend to be very interested in hand combat training.

This is often a little different from what civilians practice.  How to safely handcuff a suspect without accidentally shooting them is a topic that does not come up very frequently in my Wing Chun classes.  Still, police departments frequently hire outside combat experts and pour considerable time and money into the sorts of tactical questions that society as a whole is content to ignore.  Law enforcement around the country manages to support a small but thriving industry that caters to their specific needs for combat training and resources.

The situation in Nationalist controlled China was no different.  As the government struggled to assert its control over society it created police departments and reformed traditional law enforcement techniques in every major city in the country.  This was a huge undertaking and it took a lot of money.  Ironically, much of the funding to support these reforms came from the sale of opium and heroin by the state, but that is a topic for another post.

Chinese police departments and law enforcement academies hired civilian martial arts instructors in large numbers.  These individuals acted both as instructors and were sometimes recruited as officers.  A contract teaching at a local police academy was both a steady source of income and a prestigious honor for any martial arts teacher.  Cheung Lai Chuen started his rise to fame in exactly this manner.

Given that law enforcement was such an important consumer of martial arts instruction, it might be interesting to ask whether it had any sort of impact on the development of the Chinese martial arts in the mid-20th century.  The case of Wing Chun, especially as it developed in Hong Kong during the 1950s and 1960s, would seem to indicate that it did.  To understand how, we need to know a little more about the early years of Ip Man’s career.

A rare shot of Ip Man enjoying a cup of 功夫网. Few individuals in the west know that the venerable master was a big fan of cafe culture and often spent hours with his students in local restaurants after class.
A rare shot of Ip Man enjoying a cup of 功夫网. Few individuals in the west know that the venerable master was a big fan of cafe culture and often spent hours with his students in local restaurants after class.

Detective Ip Man and the Roots of the Multiple Attacker Scenario

Ip Man was a younger son born into a wealthy merchant family.  His parents owned businesses between Foshan and Hong Kong and they could afford the best for their children.  Ip Man received both a traditional Chinese style education and a state of the art western one in Hong Kong.  In sociological terms he was clearly in the economic class that subsequent historians have termed the “new gentry.”  Among the various luxuries in life, his parents bought him Wing Chun lessons with Chan Wah Shun, an important local martial artists.

Ip Man appears to have been a genuinely genial and well liked individual.  However, it is also quite clear that he was not a very productive member of society for much of his young adulthood.  Apparently he preferred to spend the family fortune rather than building it, and he devoted most of his time to practicing Kung Fu and associating with other local martial artists.

I suspect that much of the impoverishment of the Ip family actually has to do with Nationalist (GMD) tax policy and wealth expropriations to support the Northern Campaign against the warlords in the 1920s.  In this sort of an economic environment making large investments with payoffs in the distant future probably did not make a lot of sense, and consumption at least insured that you got to enjoy your wealth while it lasted.

By the 1930s and 1940s the economic fortunes of the Ip family had turned for the worse.  It is often said that due to his diminished circumstances Ip Man was forced to get a job as some sort of law enforcement officer in Foshan.  When this happened, and what post he actually held, is not always clear.

There are a number of reasons for this.  Most of the accounts we have are brief and sometimes they have been carelessly translated.  Ip Man himself did not spend a lot of time ruminating about the “good old days” as he apparently came to despise the Nationalists government.  His children (especially Ip Ching) were also quite young at the time of these events.  Lastly, most Wing Chun students only care about the Hong Kong period of his career when he was actively teaching.  As a result not much research has ever been conducted on his earlier career in law enforcement.

The accounts of Ip Man’s career in law enforcement that we do have are brief and contradictory.  Some sources indicate that he started working with the police in Foshan as early as the 1930s.  I recently heard an interview with an “expert” from a mainland non-Ip Man Wing Chun lineage who claimed that Ip Man actually started to work in law enforcement after the 1938 Japanese occupation of the area.  According to this individual he was actually a Japanese collaborator and traitor, which is why he was forced to flee to Hong Kong in 1945 and never returned to mainland China.

The claim that Ip Man started to work for the local GMD police in the 1930s is interesting, but I believe it is ultimately based on a misunderstanding.  The more recent claim that he worked for the Japanese police and was a collaborator is outrageous.  There is no evidence to support that claim and quite a bit (like his actual travel documents that show he immigrated to Hong Kong in 1949, fleeing the Communists) that disprove it.  Still, on at least a social level this particular conspiracy theory is interesting as it demonstrates how uneasy many martial artists in mainland China are with both Wing Chun’s sudden rise in popularity and its domination by “foreign” teachers in both Hong Kong and the West.  Discrediting Ip Man and his lineage would be a helpful first step in rewriting the history of this art in terms that mainland martial artists might find more helpful.

Instead the greatest number of accounts, and the most reliable accounts, seem to indicate that Ip Man was first hired to work in law enforcement by the Nationalist government as it struggled to regain control of the countryside in the wake of the Japanese withdrawal at the end of WWII.  During the war Ip Man had actually been employed as a private martial arts instructor at a friend’s cotton factory.  As the war ended and the economy returned to normal his first experiment in public teaching came to a close.

