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The History and Global Transmission of Wing Chun (In Less than Five Thousand Words)

Ip Man not only brought Wing Chun to Hong Kong, he also passed on a rich body of lore and legend surrounding his art.


I was recently invited to contribute an article to a forthcoming volume on the history and development of Wing Chun.  The catch was that it had to be less than five thousand words.  I have literally written hundreds of thousands of words on this subject, so I knew that would be a challenge.  Still, I am pretty happy with the way this turned out, and unless the publisher asks me to take this down, I am happy to share it with the readers of 功夫网!



Wing Chun, as it is pronounced in its native Cantonese, or Yǒng Chūn (詠春) in Hanyu Pinyin, is a form of Southern Chinese hand combat first taught publicly in the Pearl River Delta region of Guangdong province during the second half of the 19th century.  It slowly gained popularity in the area during the Republic Period (1911-1949), but declined dramatically on the mainland after 1949.  It became a global phenomenon when Ip Man (1893-1972), a resident of Foshan and former police officer, moved to Hong Kong and began to teach professionally in the early 1950s. His best-known student, Bruce Lee, became the first Asian-American superstar in the early 1970s. Lee’s fame and efforts to promote the Chinese martial arts ensured that Wing Chun would become one of the most widely distributed and successful traditional fighting systems within the global marketplace.  The art’s popularity was further boosted by the release of a series of fictionalized treatments of Ip Man’s life starting with Wilson Ip’s highly successful 2008 film Ip Man.  Today the art enjoys great popularity not only in Hong Kong but throughout Oceana, the Americas, Europe and China where several lineages have been popularized or “rediscovered” in recent decades.


Key Words: Chinese Martial Arts, Wushu, Kung Fu, Bruce Lee, Ip Man, Wing Chun, Southern China




Originally practiced by the Cantonese speaking population of the Pearl River Delta region, Wing Chun is a concept-based fighting system known for its distinct high stances, triangular footwork, short-range boxing and trapping techniques, emphasis on relaxation and preference for low kicks.[i]  Most branches of the art feature three unarmed forms, Siu Lim Tao (the Little Idea, or Little Thought Form), Chum Kiu (Seeking Bridges) and Biu Ji (Thrusting Fingers).  The most commonly encountered weapons are the Baat Jaam Do (Eight Directional Chopping/Slashing Knives, Wing Chun’s version of the hudiedao) and a single tailed fighting pole typically over three meters in length.[ii]  These same weapons are often among the first taught in other regional Kung Fu styles, and were mainstays of the area’s 19th century militia system.[iii]  Wing Chun is also known for its emphasis on wooden dummy (muk yan jong) training.

Distinctions in stance and technique are often noted between this system and the other arts which were popular in its hometown of Foshan including Choy Li Fut (the most popular art in the region through the late 1920s) and Hung Gar (also an important style in both Foshan and Guangzhou).[iv]  It seems likely that Wing Chun developed in dialogue with these other modes of hand combat. It’s characteristic stances and triangular footwork bear a distinct resemblance to certain regional Hakka boxing styles and the arts of Fujian province.

This is not surprising as demographic pressures and market trends led to the emigration of large numbers of people (including many professional martial artists) from coastal Fujian to Guangdong throughout the 19th century.  The market town of Foshan (a regionally critical trade center holding the imperial iron monopoly and known of its exports of silk, fine ceramics and a wide variety of handicraft goods)[v] was a popular destination for such immigrants.  Foshan’s vibrant and quickly growing economy required security guards, civilian martial arts instructors, militia officers and popular entertainers.  As such, the market town became a greenhouse nurturing the development of multiple martial arts styles.[vi]


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.


The region’s contentious politics, including the Red Turban Revolt (1854-1856) and the First and Second Opium Wars (1839-1842, 1856-1860) meant that much of the male population was forced into militia service (or swept up in bandit armies) during the middle years of the 19th century. In this environment there was a great demand for skilled martial artists who could act as military trainers in the gentry led militia units, or who might be hired as mercenaries to stiffen the ranks of the imperial Green Standard Army which local officials viewed as understaffed and unreliable.[vii]

Following the end of these hostilities we see a period of innovation as martial artists sought to digest the lessons of the past and rebuild their lives.  Douglas Wile has noted that the setbacks that China suffered at the hand of Western powers unleashed powerful internal discourses within the country as reformers sought for ways to preserve what was important within Chinese culture in an era characterized by rapid reform.  Many of the Chinese martial arts most commonly seen today actually emerged, or were fundamentally reformulated, during this period of “self-strengthening.”[viii] This includes Wing Chun.

While many modern students attempt to parse it’s often fantastic folklore in an attempt to rediscover the ancient origins of the art, connecting the practice to migrants from Northern China (such as the Shaolin Monks) or regionally important culture heroes (including Cheung Ng),[ix] all of this ignores a fairly obvious point.  The Wing Chun that is widely known and practiced today is not a particularly ancient practice.  There is no reliable documentation of its existence, or that of any practitioners, prior to the mid 19th century.  The art was not practiced widely until the Republic period (1910s-1940s), and many of the most popular schools today are reliant on changes made to the style’s pedagogy and presentation by Ip Man in the 1950s and 1960s.  Wing Chun, like most Chinese martial arts, is a fundamentally modern practice and its nature can best be understood by examining the social history of Southern China between the closing years of the 19thcentury and the present.[x]

This does not suggest, however, that we can simply ignore the creation myths or oral history of the art.  These texts are important as they provide us with insights into the social position and function of Wing Chun within a rapidly modernizing environment.  Perhaps the oldest and most complete written version of the Wing Chun mythos was recorded by Ip Man in the 1960s for the creation of a proposed association that never came about.  This account was found in his papers following his death and has subsequently been disseminated by the Hong Kong Ving Tsun Athletic Association (VTAA).[xi]

Briefly, Wing Chun, which might best be translated as ‘Beautiful Springtime’, was named not for its creator, the famous Shaolin nun Ng Moy, but rather its first student.  After being forced to flee the provincial capital into the far West due to false accusations against her father, the teenaged Yim Wing Chun found herself the victim of unwanted marital advances by a local marketplace bully.  Learning of the girls plight the nun Ng Moy (who had previously befriended the refugee family) revealed herself to be one of the five mythical survivors of the destruction of the Shaolin temple by the hated Qing.

Taking Wing Chun into the mountains, she trained her student in the Shaolin arts for a year.  This allowed her young charge to defend her honor and defeat an individual who had terrorized the community.  Leaving to resume her wandering, Ng Moy declared that this new art (which allowed the weak to defeat the strong) should be known by her student’s name.  Yim Wing Chun was given the charge of passing on what she had learned, as well as resisting the Qing and working to restore the Ming.

Following that the myth becomes more genealogical in nature.  It records that the art was transmitted to, and preserved by, a company of Cantonese opera performers in Foshan.  Foshan was the home of the Cantonese Opera Guild prior to the Red Turban Revolt when the practice was officially suppressed.  Eventually two of these individuals, Wong Wah Bo and Leung Yee Tai, would pass the art to a pharmacist in Foshan named Leung Jan.  He would teach it to his children and a single student named Chan Wah Shun.  Chan’s final disciple was the son of his landlord, a young Ip Man.

This entire account has a somewhat hybrid nature.  Leung Jan, Chan Wah Shun and Ip Man are all known historical figures whose existence can be independently verified.[xii]  However, the story’s opening acts are clearly fictional.  All traditional Cantonese arts trace their origins to the survivors of the destruction of the Shaolin temple (a myth complex shared with the region’s Triads).  However, historians have known for some time that the Qing never destroyed the Shaolin temple in Henan, and the Southern Shaolin temple (despite being “rediscovered” by multiple competing local governments) is more the product of literary creation than actual history.[xiii]  Both Ng Moy and Yim Wing Chun seem to bear more than a passing resemblance to important female figures in the origin stories of certain branches of Fujianese White Crane.  Indeed, it seems that this folklore impacted the development of Wing Chun, along with certain footwork patterns and stances.[xiv]

Christopher Hamm has published studies of the evolution of Southern China’s martial arts fiction during the late Qing and Republic period which can also help to date the Wing Chun myth.  The story retold by Ip Man appears to be dependent on an anonymous novel, Shengchao Ding Sheng Wannian Qing (Everlasting), first published in 1893.  This was one of the most popular martial arts novels sold in the region and it saw many reprinting and pirate editions.  That is particularly important as in the original version of the story Ng Moy (who makes her first ever named appearance in these books) was not a hero.  Rather she was an antagonist who conspired to bring down the Shaolin monks.  She was not reimagined as a hero and friend of Shaolin until a pirate edition with an alternate ending titled Shaolin Xiao Yingxiong (Young Heroes from Shaolin) was published in the 1930s.[xv]  The Wing Chun creation myth as related in the Ip Man lineage seems to be dependent on that relatively late edition.

Indeed, the openly revolutionary ideology of the story would also have been much more popular with readers in Republican China than with the subjects of the Qing dynasty who had to be quite careful about how they discussed the government.  Yim Wing Chun is also interesting as she seems to act as a bridge pointing back to the possible influence of Fujianese boxing styles, while also connecting the art to popular trends in Republic era fiction that focused on stories of the amazing feats of female heroines.  In short, while not a historical document, this story likely served an important role in explaining the nature and purpose of the art to Republic era students.  It also supports the view that Wing Chun is a relatively recent art which may have first developed in the middle or later years of the 19th century (likely following the opera ban), before being popularized among Foshan’s middle class and bourgeois martial artists in the Republic period.


Jingwu (Chinwoo) Association Hall in Foshan. Completed in the 1930s, this sort of public infrastructure supporting the martial arts would have been unheard of in Chan Wah Shun’s time. The martial arts were deeply unfashionable for most of his teaching career. This, more than other other factor, probably accounts for the small size of his school.


Wing Chun’s Development in the Republic Era

Setting aside questions of folk history, Wing Chun has passed through three subsequent evolutionary periods.  It seems reasonable to assume that the preceding creation myth is correct in asserting that a set of practices and techniques were transmitted to Leung Jan by retired opera performers following the conclusion of the Red Turban Revolt.  Being forced to find alternate modes of employment, it is not unlikely that some such individuals would have become private instructors for more wealthy families.  Likewise, Chan Wah Shun is a historically attested individual who is known to have taught Wing Chun in the closing years of the Qing dynasty.

Still, the community practicing the art at this time would have been small. Many accounts suggest that Leung Jan (a successful medical practitioner) had no desire to teach publicly, instead passing his art only to his children and a single close family friend.  Chan Wah Shun was active in a period when the martial arts were often viewed as a pathway to employment rather than as a means of recreation.  Further, the high cost of his tuition ensured that his teachings were only available to well-to-do sons of local business owners.  Ip Man later stated that his teacher had only 16 students over the course of his career and many of these were no longer teaching when he returned for college in Hong Kong.  Even if we include the possibility of other related Wing Chun lineages during the late Qing, the total number of practitioners in and around Foshan was probably not more than a few dozen people.

It was only during the Republic Period (1911-1949) that Wing Chun became a fixture in the local martial arts landscape.  This is not entirely unexpected as the waves of nationalist sentiment unleashed by the 1911 revolution helped to popularize practices like traditional boxing and wrestling.  Further, educational reforms in the late 1910s and early 1920s led to a renewed emphasis on physical training throughout Chinese society and a number of groups argued that reformed and modernized martial arts practices should lead the way.[xvi]  This social momentum fed the growth of all sorts of fighting arts at both the national and regional level.  Wing Chun rode this wave of enthusiasm, really establishing itself in the Pearl River Delta region during the 1920s and 1930s.

Much of the folklore of the era focuses on the so called “Three Heroes of Wing Chun.”  These individuals were Ip Man, Yuen Kay San and Yiu Choi.  However, the “Three Heroes” label is misleading, being the product of later journalists seeking to write sensationalist accounts of local masters.  In reality all three of these individuals did know each other, and they shared relatively privileged backgrounds.  Ip Man’s family owned both land and businesses in Hong Kong and he never needed to work (dedicating his time to martial arts practice) until after the end of the Second World War.

Yuen Kay San (1887-1956) came from a family of industrialists who made their wealth through commercial pigments.  His lineage history asserts that his father hired Fok Bo-Chuen and Fung Siu Ching, two students of another retired opera performer, Painted Face Kam, to teach his son.  Yuen Kay San was known to associate with Ip Man and other Wing Chun practitioners at the school of Ng Chung So.  But like Ip Man he never felt the necessity of running a school of his own.

Finally, Yiu Choi (1890-1956) was another son of a successful local businessman.  He began his Wing Chun training under the tutelage of Yuen Kay San’s elder brother, before being recommended to Ng Chung So when the former moved to Vietnam.  Like his well-off friends, Yiu also declined the role of teacher.  However, he and his elder brother helped to finance the school where Ng Chung So taught and later looked after him in his retirement.

Given their wealth, visibility and social status it is not hard to imagine why writers and journalists would latch onto these individuals.  Yet their actual contributions to the development of Wing Chun at this time were quite modest as they were not directly responsible for the instruction or training of many students.

The actual leading figures of the Wing Chun community at this time, and the two individuals responsible for training most of the instructors that one actually encounters in Republic period historical accounts, are Ng Chung So (one of Chan Wah Shun’s top disciples), and Chan Yiu Min (his son).  Both of these individuals ran successful schools that became hubs of the Wing Chun community. Their careers, as well as those of often overlooked individuals such as Jiu Chao, Lai Yip Chi and Cheung Bo, help to illustrate the ways in which the region’s martial arts marketplace evolved in the Republic era, and became enmeshed in the complex social conflicts that would ultimately bring the period to a close.[xvii]


Chu shing Tin demonstrating the pole form. Source:


The Hong Kong Period

The lasting legacy of the Republic era was to move Wing Chun beyond being a relatively insular lineage-based project.  It was during this period that the art established a public presence, the first modern commercial schools were opened, and the system’s conceptual identity, outlined in its creation myth, was established.  Such a story was likely necessary for marketing as this was when the art expended from a handful of practitioners to hundreds of students who found themselves in competition with larger communities such as the Hung Mun Association or the recently imported Jingwu (Pure Martial) Association.  Despite this expansion the art continued to be associated with the area’s upper middle class and skilled workers. There is even evidence that both Wing Chun and Hung Gar instruction were co-opted by the area’s yellow trade unions.  This close association with regional elites and reactionary groups ensured that Wing Chun practice would not prosper in the years after 1949.  While some lineages (such as Pan Nam’s) continued to survive on the mainland, their growth was limited until well after the conclusion of the Cultural Revolution.[xviii]

The situation in Hong Kong was generally more hospitable to martial artists in the 1950s and 1960s.  Ip Man fled Guangdong ahead of the Communist advance late in 1949 and with the help of an old friend, Lee Man, found lodging in the communal dormitory of the Hong Kong Restaurant Worker’s Union.  In 1950 the now aging Ip Man decided to begin teaching on a professional basis.[xix]  Sadly, the sorts of people employed by as restaurant workers tended to be highly transient and this was not good for class retention during the early years of his efforts.

Hong Kong was a very different environment from Foshan.  While the KMT had attempted to co-opt martial arts practice, the city’s colonial administrators distrusted them both for their association with Chinese nationalism and Triad networks.[xx]  Hong Kong’s urban environment offered a wider variety of distractions and disruptions for Ip Man’s younger students, many of whom were struggling to come to terms with a system of dual colonization where they were cut off from the Chinese mainland, yet also the subject of British Imperialism.  Western economic sanctions designed to punish the PRC after 1949 also had a devastating impact on Hong Kong’s traditionally trade-based economy causing massive dislocation as the city struggled to resettle vast numbers of refugees.[xxi]

Succeeding in such a marketplace would not be easy. Ip Man began to streamline and modernize his presentation of material to meet the expectations of his new students.  He created public classes with a progressive curriculum where no information was to be held back or kept secret for only select disciples.  Within this setting he limited the amount of time spent on initial stance and forms training and instead placed renewed emphasis on a sensitivity drill called chi sao or “sticky hands.”[xxii]  The ludic qualities of this training exercise certainly helped with student retention.  In its more energetic aspects it also helped to prepare Ip Man’s early students for the roof-top challenge fights that dominated Hong Kong’s martial arts youth sub-culture at the time.  The success of many of Ip Man’s early students in these engagements (including individuals like Leung Sheung and later Wong Shun Leung) attracted more students to Ip Man’s growing classes.[xxiii]

These were not the only changes.  Ip Man’s two sons, Ip Chun and Ip Ching, both managed to flee across the briefly reopened border and rejoin this father in 1962.  They immediately noted that while the basic concepts of his Wing Chun remained the same, the art that he was teaching in Hong Kong appeared differently from how it had been presented during the Republic era.  Not only had the curriculum been standardized and rearranged, but it was introduced to students in fundamentally different ways.  Traditional ideas and concepts such as the ‘five phases’ (sometimes translated as ‘elements’) or the ‘eight directions’ had been eliminated from discussions.  Instead Ip Man drew on his Western education and explained things in simple mechanical terms.[xxiv]

Describing his thoughts on the art to a young Western visitor in 1960, Ip Man told Rolf Clausnitzer that he ‘Regarded Wing Chun as a modern form of Kung Fu, i.e., as a style of boxing highly relevant and adaptable to modern fighting conditions’.[xxv] This same program of pragmatic modernization and reform, originally intended to make the art more attractive (and effective) within the Hong Kong marketplace, and would ultimately lay the groundwork for its global expansion.  While a previous generation of teachers in Foshan had struggled to establish Wing Chun as a publicly taught system in a crowded marketplace, Ip Man’s career inadvertently set the stage for the practice’s global expansion.