Shortly after the close of his school Ip Man was apparently approached about leading a group of “plain clothes” detectives in Foshan’s newly reconstituted police force.  He likely accepted this position at some time in 1945 and held it until he abandoned his post and fled to Hong Kong at the end of 1949.  As far as I can tell this four year period was the only time in Ip Man’s life when he held a conventional job that brought home a steady paycheck.

While his days as a carefree “Kung Fu bum” might have been over (to use a modern image), Ip Man’s association with the martial arts did not go away.  In fact, they were probably the reason he was offered the job in the first place.  We know for instance that between 1945 and 1949 Ip Man frequented a local private martial arts association that was backed by the local branch of the GMD.  This is where he occasionally instructed other police officers such as Jiu Chow (who asked him to “correct his forms”) and where he first met and exchanged notes with Pan Nam (again, while the two worked together neither claimed a teacher-student relationship).

I review the details of all of this in my book manuscript and I do not want to get bogged down in a discussion of what Wing Chun looked like between 1945 and 1949 in this post.  But I will say that knowing some form of martial arts was an important job skill for law enforcement officers, and being able to evaluate and teach them was something that would benefit their officers.

Assistant Chief of Police and his staff at the Headquarters in Chengtu, 1944. This photograph was taken by the well known war photographer Cecil Beaton.
Assistant Chief of Police and his staff at the Headquarters in Chengtu, 1944. This photograph was taken by the well known war photographer Cecil Beaton.

Law Enforcement in Mainland China: 1920-1949.

So what was the world of law enforcement like in 20th century China?  While not directly related to the martial arts I think this is a topic that students of Chinese martial studies will find both interesting and edifying.  If nothing else, it will help to flush out our collective understanding of the “Rivers and Lakes” of Chinese society and how they interacted with, and were used by, the official centers of power.  Two of the best resources for someone looking to study this topic are Policing Shanghai, 1927-1937 and Spymaster: Dai Li and the Chinese Secret Service both by Frederick Wakeman.  While not light reading, no one will ever fall asleep reading either of these books.  Be prepared for some bracing stuff if you decide to dive into them.

To quickly paraphrase over 1000 pages of Wakeman’s research, after the collapse of the Qing Dynasty the new Nationalist government tried to create a modern police force through a variety of means.  The end result was a hodgepodge of different organizations answering to various offices all of which overlapped with one another to some degrees.  Nor did all of these attempts even share the same basic law enforcement strategy.  Attempts to create “modern” and “scientific” police forces coexisted side by side with military police patrols more dedicated to maintaining public order than justice, and even more traditional attempts to subdue crime by co-opting the criminals.

In any substantial city in China one might run into four different types of law enforcement.  First there were uniformed officers on the street.  These might answer to a local office that answered to the municipal government.  Second there were detectives tasked with investigating major crimes (such as murders or drug smuggling).  Their relationship to the uniformed officers could vary from locality to locality.  Next there were military police officers who answered to the national GMD party structure.  Lastly, there were multiple flavors of “secret police” that acted at the behest of a couple of different cliques within the leadership of the GMD.  These individuals were most concerned with hunting communists but they might also become involved in major crimes and the regulation of the thriving narcotics industry.  The situation was chaotic and shootouts between different sorts of law enforcement officers (especially when narcotics were involved) happened from time to time.

Foshan, being a smaller town in Guangdong and somewhat off the beaten path, probably avoided the worst of this.  Ip Man himself led a squad of detectives tasked with investigating and preventing major crimes.  The job of officers like this was to keep bad news out of the newspapers and to provide resolution to incidents that did manage to make it into the popular press.  It should also be noted that detectives were probably the least prestigious, and most widely reviled, aspect of the national law enforcement apparatus.

There was a widespread perception in China that the nation’s detectives were corrupt and often little better than the criminals they were supposed to apprehend.  This popular sentiment was absolutely true.  The line between a city’s detectives and its gangs was often vanishingly thin.

Detectives were often recruited directly from the “Rivers and Lakes” because they were expected to have a detailed understanding of the local criminal element.  This might include everything from an ability to speak and understand the various creole dialects favored by criminal enterprises to having a “working relationship” with organized crime bosses.  Without an ability to make alliances with, and get information from, the powerful gangs that dominated crime in China, it just wasn’t possible to investigate crimes.

While understandable on a certain level, the entire system was an engine for corruption on an almost unimaginable scale.  Large parts of the notorious “Green Gang” were actually knowingly hired as detectives in Shanghai in an attempt to “cut out the middleman” and give the GMD at least a nominal say in what was being smuggled into the city and at what price.

In this system, the average detective was not a very disciplined, educated or sophisticated agent of law enforcement.  Getting these individuals trained in even basic skills, like radio use or writing reports, was a constant headache.  This is where someone like Ip Man became useful to the local Nationalist Party bosses.  On the one hand he was highly educated and able to communicate with the political establishment.  On the other hand he was a martial artist who had contacts through the underbelly of local society.  His skills as a martial artist were an important job asset, yet they were a secondary characteristic.  His education and contacts (as well as the fact that he was generally liked and trusted by the community) was what allowed him to do his job.