Nima King Wing Chun School. Source: SCMP


Wing Chun as a Global Art

It is interesting to note that as early as 1969 Clausnitzer had already predicted that such a thing might be possible, even in an era when most Western martial artists were more interested in the Japanese fighting arts than their Chinese cousins.  The key to this future expansion lay, in his estimation, in the education and relatively liberal attitudes of most of the system’s younger students, at least when it came to teaching the art to foreigners.[xxvi]

Still, it is easy to overstate the supposed secrecy of Chinese instructors in the West during the 20th century.  More significant was the fact that Ip Man’s students began with some advantages when it came to spreading their art.  Hong Kong itself has always served as a meeting point between Chinese and Western culture.  During the 1960s and 1970s it was involved in the global exchange of goods, capital, people and ideas in ways that other areas of China were not.  As a British territory many of Ip Man’s students had worked diligently to learn English during their school years.  They also enjoyed opportunities to seek schooling or employment in the West which other Chinese youth lacked at the time.

Ip Ching has noted that during this period many of his father’s students felt compelled to go overseas to advance their careers.  The issue was the state of higher education in Hong Kong.  Simply put, educational reforms had been successful enough that the city’s schools were producing more graduates than their small university system could absorb.  Traveling overseas to finish one’s education or find professional employment thus became a necessity for many of Ip Man’s better off young students.[xxvii]  In comparison to other traditional Chinese martial arts, Wing Chun had been exporting potential instructors for years.

The final ingredient which propelled Wing Chun from a once regional fighting system to one of the most popular arts in the global marketplace was the fortuitous return of Bruce Lee, Ip Man’s most famous student, to the United States in 1959.  Lee, originally born in California, was already well known in Hong Kong as a child actor, having starred in a number of popular films.  However, he was a hyperactive child who had problems in school.  After becoming a Wing Chun student he followed individuals like Wong Shun Leung and William Cheung into the violent world of roof-top fighting.  Eventually his parents sent him to America to make a fresh start.[xxviii]

Bruce Lee promoted the Chinese martial arts along the West Coast and began to make appearances in Black Belt, the most important English language martial arts magazine of the period. Images of Ip Man even appeared in some of these articles giving both his teacher and original style an unprecedent amount of exposure in a period when most American martial artists knew little about the Chinese martial arts.[xxix]  Eventually Lee would go on to create his own system (Jeet Kune Do), which subsequently had a somewhat complex relationship with the traditional Wing Chun community.

Nevertheless, it was Lee’s return to acting that did more to advance the global popularity of Wing Chun than any other single factor.  Martial Arts fans were energized by his performance as Kato in the Green Hornet.  But it was the release of the blockbuster Enter the Dragon in 1973, shortly after Lee’s own untimely death, that would make him a global phenomenon.

This was the first kung fu style action film shot in English and supported by a Hollywood studio.  It created a level of cultural interest in, and desire for, the Chinese martial arts that had never before been seen in North America or Europe.  Audiences were mesmerized by Lee’s martial performance, and the alternate vision of masculinity that was read onto his highly developed physical form.  Likewise, minority audiences were drawn to the anti-imperialist messages in this and his prior films. [xxx] Suddenly people around the world wanted to understand how Lee had trained and developed his unique capabilities.

Overnight martial arts classes were inundated with students across the West world.  Ip Man’s students who had previously immigrated to pursue school or career goals were ideally positioned to rapidly expand Wing Chun’s presence in North America, Australia and Europe.  Further, the modernized system of hand combat that Ip Man had developed for Hong Kong was relatively easily adapted to the needs and cultural background of these students.

Wing Chun remains one of the most commonly encountered traditional Chinese arts in the world today.  Bruce Lee’s continual cultural relevance has helped to sustain popular interest in the art, as have endorsements from celebrity students such as Robert Downey Jr.  The release of Wilson Ip’s 2008 fictionalized biography of Ip Man also led to renewed interest in the art in both the West but also within the PRC.  While Ip Man often spoke out against fantastic Kung Fu legends, his posthumous transformation into a legendary fighter and nationalist hero has helped to spread the popularity of his art far beyond its native Guangdong.




[i] Benjamin N. Judkins and Jon Nielson, The Creation of Wing Chun: A Social History of the Southern Chinese Martial Arts, (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1998).

[ii] Robert Chu, Rene’ Ritchie and Y. Wu, Complete Wing Chun: The Definitive Guide to Wing Chun’s History and Traditions (North Clarendon VT: Tuttle Publishing, 1998). For a detailed comparison of the unarmed and weapons sets taught in the most commonly encountered Wing Chun lineages see the reference work provided by Chu, Ritchie and Wu.

[iii] J. Elliott Bingham, Narratives of the Expedition to China, from the Commencement of the Present Period, Vol. 1. (London: Henry Colburn Publishers, 1842), 177-178.  Bingham provides a historically important first-hand account of militia troops in Southern China training with the hudiedao during the period of the Opium Wars.  Also see Judkins and Nielson, The Creation of Wing Chun, 70, 94.

[iv] Judkins and Nielson, The Creation of Wing Chun, 92-99; 117-118.

[v] Yimin He. “Prosperity and Decline: A Comparison of the Fate of Jingdezhen, Zhuxianzhen, Foshan and Hankou in Modern Times.” Frontiers of History in China 5, no. 1 (2010): 52–85. Translated by Weiwei Zhou from Xueshu Yuekan (Academic Monthly) 12 (2008): 122–133.

[vi] Researchers should note for instance that Foshan is also remembered for the important contributions which it made to the development of styles such as Choy Li Fut, Hung Gar, and its thriving Jingwu Hall prior to the Japanese invasion in 1938.  All of these styles were better known than Wing Chun during the Republic period.

[vii] Frederick Wakeman, Jr., Strangers at the Gate: Social Disorder in South China, 18391861 (Los Angeles: University of California 39 Press, 1997), chapters 13–15.

[viii] Douglas Wile, Lost T’ai-Chi Classics from the late Ch’ing Dynasty (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1996), 5, 20–26.

[ix] Ip Chun and Michael Tse, Wing Chun Kung Fu: Traditional Chinese Kung Fu for Self-Defense and Health (New York, St. Martin’s Griffin, 1998), 20–21.

[x] Douglas Wile, in his 1996 introduction to the Lost T’ai-Chi Classics, systematically laid out the reasons why many of the most ancient seeming Chinese martial arts are fundamentally products of the modern era.  Everything that he argued in that work applies equally as well to the hand combat systems of Southern China, including Wing Chun.

[xi] Ip Man, ‘The Origins of Ving Tsun: Written by the Late Grand Master Ip Man’, <;; Ip Ching, ‘History of Wing Chun’ (Ip Ching Ving Tsun Association, 1998), DVD; Ip Chun, Wing Chun Kung Fu (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998), 17–20.

[xii] Judkins and Nielson have provided a review of the known biographical details of all three of these individuals which goes beyond the confines of the current discussion.

[xiii] Meir Shahar, The Shaolin Monastery (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2008), especially chapter 6.

[xiv] Stanley Henning, ‘Thoughts on the Origins and Transmission to Okinawa of Yongchun Boxing’, Classical Fighting Arts 2, no. 15 (2009): 42–47.

[xv] John Christopher Hamm, Paper Swordsman: Jin Yong and the Modern Chinese Martial Arts Novel (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2006), 34-36.

[xvi] Andrew D. Morris, Marrow of the Nation: A History of Sport and Physical Culture in Republican China (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004), chapter 7.

[xvii] Judkins and Nielson, The Creation of Wing Chun, 169-211.

[xviii] Ibid.

[xix] Ip Ching and Ron Heimberger, Ip Man: Portrait of a Kung Fu Master (Springville, UT: King Dragon Press, 2003), 25, 33.

[xx] Daniel M. Amos, “Spirit Boxing in Hong Kong: Two Observers, Native and Foreign,” Journal of Asian Martial Arts 8, no. 4. (1999), 10.

[xxi] Judkins and Nielson, The Creation of Wing Chun, 214-215.

[xxii] Chun and Tse, Wing Chun Kung Fu, 40-42; Yip Chun and Danny Connor, Wing Chun Martial Arts: Principles & Techniques (San Francisco: Weiser Books, 1992), 26.

[xxiii] Judkins and Nielson, The Creation of Wing Chun, 228.

[xxiv] Michael Tse, “Master Ip Ching,” Qi Magazine 24 (1996): 16–20; Chun and Tse, Wing Chun Kung Fu, 40-42.

[xxv] R. Clausnitzer and Greco Wong, Wing Chun Kung Fu: Chinese Self- Defence Methods (London: Paul H. Crompton LTD, 1969), 10.

[xxvi] Clausnitzer and Wong, Wing Chun Kung Fu, 12.

[xxvii] Ip Ching, ‘History of Wing Chun’ (Ip Ching Ving Tsun Association, 1998), DVD.

[xxviii] Matthew Polly, Bruce Lee: A Life. (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2018).

[xxix] Anthony DeLeonardis, ‘Martial Arts in Red China Today’, Black Belt, February (1968), 22.  The inclusion of a photograph of Ip Man and text block highlighting Wing Chun in one of Black Belt’s earlier features on the Chinese martial arts is typical of Lee’s success in promoting his teacher’s reputation abroad.

[xxx] Paul Bowman, Beyond Bruce Lee: Chasing the Dragon through Film, Philosophy and Popular Culture (New York: Wallflower, 2013).



If you enjoyed this essay you might also want to read: “Ng Chung So – Looking Beyond the “Three Heroes of Wing Chun.”



History and Myth in Lightsaber Combat

Students in a lightsaber training exercise. Source: Author’s personal collection.



In the coming months I expect that readers will be seeing a few new blog posts discussing my ongoing work with the Lightsaber Combat community.  I have a chapter and conference paper that will be looking at performance ethnography and material culture within this research area, so I would be very surprised if at least some of that does not find its way onto the blog.  This much shorter piece might be thought of as a warmup.  My friend Jared Miracle (who has guest authored a number of posts here at 功夫网) and I recently wrote the following introduction to the subject for a more popular martial arts magazine.  The editor asked about the development of the current Lightsaber Combat community and role of history and mythology within it.  So those were some of the questions that we tackled.


Lightsaber Combat as a Global Movement

In February of 2019 the French Fencing Federation (Fédération Française d’Escrime or FFE) made the news.  Stories were run in many major magazines and the comedian Trevor Noah even graced the FFE with a Daily Show segment. Yet the topic of debate was not traditional sport fencing.  Rather, the FFE had announced that the LED Saber (or replica lightsaber) was being added as an official fourth weapon within the French fencing establishment, alongside the better-established foil, epee and saber.

The response to this announcement was electric.  Some commentators were delighted, others aghast. The viral spread of this conversation, which went far beyond the sorts of individuals who normally took any interest in fencing, played directly into the FFE’s media strategy.  Like many old guard sports federations, it was concerned as fewer new students took up fencing.  And it should be remembered that other governing bodies had already proved that adopting a new telegenic “extreme sport,” such as snowboarding, parkour, skateboarding or rock-climbing, was a tried and true strategy for boosting an organization’s relevance in the current era.

This announcement did not come as a surprise to members of France’s Lightsaber Combat community.  The FFE had openly announced its intentions and publicly examined several different approaches to the LED saber championed by various preexisting clubs before finally settling on its preferred model. It is interesting to note that while Star Wars is often thought of as a quintessentially American film, Lightsaber Combat is a global phenomenon which has grown more quickly in France than perhaps anywhere else.

Yet how did this global community emerge and what is the nature of their practice? Clearly one might design a competitive sport based on ideas found in a fictional film, but is it really possible to create a new martial art while drawing inspiration from these sources?  What specifically is the relationship between historical practice and the modern media?  Most importantly, were the many traditional instructors who contributed to the development of these practices (and even the FFE) correct in their assertions that as a teaching tool the LED saber could reach new audiences uninterested in historical blade or stick fighting?

The following article addresses these questions.  It begins with a brief description of the LED saber both as a material object and in relation to development of the larger Star Wars film franchise.  Next, we review the creation and expansion of the Lightsaber Combat community between its first stirrings in the early 2000s and the current moment.  Last, we directly address the function of history, fiction and hyper-reality within the martial arts.

For most individuals it is virtually impossible to separate the term “traditional” from “martial art.”  Many practitioners exhibit something close to religious reverence for the history of their practice.  For some cultural traditions (such as those often seen in the Chinese martial arts), the authenticity of one’s art is inexorably linked with the legitimacy of one’s lineage status.  Within such a framework, a practice without the proper sort of history (such as Lightsaber Combat, Mixed Martial Arts, or even something like the Keysi Fighting Method) could not be fully accepted as a “legitimate” martial art.

Much debate has occurred recently in scholarly circles as to how we should define the concept of “martial arts” in a cross-cultural context, and whether engaging in such a definitional exercise is even a good idea.[1] Benjamin Judkins has made his own contributions to this discussion specifically addressing why lightsaber combat should be accepted as a martial art (for theoretical purposes), and the ways in which this realization effects our understanding of how these communities function.[2]

We do not intend to relitigate those debates here.  In this article we instead focus on a related problem. Practitioners often claim to be deeply impacted by the historical legacies of their arts.  Yet the development of the interdisciplinary field of Martial Arts Studies has demonstrated that a great many of the claims passed on within traditional hand combat communities actually fall into the realm of myths and legends.  Most of the Chinese martial arts practiced today are not the product of an ineffable past. Instead, they are the legacies the final decades of the 19th century and the Republic of China period (1911-1949).  Rather than being an “ancient Korean art,” Taekwondo developed as a clear attempt to appropriate and nationalize Japanese Karate in the post-war period.  Further, the entire understanding of the “Samurai Spirit” promoted in many Japanese Budo contexts is largely the product of nationalist reformers (some working with Western sources) in the Meiji period rather than an authentic reflection of the medieval past.[3]

While all martial arts have a history, it does not always bear a close resemblance to the stories venerated by their students.  What happens to our experience of the practice of a fighting system when we cannot attempt to historicize our legends? Can real techniques be transmitted and honed when we are forced to fully accept the mythic nature of the exercise?  The Star Wars films, after all, may be the most successful modern myth ever produced, but no one would claim the lightsaber as history. Yet the very nature of Lightsaber Combat forces one to practice as if they were.


A promotional image noting the recent partnership between the American based Terra Prime Light Armory (TPLA) and the French Fencing Federation (FFE).


Origins of a Community

One suspects that fan-sponsored lightsaber duels began to occur the day after George Lucas’ epic space opera opened in 1977. Yet the first identifiable Lightsaber Combat organizations did not emerge until late 2005 and 2006.  Given the immense popularity of these films, and the iconic nature of their signature weapon, how should we understand this delay?

The current generation of replica lightsabers (including the LED illuminated stunt sabers most often used in a martial arts context) date only to the early years of the 2000s.  They were initially developed as part of the marketing effort surrounding the release of the prequel trilogy (1999, 2002, 2005).  It was at this time that Lucasfilm began to issue licensed replicas of a number of weapons seen on screen.  These had detailed metal hilts, sound effects, and blades that appeared to ignite.  It was difficult for individuals who held these early sabers not to feel as though they had just been given a relic from that far off galaxy.

Soon third-party vendors entered this market space, offering simple training sabers with in-hilt LED modules and hollow polycarbonate blades. These sabers still had aluminum hilts, though they tended to be more ergonomically designed and better balanced that the original film props.  And while some of these sabers were marketed to collectors, other (nearly indestructible) weapons were developed specifically for staged choreography and martial arts applications. It was only a matter of time before a variety of martial artists decided to seriously investigate what these new sabers were capable of within a training context.

This desire to more fully explore the world of lightsabers was encouraged by the franchise’s other marketing efforts.  In 2002, Dr. David West Reynolds (an archeologist employed as an author by Lucas Film) published an article titled “Fightsaber” in the October issue of the Star Wars Insider fan magazine.[4]  While lightsabers had dominated much of the personal combat on screen (and they played a progressively greater role in each new film), nothing had ever been said about the specialized training needed to wield such a weapon.  Dr. Reynolds, who was not a martial artist, sought to fill this lacuna by exploring the “seven classic forms of lightsaber combat” as taught in the fictional Jedi temple.  His descriptions borrow much from the image of the Asian martial arts which circulates in popular culture. This tendency towards Orientalism only grew as successive video games, novels and comic books sought to expand the lore, drawing on an ever-widening body of pop culture references.

Again, it was only a matter of time before actual martial artists started to ask what combination of real-world fighting techniques could best replicate the alluring reality that was starting to emerge around the idea of lightsaber combat.  The inexpensive, durable and versatile nature of LED sabers as material objects ensured that a wide variety of practitioners would be swept up in the task of reconstructing the “lost” systems of lightsaber combat. For some this was simply an extension of their Star Wars fandom.  In other cases, individuals saw it as an intellectual and technical puzzle deepening their appreciation for various stick and blade based martial arts.

Given the global appeal of this franchise, it is probably impossible to know, with certainty, where the very first dedicated lightsaber group emerged.  Greg Ember, who has carefully tracked the creation of groups within this community, hypothesizes that the first schools or performance troops may actually have formed in either Russia or the Philippines.[5]  Lightsaber combat remains extremely popular in Russia and across Southeast Asia. However, the first group to generate sustained media attention was NY Jedi, which began to offer classes in New York City after marching in the Greenwich Village Halloween Parade in 2005. The press coverage that this group would generate (along with the creation of the Saber Guild in 2006) led to an explosion of other small clubs across the Eastern seaboard of the United States in the coming years.

Most of this first generation of groups focused on a type of fight choreography that attempted to emulate the techniques (and even costumes) which were seen in the films.  They often organized themselves as non-profit enterprises and would perform at fan gatherings and charity events.  However, as there was not yet an ecosystem of specialized lightsaber schools and organizations, many of their members actually had a relatively diverse set of interests and practices.