So, what kind of work did Ip Man’s unit actually do?  Once again, we don’t have a lot of solid information on this.  And, to be totally honest, if you think seriously about what was going on in China between 1945 and 1949, that’s probably just as well.  I personally suspect that there were some very specific reasons why Ip Man was less than eager to meet any official representatives of the CCP in 1949 and they probably had nothing to do with his family’s history of land ownership.

When discussing his father’s career in law enforcement, Ip Ching relates one story in which Ip Man and his team apprehended the criminals behind a kidnapping scheme.  This seems pretty reasonable.  Kidnappings for ransom were common in this period and they got into the papers.  The job of a detective squad would be to go after exactly these sorts of high profile, socially disruptive, crimes.

An "entry team" of officers in the Shanghai Foreign Concession, trained and led by a British officer. The police needed serious training and firepower to stand up to the strong criminal gangs that controlled much of the city. Photographer is unknown.
An “entry team” of officers in the Shanghai Foreign Concession, trained and led by a British officer. The police needed serious training and firepower to stand up to the strong criminal gangs that controlled much of the city. Photographer is unknown.

Kidnapping, Torture and Law Enforcement’s Secret War Against the Communist Party.

Unfortunately, Wakeman reports that not all of the responsibilities of your average detective were this innocuous.  The GMD financed itself through the sale of illegal drugs.  Very often the police were used to ensure that the “correct” drug shipments made it into a given city, and that those controlled by a competing interest did not.  The famous Taiji Master T. T. Liang, who worked as a customs official, was nearly killed in a shootout that stemmed from an incident like this.

The rising popularity of the Communist Party (CCP) was also a major concern that came to dominate more and more of China’s limited law enforcement resources.  While normally the special concern of the various “secret police” organizations, local detectives were often involved in the search for communist agents or sympathizers.

Wakeman recounts in chilling detail how these individuals were captured.  Generally one did not want to tip off the local Communist Party cell that one of their members had just been captured and was probably being tortured and interrogated.  If warned communist agents could literally abandon their safe-houses and disappear in minutes.  Uniformed officers were rarely used for this sort of work.  Instead a team of secret police agents or detectives were tasked to the case.

Many methods of capture were employed but they could be surprisingly bold.  Wakeman relates the following ploy in his book.  After locating a target a field team of 4-6 individuals would surround the suspect on a public street.  The key was to get the target into a car or rickshaw before they realized what was happening or could raise an alarm.

One of the more inventive tactics was to stage a domestic violence incident to distract the public from what was actually happening.  A female officer dressed as a civilian might approach the target and greet him as a lover.  A second later another agent, posing as her husband, would appear and start beating the confused target to prevent his escape.  Immediately after that two other individuals would appear to “clear up” the misunderstanding and take the victim to the “hospital.”  They would throw the now incapacitated target into the back seat of a waiting Packard.  The public would quickly forget the brief scuffle as domestic violence was a common occurrence.  If all went as planned the police might have a few hours to interrogate their suspect before he was missed.

Such interrogations were brief and they usually ended very badly for the prisoner.  Both detectives and secret police officers routinely employed gruesome tortures if their initial efforts at turning a suspected agent failed or the individual claimed innocence.  The fact that these tortures would often leave a victim maimed for life didn’t really matter as most suspects would be summarily executed at the end of the “questioning.”

The basic thought was that if the police had actually apprehended a Communist agent they were probably too dangerous to hold unless they might have some specific value in the future.  If that was the case they would disappeared into a vast system of secret prisons run by the GMD’s internal security apparatus.  If the arrested individual turned out to be an innocent victim then releasing them and admitting what happened would be too embarrassing for the local government.  It was better that the broken and maimed individual simply “disappeared” and the government disavow any knowledge about what happened to them.

It is actually hard to overstate the horrors of law enforcement’s involvement in the Chinese Civil War.  This was very much a “dirty war” on a scale that rivaled anything that happened in Latin America or the Middle East.   Thousands of innocent individuals were killed simply for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.  So many people were being “disappeared” in the hunt for suspected communists that disposing of their bodies became a major logistical headache.  Wakeman’s descriptions of how the government attempted to handle this problem is stomach churning and gratefully outside the scope of the current article.

The CCP did not take this industrialized murder campaign laying down.  They created their own highly disciplined and dedicated system of death squads who were assigned two types of targets.  Their first responsibility was to kill any former Communist agent who defected or cooperated with the GMD rather than face torture and death.  Their second priority was to attack and kill members of the Nationalist police and security apparatus who were responsible for the deaths of their comrades.

For the most part the Communist death squads had to conduct a secret war so as not to betray their presence or the location of their support system (which is what the Nationalists were hunting for in the first place).  Their tactics tended to mirror those used by the detectives and the secret police.  Rather than simply assassinating their targets on the street they would snatch them, toss them in the back of a car, question and then execute them.

While I have not been able to find any surviving records about the police campaigns against the CCP in Foshan, we do know that at least some of this sort of thing happened in the Pearl River Delta.  Lt. General Kot Siu Wong was tasked with the last ditch defense of the area against the Communists in the late 1940s.  His idea was to force police and military personal to join the local Triads.  These were then united into a single covert organization under his command used to violently oppose the CCP.  Eventually the scope of this effort was expanded to include martial artists and large segments of the civilian population as well.