Perhaps the first truly specialized group to emerge was Ludosport, created in 2006.  This Italian organization used the same LED sabers to develop a fast-paced combat sport. Their approach to Lightsaber Combat is unique in that they favor light contact and tend not to wear protective gear beyond light gloves and occasionally eye protection.  While organized as a sports league, Ludosport offers instruction in a set of progressive techniques (originally drawing inspiration from the seven classic forms of lightsaber combat) that have been carefully selected and modified to allow for safe play with minimal gear.  For much of the next decade Ludosport expanded its network of academies across Europe before, in 2016, opening its first location in North America.

Nor has Ludopsort been the only actor to approach Lightsaber Combat as a competitive sport.  The publicity preceding the 2015 release of The Force Awakens helped to support a wave of specialization within the Lightsaber Combat Community.  On May 4th of 2015, two important groups were created.  In North America, this date saw the formal emergence of the Saber Legion, a heavy dueling league featuring full contact, full force striking.  Participants in these contests wear heavy hockey, motorcycle or HEMA armor, much of which has been selected and decorated to invoke a specific persona.  On the same day, the Sport Saber League was created in France.  It occupies what might be thought of as a middle ground requiring the use of Fencing masks, heavy gloves, and some other minimal equipment while only allowing medium intensity contact.

A third category of Lightsaber Combat groups also emerged in the lead-up to the most recent trilogy of Star Wars films.  While choreography clubs and sport leagues often appropriated the pedagogical or tactical insights of traditional combat systems, this last set of organizations explicitly identify themselves as martial arts schools. This is something that leagues such as Ludosport or the Saber Legion have been hesitant to do, even when their members or creators have been traditional martial artists.

This rhetorical choice reflects a more fundamental shift in the goals and self-understanding of these groups. The growth and differentiation of the community in recent years has allowed for the establishment of a number of schools focused on questions of “realism.” In a few cases (like the Lightspeed Saber League, formally organized in southern California in 2016) this discourse centers on the hypothesized nature of the lightsaber as a weapon with very unique characteristics. Depending on how these are understood, one can then attempt to derive a body of technique fitting this mental map.


Details of three LED Saber hilts. This model is the Pilgrim by JQ Sabers.


More common are schools that seek to achieve a sense of “realism” in the sorts of techniques employed.  This approach allows them to use the lightsaber as a means of testing and teaching a vast range of real-world fighting philosophies that might not otherwise come into contact with one another.  One cannot easily walk into a Kendo school to test your HEMA techniques against unsuspecting Japanese martial artists.  The historic, national and even ideological aspects of these practices tend to prevent this sort of exchange, except in special limited circumstances.

Yet the ahistorical nature of the lightsaber, as well as the complex mythology that surrounds it, tends to encourage exactly this sort of “creative play.”  In some cases, this means mixing and matching techniques from within a single cultural framework. Other organizations might draw on a much wider variety of source materials in their attempt to realize the full breadth of the “seven classical forms of lightsaber combat,” essentially imagining each component as a distinct and separate art.

One of the first, and most influential, martial schools within the Lightsaber Combat community is the Terra Prime Light Armory. Established in 2012 it has posted instructional videos on YouTube in order to create an open-source instructional system drawing on a variety of Chinese (and to a lesser extent European) fighting styles. Indeed, the creators of this system viewed the lightsaber as an ideal tool to both test and preserve these techniques in a quickly changing era. It should also be noted that the TPLA’s approach and progressive curriculum formed the basis of the LED saber program recently adopted by the FFE. Further, it has recently entered into a partnership with the FFE to promote their competitive ruleset in the United States.

Unsurprisingly, there is often a regional component to the relationship between martially oriented lightsaber groups and the historic styles from which they draw.  HEMA techniques appear more frequently in European lightsaber schools. Likewise, organizations like the Saber Authority (established in 2014) have promoted systems with a distinctly Southeast Asian flavor, drawing on their region’s rich traditions of stick and blade work.

Instructors in this last group of schools often express enthusiasm for two ideas that may at first appear to be in tension with each other.  On the one hand, they note the freedom that the LED saber grants them to test and combine styles that might not otherwise meet on culturally neutral ground.  This allows for genuine martial exchange and a welcome escape from the “politics” of the traditional martial arts.  At the same time, they also note the LED saber’s potential to reach new audiences, popularizing and preserving skills which have emerged from historic martial arts.  When commenting on his students who regularly compete in Saber Legion tournaments, Steaphen Fick, a noted HEMA instructor who also runs a saber training program notes:

“One of the things that I like about working with them [the Lightsaber Combat Community] is that they are taking what is essentially a silly weapon and learning how to bring it to life. The skills that they learn, the questions they ask and the work they put into learning the lightsaber is what makes it a valid martial training tool.”[6]


Students performing taolu (or a dulon, if using Star Wars terminology) with a double bladed saber staff. Source: Author’s personal collection.


Lightsaber Combat as Martial Art

Such commentary about the efficacy of lightsaber training as a martial art in the same capacity as other, more established styles raises still more questions about its legitimacy among the broader fighting arts community. It also draws attention to the question of history and tradition, providing a comparative lens through which to consider their pragmatic purpose in the study of any given close combat system. When the ostensible goal of a martial art is to become skillful in a given mode of fighting, why bother maintaining nonfunctional behaviors at all?

Traditional practices are embedded in many systems, including uniforms, courtesy behaviors like bowing and the use of honorifics, and the memorization of foreign words and phrases that serve no special function. From a combat efficacy standpoint, for example, there is no pragmatic reason to practice solo, dance-like patterns while counting in Japanese. Likewise, a resident of any developed nation today has no logical combative goal in studying traditional swordsmanship. Even in martial arts marketed as practical for personal protection, such as Brazilian jiu-jitsu, there is often an element of the traditional (e.g. judo uniforms, a colored belt ranking system).

Likely no component of the martial arts is more tradition-bound, however, than their origin stories. As with all types of folklore, these oral traditions are often transmitted informally between practitioners, usually growing more extraordinary over time, and tend to conform to certain “tale types.” The narrative structures of these stories are so formulaic, in fact, that they match common folk tale structures found internationally. These stories are usually fantastic in some way. Perhaps the style’s founder was inspired by watching two animals fight, or a physically weak individual developed techniques that enabled him to overcome larger opponents, or, in some of the more ancient cases, a demon or god transmitted knowledge to the founder.

Regardless, folklorist Thomas Green has argued that “martial arts folk histories reflect the desire of modern practitioners to establish credibility through association with a legendary past.”[7] Legends are an important part of life. Humans rely on the inspiration and framework found in legends and myths to make sense of the world, as well as their place in it. These stories do not simply conform to established mythical structures—they are ultimately about finding (or creating) conformity to structure in our own lives. The historiographical events that led to any given martial art’s creation are inevitably complicated and muddy compared with the clean, formulaic renditions espoused by their practitioners. Indeed, as Judkins has written of martial arts history, “Often these genealogies exist only in the realm of popular lore.”[8]

If the exponents of a martial art are cognizant of its fictionalized origin story, it is at least worth considering that a new style emerging from such a fantastical background is equally legitimate in every capacity to which that word might apply. Lightsabers are not imminently practical weapons for daily self-defense, but then neither are whips, flails, broadswords, deer horn knives, or polearms. Jedi clothing is not the most practical athletic wear (however comfortable), but it is no less imminently practical than the pleated skirt-like hakama or even a judo outfit.

Within any group of people, such impractical features as myths, costumes, and irrational beliefs serve very practical purposes. Uniforms of any type are a powerful means of creating group identity and cohesion. We are naturally defensive of those who appear to be members of our tribe. For the same reason, military recruits and marching bands spend painful hours training to step in precise formation with their units, not because modern warfare or music calls for it, but because it creates a collective rhythm, a sort of “flow state.”

Belief in an art’s extraordinary origins gives the individual an opportunity to project a personal identity onto known (or at least suspected) mythic structures, extending his agency beyond the self and into a realm above the mundane. This state of “hyper-reality” is a portal that allows individuals to perceive themselves as existing within a constructed reality; that is, substituting the mundane for the preferred, potentially necessary, extraordinary. This is useful from a survival standpoint as the human brain is capable of understanding the world as a harsh, unforgiving, essentially meaningless exercise in futility and suffering. Instead of accepting such a reality, though, a hyper-real existence is one in which the suffering has a purpose and actions accompany a teleological outcome. As the American anthropologist Clifford Geertz famously wrote of cockfighting in Bali, our actions become “stories we tell ourselves about ourselves.”[9]  It is largely through these mechanisms that the martial arts have become a powerful pathway for asserting personal agency in the modern world.

When one puts on a karate uniform to undergo formal training, there is an uncomfortable blurring of the line between daily mundane reality and the costumed fantasy that plays out in the minds of those within the practice space. This line is very clear among lightsaber groups, however, as trainees don acknowledged costumes and may even use Star Wars-inspired character names. The result of both karate and lightsaber combat is the same; yet there is greater clarity about the nature of the exercise among the lightsaber group. This is also true of origin narratives. Not only does Star Wars fulfill classical mythic structure, but George Lucas himself has been quite vocal about his intent to do so, stating that “I consciously set about to recreate myths and the—and the classic mythological motifs. And I wanted to use those motifs to deal with issues that existed today.”[10]


Ushiwara Maru training with the Tengu, who were reputed to be masters of swordsmanship. By Yoshikazu Utagawa. Source: Wikimedia.


It is instructive to compare the transparent origins of lightsaber combat with an origin narrative from the classical Japanese martial arts which did so much to inspire them. In 1159, Minamoto no Yoshitsune (then a young man) was driven into exile on Mt. Kurama by Taira no Kiyomori, where he was to live as a monk. The mountain was heavily wooded and known to house supernatural creatures. As chance would have it, Yoshitsune became acquainted with a tengu(a sort of magical, crow-like goblin), which taught him martial arts. He became uncannily powerful, skilled in arms, and could run and jump with preternatural agility. He then staged a coup and seized back his hereditary position of power. This story is the basis for a number of martial arts styles in Japan.

Historiographically, it is highly unlikely that the Twelfth Century warlord received tutelage from a mystical folk spirit. One would be hard-pressed to locate a practitioner of the Japanese martial arts today who genuinely believes the story’s accuracy. Instead, the classical combat arts community engages this and similar narratives with a comfortable skepticism, even as the tale continues to be passed on to new students with the utmost seriousness. The function of such fantasy is, rationally, not to convey historical trivia, but to contribute to the creation of a larger life schema, portraying aggrandized interpretations of both physical and cognitive behaviors encouraged by the school. Just as group identity and flow states facilitate profound development from an athletic standpoint, they can also be applied in this sense to develop the trainee’s personality through a constellation of psychosocial immersion and proprioceptive education.

Such didactic tactics have been employed by governments to recondition public thought and behavior. For instance, Japanese youths were mandated to train in kendo, judo, and other martial arts during the early Twentieth Century. There was little expectation that these would be useful battlefield methods, but rather the goal was to indoctrinate children with the morals the ruling institution found most desirable.

Although less extreme, this same basic function and methodology is visible in Lightsaber Combat communities. The Star Wars narrative is largely a chronicle of morality. It conveys the values and preferred qualities of modern heroic archetypes portrayed in dramatic fashion. These qualities are embodied in the Jedi knights, whose role one inhabits while participating. Whether taken strictly as a sporting endeavor or accompanied with detailed costuming and pseudonyms, the fact that lightsaber combat communities are organized entirely around the iconic fantasy weapon unites them in a symbolic, tangible, somatic expression of shared principles.  While the lightsaber may not be real, those values and identities are.

Specific definitions of “martial art” notwithstanding, the essential qualities that attend those activities are exhibited by lightsaber combat. Compared with many “traditional” martial arts, however, the endorsed personal qualities in lightsaber groups are made clear due to the recent advent of their origin narratives. Rather than making affectations to legitimize a fictional history, they overtly embrace the fictional narrative. This, in turn, situates training and competition not as serious, life-or-death preparation for conflict, but as a community-oriented form of creative play.

Fick’s support of the lightsaber as a useful training implement points to the benefits of openly accepting a pleasurable pursuit as such: to wit, reduced stress on the trainee results in improved performance precisely because the stakes are not high, yet the practice carries powerful meaning because of the deeply mythic structure of its origin narrative. Given the natural instinct found in many animals to develop skill through play, it seems that, as Alan Watts suggested, “Man suffers only because he takes seriously what the gods made for fun.”[11]




About the Authors


Benjamin Judkins holds a doctorate in Political Science from Columbia University and is co-editor of the interdisciplinary academic journal Martial Arts Studies.  With Jon Nielson he is the co-author of The Creation of Wing Chun: A Social History of the Southern Chinese Martial Arts(SUNY Press 2015). His research interests include the international relations, globalization and the function of the martial arts in the modern world.  He is an instructor in the Wing Chun system and has been conducting research with the Lightsaber Combat community for a number of years.


Jared Miracle is the author of Now with Kung Gu Grip! How Bodybuilders, Soldiers and a Hairdresser Reinvented Martial Arts for America(McFarland 2016). He received his doctorate from Texas A&M University and serves on the editorial board of the journal Monumenta Mythica. He is a disciple of the Shinkage-ryu, a former professional fighter, and spent years traveling to pursue an education in traditional jujutsu, Shandong mantis fist, aikido, Okinawan kempo and kobudo, the Horiuchi style of batto and kenjutsu, as well as Mongolian wrestling, archery, and other systems around the world. His interests include ritual violence, popular culture, and the archaeology of ideas. He primarily works as a writer and martial arts instructor.





[1]Wetzler, Sixt. 2015. ‘Martial Arts Studies as Kulturwissenschaft: A Possible Theoretical Framework’. Martial Arts Studies 1, 20-33; Paul Bowman. 2019. Deconstructing Martial Arts. Cardiff: Cardiff University Press. 44.

[2]Judkins, Benjamin N. 2016. ‘The Seven Forms of Lightsaber Combat: Hyper- reality and the Invention of the Martial Arts’, Martial Arts Studies 2, 6-22.

[3]Benjamin N. Judkins and Jon Nielson. 2015. The Creation of Wing Chun: A Social History of the Southern Chinese Martial Arts. Albany: SUNY Press; Udo Moenig. 2015. Taekwondo: From a Martial Art to a Martial Sport. London: Routledge; Oleg Benesch. 2014. Inventing the Way of the Samurai: Nationalism, Internationalism, and Bushidō in Modern Japan.  Oxford: Oxford UP.


[5]Personal correspondence, April 16 2016.

[6]Personal Correspondence February 21, 2019.

[7]Thomas Green. 2003. “Sense in Nonsense: The Role of Folk History in the Martial Arts.” In Thomas A. Green and Joseph Svinth (eds.) Martial Arts in the Modern World. Wesport, Connecticut and London: Praeger. 5.

[8]Judkins 2016, 8.

[9]Clifford Geertz. 1973. TheInterpretation of Cultures. New York: Basic Books. 448.


[11]Alan Watt. 2003. Become What You Are. Boston, London: Shambalah. 29.

“Glory Days” and the Twilight of the Guoshu Movement

Wang Zi Ping with Jian.


***My last update hinted at a couple of sources that I will be addressing in my upcoming keynote for this years (quickly approaching) martial arts studies conference.  But there is never enough time to get through everything you want to discuss.  As such, this post tackles a couple of figures, and one really great article in the NY Times, that I just won’t have have time to discuss.  Luckily I have plenty of room to tell the full story in my manuscript chapters….***



“Soft power” and “public diplomacy” are closely linked, yet distinct, concepts. Perhaps the easiest way of understanding this distinction is that the first is a power resource that political actors might call upon. The second concept describes a body of strategies by which policy makers attempts to turn the raw cultural attraction (or curiosity, or even envy) that defines “soft power” into distinct political outcomes.

But even these basic distinctions can dissolve if we begin to poke them. The arena of politics is unique in that at times the raw materials of identity and desire can actually be called into being by attempting to employ them. Successful “political discourses” seem effortless precisely because they manage this trick of transmuting their basic materials. Thus in some exceptional circumstances, it may be the efforts to employ public diplomacy that sparks a sense of curiosity about, and desire for, another actor’s culture (soft power).

Nor have these efforts ever been restricted to the halls of government. While Washington may be able to call bits of “soft power” out of the ether with well-timed arguments about democracy and human rights, their efforts pale in comparison to Hollywood’s yearly onslaught of fantasies of wealth, excitement and longing. Of course these images are a major source of America’s “soft power” on the global stage.

And there is no reason why private actors might not decide to employ their own reserves of soft power to create an international discourse that will advantage their efforts in the future. Hence Hollywood is always at the forefront of lobbying efforts having to do with free trade in the entertainment industry and the protection of intellectual property. Sometimes these efforts have benefited the larger policy goals of the United States government, but there is no theoretical reason to assume that the demands of every industry or politically motivated group will always align with that mythical beast known colloquially as the “national interest.”

In some ways the academic literature on Public Diplomacy is much like Martial Arts Studies. In both cases we have subjects of sufficient complexity that interdisciplinary approaches are almost inevitable. Further, both are niche literatures dominated by scholar-practitioners. Just as MAS conferences are full of people trading training stories, the pages of collected volumes on Public Diplomacy tend to be dominated by articles that have been produced by career diplomats or individuals with the title “Ambassador” before their names.

To the extent that this keeps our focus on real world policy problems, it can be a great advantage. And when you read the early literature on Public Diplomacy there does seem to be an almost granular focus on the role of consular officers in promoting musical concerts or traveling museum exhibits at very specific moments in history. As they say, “Write what you know.”

However, to the extent that this focus leads us to forget that the vast majority of “soft power” is not produced with the help of diplomats, or that the global environment is full of NGO’s and private actors who have their own ideas about what public diplomacy looks like, it can be a weakness. Nor does such a perspective do a great job of focusing on an even more important set of questions. What is the subjective experience of the global audience who encounter these trans-cultural messages? How do their preexisting narratives and understanding condition the government’s efforts to marshal a set of symbols in the pursuit of a given foreign policy goal?