We have absolutely no evidence about what role, if any, Ip Man and his detective squad had in the suppression of local communists.  A lot would depend on what the relationship was like between the local police department in Foshan and the secret police organization run by Dai Li.  That information might be out there, but I have not seen it yet.

Still, it is unlikely that Foshan emerged from the final years of the Chinese Civil War totally unscathed.  It seems inconceivable that Ip Man would not have been aware of the formation of the Zhongyi Association (later the notorious Triad “14K”) by General Kot.  What he thought of these efforts, and how involved he was with the anti-communist campaigns is still an open question.

All of this information should put Ip Man’s flight to Hong Kong into clearer perspective.  Most martial arts masters did not feel that it was necessary to flee in 1949.  Even most soldiers remained in China and simply changed sides.  However, as the CCP consolidated their control one of their first acts was to settle their rather lengthy list of scores with the secret agents and police officers who had made their lives a nightmare.  The fact that Ip Man’s name ended up on one of these lists is actually not that surprising given how he had been employed between 1945 and 1949 and it is at least suggestive of what might have happened in Foshan.

As the Communist advance accelerated in 1949 the Nationalists resorted to more desperate measure in an attempt to hold on to power in at least part of the country. Here a Chinese officer executes two suspected communist agents in the street as a crowd of police officers and civilians looks on.
As the Communist advance accelerated in 1949 the Nationalists resorted to more desperate measure in an attempt to hold on to power in at least part of the country. Here a Chinese officer executes two suspected communist agents in the street as a crowd of police officers and civilians looks on.

Conclusion: Fear and Loathing in Foshan

While Ip Man’s career in law enforcement is usually mentioned only in passing, the truth is that it coincided with a period of unprecedented chaos and social disintegration in China.  The hope brought by the end of the Second Sino-Japanese War (WWII) was quickly replaced with the growth of organized crime, massive levels of government corruption and a reemergence of hostilities between the GMD and the CCP.  As a detective loyal to the GMD Ip Man was forced to negotiate these opposing forces.  It seems likely that his brief career in law enforcement was eventful and it may have modified his understanding of the martial arts.  This period certainly shaped his views on politics and when he finally reached Hong Kong he had nothing positive to say about his former employers.

In the second half of this post we will explore how these experiences likely shaped Ip Man’s personal fears and beliefs about self-defense.  He was no longer worried about meeting a lone opponent at the back of a dark alley.  Rather his career in law enforcement had taught him that the real enemy was an ambush by a CCP snatch team comprised of 4-6 individuals and a vehicle.  Nor was this fear merely theoretical.  He knew that somewhere there was a list with his name on it.  To be an effective self-defense art Wing Chun would have to evolve and develop explicit tactics for dealing with this new class of threats.  To be truly effective these principal would need to be woven into all aspects of the art.  Only in that way would they become second nature to all students.

More generally, the association between law enforcement and martial artists in 20th century China was a fruitful one.  Both groups gained something by this interaction.  Police officers received sophisticated hand combat training which increased their ability to make arrests.  Martial artists were exposed to novel tactical situations, different from what any civilian or military art might foresee, that required careful study.  Wing Chun practitioners are still enjoying the fruits of this innovation today.  Once again we find that it is not possible to understand the Chinese martial arts without first understanding the social and political environment that shaped them.

***You can find the second part of this article here.  Just click on the link.***

The Book Club: The Shaolin Monastery by Meir Shahar, Chapters 3-4: Monastic Violence in the Ming Dynasty.

Front gates of the Shaolin Temple prior to the 1928 destruction. This photo was part of a Republic of China era survey of the temple grounds.


Welcome back to the second installment of the Book Club.  In this series of posts we will be taking a more detailed look at some of the most important works in the field of Chinese martial studies.  Our first selection is The Shaolin Monastery: History, Religion and the Chinese Martial Arts by Prof. Meir Shahar.  Two weeks ago we reviewed the first section of the book here.  Today we will be discussing chapters 3-4. On Wednesday December 5th we will tackle chapters 5-6.

By going through these works in a slow and detailed way we hope to better grasp the nuances of each author’s argument.  I also hope to give each one of you a chance to read along and participate in the discussion.  No special background or language skills are necessary and we are aiming to keep our review at about the level of an undergraduate class discussion.  If you are curious about Chinese martial studies and want an easy way to get acquainted with the field, this series of posts is for you. If you have a book that you would like to suggest for review shoot me an email or put a note in the comments below.

Reviewing the Reading: The Myth and the Realities of Chinese Monastic Violence in the late Ming Dynasty, Shahar chapters 3-4.

Before delving into the details and implications of Shahar’s chapters I want to briefly summarize them as a way of grounding our discussion and better understanding how he develops his argument. Chapters 3-4 are in many ways the two most important sections of his book. These chapters are the linchpin that connects the early origins of the Shaolin Monastery with the much later Qing era civilian practices that were the direct precursors of the temple’s modern martial arts tradition.

We have very little to go on other than speculation and informed guesswork when discussing the military aspect of the Shaolin Temple during the Tang dynasty. It seems as though there may have been some level of military training at the temple to ward off bandits, but this was probably standard military drill and not a unique “martial art.”  Shaolin was known mostly for its cultural achievements during this period.

Almost no solid information exists about what comes next (at least in the martial realm). The Song and Yuan dynasties see an uptick in stories about martial monks in general, but Shaolin doesn’t appear to be part of this trend. Nor do we have any period account of their involvement with the state on military matters.

An interior picture of the renown library at Shaolin. Prominently displayed in the center are copper plated Buddhist scriptures. Researchers on the expedition also noted that this library contained illustrated manuscripts and a collection of staffs from historically important monks.  All of these artifacts were destroyed in the 1928 fire.

Chapter 3: Defending the Nation

All of this changes suddenly in the Ming dynasty. The era begins inauspiciously with the destruction of the Shaolin temple by “Red-turban” bandits.  Things are quiet after the new government finances the restoration of the Temple. Then, almost without warning, by the start of the 16thcentury the Temple is suddenly regarded as a military academy. Throughout the 16th century military officers, civilian experts and other warrior monks would travel to Shaolin to train and to discuss military matters.   These figures left a rich literature of travelogues, monographs, manual and poems, dozens of which still exist.  These texts provide scholars with an unprecedented window into the development of Ming-era “martial arts.”

While the monks of this period were now practicing and teaching their own unique martial traditions, these were still a far cry from the sorts of arts that are popular today. Unarmed hand-combat (boxing) was not all that popular in this period, and most monks exclusively taught and practiced with weapons. Further, they used the same weapons that were employed by the official Ming armies.

Even the monkish staff, which earned Shaolin great renown, was closely tied to military training. The pole was the first weapon taught to new recruits as it was simple, cheap, easily replaceable and allowed them to transition to any number of more specialized weapons later on.  Pole fighting was a platform that many other weapon skills were based on.  So to say that the Shaolin monks specialized in pole training is really to say that they specialized in developing the sorts of “basic training” routines that were used throughout the empire. Needless to say, other critical military skills such as horsemanship, archery, fencing and spear fighting were also taught by monks and lay instructors at the temple.

Nor was Shaolin the only temple where such activity was common during the late Ming.  Wudang, Emei, Funiu and multiple locations in Fujian were all known for their martial monks. Additionally these monks occasionally traveled from temple to temple seeking training or employment, just as other itinerant martial artists of the period did.  Shaolin is so interesting to us precisely because it represents an actual place where the larger world of warrior monks, civilian martial artists and professional soldiers intersected and came together to exchange ideas and compete for economic patronage.

Shahar reviews the extent sources that describe these interactions in Chapter 3.  He starts by introducing us to three historically important individuals who left significant accounts of what the martial arts were like at Shaolin and how other people thought of them. The first of these individuals was a scholar and member of a prominent gentry class family named Cheng Zongyou.  Cheng was concerned with security and, later in life, raised a private militia to guard his estates.  He actively encouraged other gentry members to do so as well.

As a younger man Cheng studied at Shaolin for approximately one decade and in 1610 published a book titled Exposition of the Original Shaolin Staff Method.  This work helped to popularize and spread Shaolin pole techniques and appears to have been fairly widely available to military minded scholars in the late Ming dynasty.  It was subsequently quoted in a number of sources and included in at least one military encyclopedia.

The second individual is General Yu Dayou. Best remembered for his role in putting down the mid 16th century pirate insurgency near what is now Shanghai, Yu was interested in the mechanics of raising and training troops. In 1560, he traveled to the Shaolin Monastery hoping to see the monk’s famed staff method. Unfortunately he was not overly impressed with what he found.  He did however leave a remarkable record of his interactions with the monks.

It should be remembered that General Yu Dayou was from the south, and (still today) southern Chinese pole fighting forms tend to be parsimonious and powerful.  Anyone familiar with the “six and a half point pole” (more of a concept shared by many southern styles than an actual routine) can attest to that.  Apparently this is what Yu Dayou expected to find at Shaolin as well.  Instead the monks demonstrated a set of very intricate pole styles (described in detail by Cheng Zhongyou) that did not appeal to the General’s more practical sentiments.  An exchange of knowledge took place and eventually Yu Dayou’s much simpler southern pole fighting system was added to the curriculum at the venerable temple.

I have always liked this story as it demonstrates the sorts of martial exchanges that could and did happen between northern China and the south. Note that the information does not always flow in one direction. Shahar also noted that Yu Dayou treated and addressed the monks as military professional, not as occasional and reluctant citizen soldiers. This is quite an important fact to remember when discussing Shaolin in the Ming dynasty.

The next critical account was left by Wu Shu.  This individual was a noted scholar and poet turned military writer.  Wu Shu was interested in the spear.  The spear was the single most important battlefield weapon in the 16th and 17th centuries, so this was what he dedicated his study to.  He recorded his insights in a book called Arms Exercises, which has survived to the present.  It provides us with a third detailed opinion about Shaolin in the late Ming. Cheng Zongyou worshiped Shaolin, and Yu Dayou accepted them as brothers in arm and worked with them in developing better troop training methods, but Cheng Zongyou didn’t particularly care for the monastery and its martial tradition.

Nor was this simply a rivalry about “whose Kung Fu was better.” Instead it all got down to the critical question of how you trained troops. We should take a moment to stop and ask ourselves why this suddenly became such a critical question.  Its not the sort of thing that Confucian scholars normally write about, but from 1550-1640 dozens of surviving books were written on the topic and all of them mentioned Shaolin.