For the most part I have avoided these more theoretical concerns when discussing my ongoing research on the intersection of the TCMA and public diplomacy here on this blog. But that doesn’t mean they are ultimately unimportant. Indeed, “Kung Fu Diplomacy” is interesting precisely because it forces us to think quite carefully about the ways in which government actors (CCP diplomats) exploit the previous efforts of private actors (Bruce Lee) and vice versa.

Still, we cannot measure the success or failure of public diplomacy (and the efforts of either private or public actors), without establishing a baseline understanding of the global public’s familiarity the area in question. This is particularly true with regards to the Chinese martial arts. We are only starting to comprehend the process by which the global public became familiar with these fighting systems. And to mirror the problem I noted above, most of these studies are written from the perspective of the small minority of people who actually became dedicated practicers of kung fu, judo or kali. This is simply another manifestation of the “practicer bias,” and it leads us to make grand pronouncements about how the Chinese Martial Arts were “unknown in the West” prior to the 1970s or Bruce Lee.

This is, of course, utter nonsense. What such assertions actually mean is that Chinese martial arts were not widely practiced in the West prior to the 1970s. Further, Bruce Lee created a level of cross-culture desire for these practices that had not previously been seen. Yet the Western reading public had all sorts of ideas about the Chinese martial arts which may have impacted their imaginations of China itself. Sensational and highly publicized events such as the Boxer Rebellion, the civil wars between “Hatchet Men” in San Francisco and New York, or the heroic stand of the “Big Sword Troops” in WWII, meant that everyone probably had some notion of what Chinese boxing was. These latent memories and images were the raw material that later reformers would work with and push back against.

Still, pointing to the image of the Boxer Rebellion isn’t very helpful. A more interesting question might be whether the American public saw the Chinese martial arts as something ancient, primitive and intrinsically “Chinese,” or if they were instead capable of discussing them as being part of a modern and evolving world. Did they know that the Chinese martial arts changed in response to government policy? What did they actually know about the individuals who promoted and administered these systems?

Admittedly very few people in the West were probably concerned with these sorts of questions in the 1930s and 1940s. But what sort of information was generally available? If, for instance, one was interesting in both boxing and “the Orient”, what sorts of information might you encounter in the popular publications of the period that brought these topics together? To put the matter in more specific terms, did the American public ever learn about the Guoshu movement?

The following articles are interesting as they provide English language discussions that bookend the Guoshu experience. The first, published in the English language China Press in 1936, provides a glimpse into the Guoshu movement at its peak. Here we see strong efforts to not just promote the martial arts, but to make them a compulsory aspect of physical culture throughout the various strata of Chinese society. While these fighting systems were always the most popular among young working class males, this article highlights the creation of a new martial arts club that focused instead on older government employees and officials.

As a side note, in my book I discuss efforts to establish a very similar organization in Guangzhou in the late 1920s. It is clear that in 1936 these efforts enjoyed the backing of elite circles in Chinese society and within the KMT.

Our second discussion paints a very different picture. This New York Times article is based on a 1947 interview with General Chang Chih-chiang (Zhang Zhijiang), the leader of the Guoshu movement. It is immediately clear that the intervening decade has not been kind to the Chinese martial arts. Through the General’s report we learn that the once proud organization is now financially crippled and unable to host events or even repair its former headquarters. The membership of the once massive organization had been reduced to under 400 individuals. Further, due to changing attitudes within the government and educational circles, efforts to promote the Chinese martial arts as a universal practice had been abandoned. By the end of WWII it was clear that boxing would once again survive only as a hobby (or employment skill) of the few.

The Guoshu movement was slipping into the twilight.

Obviously these two articles are far from exhaustive. But they do represent the sorts of information that was increasingly available to English language readers regarding developments within the Chinese martial arts. The actions of key political figures and reformers (including Chu Min-yi and Chang Chih-chiang) were known and reported in the press. The exploits of certain martial arts masters (note the references to Wang Tze-ping) even got some coverage. Nor was boxing always treated as something fixed, ancient and distant. In these reports it had a history that could be understood in terms of both policy debates and sporting metaphors.

Still, one suspects that these articles were not a product of random journalism. The work of Chu Min-yi is highlighted in the first piece. Throughout his career Chu worked hard to ensure that knowledge of the martial arts would be broadcasted to the West through mediums as diverse as foreign language publications, films and even an exhibition at the 1936 Summer Olympics.

Chang Chih-chiang was also a tireless promoter of the martial arts as well as an astute politician. It is probably not a coincidence that when facing an existential funding crisis he called in a reporter from a prominent Western publication. He may have believed that the appearance of such an article would help to remind the KMT of the importance of “shadow boxing” to China’s public image. In 1947 China needed both global aid and sympathy, and highlighting popular aspects of the country’s traditional culture might help. Again, the relationships between the creation of a public diplomacy strategy and the generation of soft power resources can become quite complicated.

The second article is also interesting in that it attempts to provide an English language vocabulary for discussing the Chinese martial arts well before the term “martial art” actually gained popularity. Of course Western boxing remained the standard against which all Chinese practices were understood. This may well have limited their appeal to a global audience. Still, as you read the press coverage of the 1930s and 1940s it is clear that the public discussion of the Chinese martial arts in the West was much more extensive than one might have assumed. At least some of this familiarity was a direct result of the cultural diplomacy efforts of individuals like Chu Min-yi, Ma Liang and Chang Chih-chiang.




Chu Min-yi, “Taiji Boxing Photographed.” Source: Brennan Translation Blog.


Office Workers Have Own Club at Capital City
Chinese Swordsmanship and Boxing Taught to Members

NANKING, Aug. 30—(special)—Under the roof of a side-house inside a compound at 21 Hsiang Pu Ying is a dazzling array of big swords and spears. But there is no sign of a “Boxer Uprising.”

It is the clubhouse of the Public Functionaries’ Recreational Club. Those working in various ministries, yuan or the City Government and its various bureaus, after their day’s hard toll, may find here relaxation.

The club boasts a total of 600 members, all public functionaries from the governmental heads down to the rank and file of the government staff.

Chinese boxing and swordsmanship is one of the things taught at the club.

Those who have a flair for murder things [sic] have a variety from which to choose, cultural discussions, literature and art, music and drama.

Besides the house of semi-foreign style on one side, a two-story building of western mode stands in the center. This is called Chung Cheng Hall, named after Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek. In this hall, all performances in music and drama are being held from time to time for the entertainment of the members and their friends.

The club was founded on January 21, 1934. The Chung Cheng Hall was completed on January 21 this year, at a total cost of $20,000.

The affairs of the club are in charge of a Standing Committee of seven members headed by Dr. Chu Min-yi, as chairman. The six other members are: Dr. Weng Xen-Has, Secretary General of the Executive Yuan; Mr. Hsu Ching-chi, head of the Civilian Officials Department; Mr. Hung Lai-yu, head of the Judicial Officers Training Institute; Mr. Sun Shih-hwa, head of the General Affairs Department of the Ministry of Communications, Mr Lei Chen, head of the General Affairs Department of the Ministry of Education.

Seven secretaries are looking after the daily routine of the club. They are: Dr. Chu Min-yi, in charge of the Athletic Division; Dr. Wang Shih-chieh, Minister of Education, in charge of [the] Cultural Division; Mr. Chen Shu-jen, Chairman of the Overseas Chinese Affairs Commission, in charge of [the] Literature and Art Division, Mr. Tang Yu-yung in charge of Secretarial Division, Mr. Chang Yen-tsun, in charge of [the] Accounting Division.

The club holds a general Conference every year.

August 30, 1936. The China Press (Shanghai).


General Chang Chih-chiang( Zhang Zhijiang).  Source: Wikimedia.


China Boxing Chief Mourns Lean Days
Government Fund too Small for Plans to Put the Country at 4,000-Year-Old Sport

By Henry B. Lieberman (Special for the New York Times).
NANKING, Nov. 8—The ancient sport of shadow boxing, which goes back 4,000 years to the reign of Emperor Huang-Ti, has come upon lean and skimpy days.

Gen. Chang Chih-chiang, counselor of the Military Affairs Commission and head of the Chinese Boxing Association, heaved a sigh and observed dolefully: “Because of scientific inventions the people who handle educational affairs are ignoring shadow boxing.”
The Boxing Association still gets a government subsidy from the Ministry of Education to perpetuate the traditional manly art of self-defense, but this is a mere pittance in terms of General Chang’s desire to make the entire nation shadow-boxing conscious.

Lack of funds has kept the association from rebuilding its nanking headquarters building, which was destroyed by Japanese bombing, and the shadow-boxing capital has shifted to Tientsin. Membership has fallen off until it is estimated it is only about 400.

Things have reached such a pass that the national champion, Wang Tze-ping, 50-year-old Shanghai osteopath, has not been able to find a suitable opponent since 1933. Mr. Wang, who has held the championship for thirty years, last defended his title successfully against a Japanese challenger.