The answer appears to revolve around the disintegration and collapse of the Ming army. The Ming state was chronically underfunded and the military was particularly hard hit.  By the early 16th century most of the national military structure had simply dissolved just as border incursions and internal revolt were becoming a real problem.  Generals like Qi Jiguang and local scholars like Cheng Zhongyou suddenly discovered that if they wished to protect the nation, or even their own estates, they had to learn how to raise and train large groups of men from the local peasantry.  The state was no longer capable of doing that for them.  A ready made market for private military schools and the publication of military encyclopedias and manuals just exploded into existence.

This massive shift in military and economic power was probably what encouraged Shaolin to specialize as a military academy in the first place. It also reinforced the natural primacy of the pole or staff in the traditional Shaolin arts.  It was perceived as the ideal weapon for both the new recruit and the warrior monk.  For Wu Shu this was the crux of the issue.

The single most important infantry weapon on the 16thcentury battlefield was not the pole or the sword, it was the spear. Many military instructors in China saw the pole as a good weapon to train future spear-men, but Wu Shu strongly disagreed with this sentiment. In his view the spear or the pike had its own unique capabilities and challenges. The monks of Shaolin conflated these two distinct weapons in their training program and, in Wu Shu’s estimation, turned out inferior spear-men.

Yet even a rival as hostile to Shaolin as Wu Shu could not snub the temple entirely. While he did not care for the traditional Shaolin staff method that so captured the imagination of Cheng Zhongyou, he did republish General Yu Dayou’s much simpler pole form that had been added to the Temple’s curriculum, thus preserving it for generations.

These three sources, along with a number of other briefer accounts reviewed in chapter 3, constitute the bulk of our current knowledge about Shaolin and the monastic martial arts in the 16th and 17thcenturies. They are very important and students would be well advised to read each of them multiple times. Pay special attention to the social status of each author and their relationship to other important actors in society. You must understand the basic vision of Shaolin that these three authors provide before the other sources that Shahar introduces can be properly framed and interpreted.

After reviewing the critical literature, Shahar demonstrates what all of this looked like in practice by discussing the now famous involvement of the Shaolin monks in the “Japanese piracy crisis.” Shaolin’s high profile involvement here led to increased political patronage and more requests for military assistance in the future. In fact, it was this tight alliance between the Ming state and Shaolin that probably doomed the order.

Zheng Ruoceng, an academically trained geographer and military aid, provides us with the best overview of the role of monastic troops in this conflict. Once again readers should carefully study and consider the passages from his 1568 essay “The Monastics Armies’ First Victory” provided by Shahar.

These passages are invaluable because they point to three previously neglected sets of relationships. The first of these is Shaolin’s subordinate position to the state’s military bureaucracy. It is clear that they did not volunteer their army, but rather were sent by a higher authority.  While the monastic armies fought under the immediate command of one particularly renown Shaolin monk, it is clear that they were under the ultimate authority of the local military officers.  Nor were all of these officers has receptive to monastic troops as General Yu Dayou.  Some had to be convinced on their abilities in the field.

The second set of relationships that Zheng comments on is the relationships between the warrior monks themselves. Apparently they were not one big happy Buddhist family.  He relates stories and incidents that would seem to indicate that there was actually substantial tension between the monastic soldiers from Fujian, and the more professional troops sent by Shaolin.  Shaolin’s leadership of the “monastic army” was only “accepted” after armed clashes between the various factions of warrior monks.  This is a less than ideal way of running an army and organizing a chain of command.  It also hints that while the Ming state could mobilize monastic armies, they may have had real trouble controlling them in the field.

The last relationship that Zheng illuminates is the link between monastic troops and the Buddhist “dharma” or law. In summary, there does not appear to have been any at all.  While Shaolin may have developed its own martial arts, it did not have a coherent, or even remotely “Buddhist,” approach to warfare.  Its actions were often criticized by other, more pious, monks who took their religion’s prohibition against violence seriously.

Shaolin’s “warrior monks” in the 1920s. When discussing monastic violence it is often necessary to abandon preconceived notion of who warrior monks were or what they fought for.  This picture nicely illustrates the disjoint between our romanticized notions of the Shaolin and the gritty reality of life inside the Temple.

This probably suited the Chinese officials just fine as most of them were not Buddhists but hardened professional soldiers who might have harbored doubts about whether the monks would actually be willing to close with the enemy and slay them.  Zheng reassures his readers that the Shaolin monks were not squeamish about taking lives.  In fact, he even relates a story where Shaolin monks murder unarmed retreating civilian women with apparent approval.  Other sources relate lawsuits against the Temple over reports of Shaolin monks pillaging and brutalizing the countryside in ways that were comparable to the worst bandits.

While Cheng Zongyou claimed that Shaolin had developed its own unique “Buddhist art,” the subsequent actions of its soldiers would seem to indicate that this was more of a technical claim than a theological one.  In actual fact Shaolin did have a unique way of training troops.  But once in the field China’s monastic troops did not always seem to conduct themselves all that differently from any other army, militia or bandit hoard. The arts of Shaolin were “Buddhist” in an administrative sense, but not a religious or ethical one.  This is a critical point to remember when confronting modern revisionist claims that there is an inherent link between the study of the Chinese martial arts and Chan or Zen Buddhism.

Chapter 4: Staff Legends

In chapter four, Shahar steps away from the historical sources that he just introduced looks to a different branch of literature.  Rather than resolving all of our questions, our exploration of the historical literature actually creates an entirely new set of puzzles. For instance, why do we hear nothing about the Shaolin, or monastic troops in general, between the Tang dynasty and the Ming? Were there monastic troops in the Yuan? Why did no one talk about them?  If these things were an Ming era innovation why did General Yu Dayou and Qi Jiguang regard Shaolin’s military tradition as hundreds of years old and of “divine” origin?

There is also another puzzling fact. At the start of the Tang dynasty there is no evidence that the troops from Shaolin, or any other temple, looked or fought differently from any other military force. Other than an odd attachment to Indian cultic deities, the “fighting arts” of Shaolin seem to have been unremarkable.

By the time you get to the 16th century all of that has changed. Shaolin has developed a unique set of weapons based arts. These aren’t the sorts of martial arts that modern students might recognize.  Instead they are all focused on training troops and surviving on a military battlefield. But they are both technically and aesthetically distinct from what other people are doing.  They require special study and are not easily adopted even by skilled outsiders.  Shaolin has become a hub of military innovation and generals and scholars alike are descending on the Abby to see what they are doing and to contribute to the conversation.

This is the great era of the Chinese warrior monk, armed with his iron pole and loyal to the state. When did all of this happen?  When was it decided that the pole was the weapon par excellence of the monk?  That certainly wasn’t true in the Tang dynasty.  And how did this strong image of the ideal warrior-monk come to be established in the public’s mind?

Unfortunately the archeological record is of limited value here, though Shahar does note that is only after the start of the Ming era that Vajrapani is shown armed with a pole in Shaolin iconography.  Nor are the official records of much help.  All of the accounts of Shaolin reviewed above originate after this transition.

In this case period fiction may actually be a great help.  Accounts of staff wielding warrior monks start to show up and are popularized in epic tales like Journey to the West and Water Margin. The literary roots of these stories reach back into the Yuan dynasty, and that may be when the image of the staff wielding warrior monk first emerged.  Interestingly none of these early fictional characters are associated with Shaolin, but two are said to hail from Wudang.

While Shahar can’t really prove it, the implication seems to be that Shaolin didn’t have much of a military program up through the end of the Yuan dynasty (popular lore notwithstanding). It was only after the destroyed temple was rebuilt at the start of the Ming dynasty that it started to invest heavily in a military program, re imagined Vajrapani as a staff wielding guardian, and began to rebuild their military expertise. It may have followed a pattern already established at other temples.   The Temple’s famous association with monastic violence during the Tang dynasty probably aided this transition, providing an ethical constitution for rejecting the principal of non-violence.  The growing demand for private military instruction in the late Ming hastened this specialization.  By the early 1500s the Temple was once again known primarily for its military prowess.

My guess would be that there wasn’t a lot of military activity at Shaolin during the Yuan, though there might have been some.  The highly specialized military program that Shahar discusses was instituted at the start of the Ming dynasty, first to protect the Temple after its devastating destruction, and it was later expanded in an effort to profit from the Shaolin order’s close association with the state.  Ming era military training at Shaolin may have been more of an (economically motivated) revival of the past rather than the seamless continuation of an “ancient tradition.”

Standing in Snow Pavilion before the 1928 fire.  Note that Temple was already in an advanced state of disrepair.

Critical Discussion: What is missing and where are we going?

Many historians are very interested in the Ming-era flowering of the martial arts.  From an academic perspective these years are interesting because they have provided us with a rich collection of manuscripts and texts that can actually be studied.  While the martial arts were an overwhelmingly working class phenomenon, scholars (such as Wu Shu and Cheng Zhongyou) started to take interest in the subject and recorded the lives and accomplishments of their often unlettered teachers.  We simply do not have a comparable body of literature from the Yuan dynasty or any earlier period.

Students of the Chinese martial arts are also infatuated with this same period.  In modern Kung Fu lore the Ming dynasty is held up as the “golden age” of all that was good and wholesome. The weak, underfunded government, decaying economy and frequent security crisis that plagued the empire are usually left out of these starry-eyed reminisces.  Martial artists seem to regard the Ming as the apex of Chinese achievement simply because it is not the Ching.  Additionally, there is an odd belief that older things are “closer to the source” and are therefore “better.”  Since, in the popular imagination, many of our modern martial arts date to the Ming the period generates a lot of enthusiasm.

Shahar gives us one of the best discussions of the Ming era “martial arts” that we have. He uses all of the source material and paints a fascinating and lifelike picture, especially with regards to the use of monastic troops.  Yet this obsession with the Ming era bothers me. From a scholarly standpoint it ignores the fact that we are examining this period only because we have so many records.  But without a comprehensive view of the past how can we really tell what was new or innovative? How do we draw causal inferences from the data without a baseline for comparison?

Martial arts students are probably in an even weaker position than historians when it comes to understanding this era of Chinese history. People try very hard to make direct comparisons between what we do now, and what we see in the historical record. Students are forever examining the illustrations in Qi Jiguang or Cheng Zhongyou’s books to see which modern school most directly descended from this or that master.

This is a dangerous exercise.  It is problematic not only because it is extremely subjective (after all, an artist can draw only a pose, not “motion”). Rather, these exercises tend to happen in a context free zone.  Most of the existing Chinese martial arts date from the early 20th century and look back to roots in the late 19th century. China was already in the throws of modernization and fully exposed to global economic pressures when these arts started to come together.  In a very real way the martial arts that we have today are a product of the modern commercial world and globalization. They have a much more complex relationship with “traditional” Chinese culture and history than a casual student might suspect.

What General Qi Jiguang taught with his 32 forms was not really a “martial art.”  It was “boxing” yes.  But this was hand combat as part of a military training program to produce 16th century soldiers. That’s vastly different from a modern civilian martial art that is designed to teach rudimentary self-defense skills and “build character” in 11 year olds.

Likewise what Cheng Zongyou found at Shaolin was not really a modern martial art. The temple operated as an autonomous military academy. Different monks taught different subjects. Each subject was a skill needed by a professional soldier.  If you could get an introduction and negotiate a price you could join the monk,s “class.”  Pole fighting was the most popular course at Shaolin because it was central to military training in the 16th century.

What Cheng records is that five different “styles” of pole fighting were taught by a large number of different teachers.  Each one of these was a complete fighting art with its own approach to the subject.  Each pole style was transmitted through a number of forms that were in turn comprised of an assortment of 53 different “postures.”

There was no ranking and no “progression” in this system. One simply followed your master until you were done. Pole fighting was not linked to anything else. One did not first have to master boxing, nor did you go on to study other weapons such as the spear or sword. While individual teachers and subjects were important, Cheng doesn’t even indicate that there was much in the way of “lineage” other than a vague notion of what was, or was not, “Shaolin.”

What he describes bears little resemblance to a modern Chinese martial art. As a matter of fact, I would not even describe what Shaolin taught during the Ming as being a “martial art.”  It seems to me that the mpdern martial arts are really more of a social system than simply a body of knowledge. While we probably owe some of our current technical knowledge to 16th century Shaolin, it is clear that they operated under a very different set of constraints and expectations than we do today.  To call both what they did, and what modern practitioners do, “martial arts” seems to privilege advertising and marketing over an admission of how very different these two worlds actually are.

If you want to study Chinese military history, or monastic violence, that’s great. By all means, study the end of the Ming dynasty. But if you want to know where your own “martial art” came from, it would probably be better to start with the mid 19th century and work your way up to the present.  Of course Shahar is very much aware of this, as we will see in chapters 5 and 6.  So pay attention to how society, the economy and the meaning of the “martial arts” evolves as the Shaolin Temple moves into the Qing.

My one real regret for this section was that there was not a chapter on the religious and institutional history of Shaolin between the Tang and Ming.  We don’t have much military knowledge about this era, but lot of other interesting stuff was happening. The Shaolin Temple transitioned from being a collection of monks who all studied different sects, to an exclusively Chan sanctuary. Then Chan faded from popularity, before being restored in the late imperial period.  Personally, I would have loved it if Shahar had looked more at the religious and institutional life of the temple.  I think all of this could have provided some interesting context for the rest of the book.  I suspect that he may have wanted to do this as well.  However, at 200 pages of text his book is at exactly the length that most academic presses will accept.  Longer manuscripts are more expensive to print and tend to get rejected.  Still, these are topics that readers should go out and research on their own.

In terms of monastic violence and Shaolin, where do we go from here? Was chapter 3 the last word on the subject? I don’t think so. I noticed while reading Shahar that Shaolin took part in putting down at least five uprisings in Henan before it was finally destroyed in 1644.  Between 1522-1566 they fought a group known as the Liu Bandits, Wang Tang and his bandit army and the “rebel” Shi Shangzhou.  Local gold and silver miners were also a problem for both Shaolin and Funiu.  In fact, incursions from hostile miners was probably the reason why Funiu turned to Shaolin for assistance in establishing their own martial monk tradition.

Shaolin’s involvement with the piracy crisis was an extraordinary reaction to an extraordinary event. The fact that it was well documented is of great value to us, but it doesn’t tell us much about the day to day world of monastic violence.  Most temples did not train warrior monks to fight Japanese pirate. They trained warrior monks to defend the temple, its estates and its economic influence in the region. So how did Shaolin understand its place in the local economy? How did local unrest and economic uncertainty play into the temple’s decisions to take up arms against some bandits, but not others?

These are questions that need to be carefully investigated. Each of the four or five 16th century crises that Shahar lists should be carefully investigated.  Unfortunately that work lays outside the scope of the present volume.  However, if you are a graduate student looking for a research project or thesis, this would be a great place to start.  I suspect that the Shaolin Temple still has a lot more to teach us about the history of monastic violence in China.

We will be reviewing the next two chapters of this book (5 and 6) on Wednesday, December 5th.  So there is still plenty of time to catch up before the final exam!

Unknown small structure on the grounds of the Shaolin Temple supporting historically important inscribed stone steles. This picture was taken prior to the 1928 fire.

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