Champion’s Jump Stressed

Although the champion is not getting any younger or spryer, General Chang’s thin bewhiskered face lighted up as he described with his hands the titleholders’ square chest, trim waist and artistic grace.

“You should see him jump,” he said. “This high.”

The general raised one hand almost to the level of his chin.

The boxing chief, a wiry type himself, greets each day at the age of 66 with a brisk shadow-boxing session because it strengthens the body, teaches you’d how to defend yourself and is good for national defense.

The General is a Hopeh man. He began his military career and was baptized in the old Northwestern Army as a follower of Feng Yu-hsiang, the “Christian general.” After the defeat of the northern warlords, General Chang received an honorary position here as military counselor and since then has found plenty of time for shadow-boxing.

The Chinese Boxing Association was established in 1928 to promote Tai Chu Chuan—absolute extreme fist. The term shadow-boxing is the Western description of this Chinese sport, which encompasses eurhythmic calisthenics, fancy foot-work, boxing against an opponent, wrestling and what the Chinese call “gymnastics with tools.” The latter refers to fencing with lances or swords.

When the subject of Japanese jiu jitsu was raised during the interview, General Chang waved a deprecating hand.

“They borrowed it from us,” he said.

Monks Developed Sport

Emperor Hunag-Ti is credited with introducing the sport of shadow-boxing to build a strong army. Buddhist and Taoist monks, eager to find a means of defending themselves against bandits, developed the sport until there are a number of schools based on different kinds of dodges, parries, thrusts and body gyrations.

Orthodox practitioners argue that by learning the use of your “inner strength” you can hurt a man without touching him.

The shadow-boxing phase consists of calisthenics in which a person goes through all sorts of twisting, turning and dodging against an imaginary opponent. This is actually a training process, corresponding to Western style training camp sparring and roadwork. But it has become a sport in itself.

A member of the Boxing Association did some shadowboxing this morning to illustrate the fine points of the sport. He cavorted like a Martha Graham dancer, slapping the ground and leaping about the place like a man trying to get a demon out of his system. His footwork and grace were delightful. But he wouldn’t go in Madison Square Garden.

November 2nd, 1947. New York Times (New York City).



If you enjoyed this you might also want to read: Historical Fact vs. Social Discourse in the World of China’s 19th Century Martial Artists


Ng Chung So – Looking Beyond the “Three Heroes of Wing Chun”

Gates of the Foshan Ancestral Temple. Photo Credit: Whitney Clayton. Source: Authors Personal Collection.
Gates of the Foshan Ancestral Temple. Photo Credit: Whitney Clayton. Source: Authors Personal Collection.

Note: this article originally appeared as a guest post at “Wing Chun Geeks.”

Ng Chung So: Looking Beyond the “Three Heroes of Wing Chun”

The origins of Wing Chun are shrouded in mystery.  We seem to like it that way.  It is the reason that people are drawn to them.  Who can resist the urge to throw back the curtains and reveal a hidden past?  The impulse to plumb the depths of history is all the greater when our current discourse privileges questions of “authenticity,” “lineage” and “tradition.”  For many modern practitioners Wing Chun is an extraordinary treasure, so it just makes sense to assume that it must have emerged from an equally extraordinary set of circumstances.  We try hard to attach it to mythic temples, poorly understood rebel movements and operatic culture chung so

Paradoxically this same enthusiasm does not extend to the more recent periods of history.  In the late 19th century Wing Chun was an obscure local style practiced by a handful of individuals.  By the 1930s it had become a more popular regional style taught in a variety of settings, including public schools and private clubs, by a number of individuals along the Pearl River Delta.

Who were these teachers and how did Wing Chun really emerge as a public art?  What was the martial arts marketplace of Foshan actually like in the 1920s and 1930s and what role did Wing Chun play in this unique local subculture?  How can researching the modern history of the Chinese martial arts help us to better understand the development of “civil society” in southern China during the early 20th century?  In my humble opinion, these are actually the much more interesting historical questions.

While one loses the opportunity to discuss the various creation myths, and the supporting theories that have grown up around them, we gain access to some actual historical sources.  This information allows us to paint an accurate picture of the milieu that modern Wing Chun arose from.  That in turn may reveal something about the fundamental nature of the art that so many of us practice today.

It is also critical to remember that what Ip Man was doing in Hong Kong in the 1950s was in large part a response to the perceived successes and failures of what he had seen in Foshan during the 1920s and 1930s.  If you wish to understand contemporary Wing Chun the most important thing to study is not its ultimate origins, but rather the modern historical environment that these approaches emerged out of and reacted against.

When thinking of Wing Chun during the 1910s, 1920s and 1930s, one name stands out from the rest.  Ng Chung So was probably the single most influential public figure in Wing Chun from the time of Chan Wah Shun’s retirement until the advent of Ip Man’s public teaching career in Hong Kong.  For much of the 1910s and 1920s Ng Chung So was the only figure actively teaching in Foshan.

Shrine to Guanyin at the Foshan Ancestral Temple. Source: Wikimedia.
Shrine to Guanyin at the Foshan Ancestral Temple. Source: Wikimedia.

  More than that, he was very much the public face of the art.  Ng Chung So trained an entire generation of Sifus who would go on to advance the art in the 1930s.  He provided a central location where Ip Man, Yuen Kay San and Yiu Choi (later styled the “Three Heroes of Wing Chun” by local newspaper writers) could meet, relax and practice with other students whom Ng had trained.

The social disruption that befell Guangdong’s martial arts community with the Japanese invasion in 1938, the Communist take-over in 1949 and the Cultural Revolution in the late 1960s left Ng without a large lineage of direct students.  Most Wing Chun practitioners today look back to either Ip Man or Yuen Kay San as the founders of their school.  As a result, Ng Chung So is rarely remembered in historical discussions.  When he does come up he is often relegated to the status of a supporting character of no particular interest.  Not only is this inaccurate, it diminishes the history of the style in some fundamental ways.

In subsequent posts I hope to shed light on some of the other neglected Wing Chun figures of the 1920s and 1930s.  Yet before that we must set the stage by discussing the life and career of Ng Chung So.  We will also need to know a little bit about where he (and the early Wing Chun students) fit into Foshan’s larger marketplace for hand combat instruction.


Foshan’s Martial Arts during the 1920s

Foshan had been one of the richest and most commercially successful towns in all of China early in the 19th century.  It was blessed by a confluence of geographic factors.  It was situated on multiple branches of the Pearl River making it a natural point for manufacturing and shipping.  The town had vibrant markets in a number of products and produced most of the handicraft goods consumed by the larger city of Guangzhou.  Close proximity to iron deposits also made Foshan a center for metal work.  In fact, it held the imperial iron monopoly, ensuring that merchants from across the region would have to travel to Foshan multiple times a year to buy its products.  The local economy also benefited from a number of other industries including sericulture, pottery and papermaking.

Unfortunately things changed later in the 19th and early 20th century.  Multiple local waterways silted up making the region less convenient for trade.  The opening of new port cities along the eastern coast of China resulted in Guangzhou losing its monopoly on foreign trade.  This depressed economic growth in the provincial capital and hurt employment across the region.

Increased trade with Hong Kong helped to sustain the region, but by the 1920s Foshan was a sleepier place.  The economy was still dominated by handicrafts and what we might now call “light industrial manufacturing.”  In the countryside complex systems of agricultural landownership contributed to the growth of a wealthy class of landlords.  As a result, Foshan’s contained both prosperous “new gentry” families, who tended to be merchants, as well as a variety of semi-skilled workers who lived substantially different lives.

This emerging pattern of class stratification was replicated in the martial arts of the region.  The most popular martial art practiced in Foshan was Choy Li Fut.  The Hung Sing Association was one of the oldest and best established Choy Li Fut schools in the region.  Its many branches and Lion Dance associations boasted thousands of members.  Most of the students of this style came from the large class of semi-skilled workers that drove the local economy.  The Hung Sing Association was big enough that it even became an important force in local politics, until it was suppressed in the anti-leftist campaigns of the Nationalist Party in 1927.

The next largest institutionalized player in the local martial arts landscape was the Foshan branch of the Jingwu (Pure Martial) Association.  While the arts it taught were transplanted from northern China, the Jingwu Association really took root and bore fruit in the south.  This organization fell apart in most areas of the country after a series of bad investments in the 1920s, yet it continued to thrive and grow in Foshan and Guangzhou throughout the 1930s.

Unlike the Hung Sing Association, Jingwu concentrated on recruiting educated, middle class individuals who had a modern outlook on life.  It presented a modernized and sanitized vision of the traditional arts where old superstitions were done away with and the latest scientific training methods were adopted to promote the strength and salvation of the nation.  The Jingwu Association was very well connected to the local merchants and the commercial sector, but it tried to stay out of national politics.

These were the two big players that dominated the local landscape in Foshan during the 1920s.  Where they had thousands of students, other styles and associations claimed hundreds, or perhaps only dozens, of followers.  Smaller local players tended to include the more “traditional” southern arts such as White Crane, Hung Gar, the family styles and of course Wing Chun.

This is a critical point.  When thinking about the entire marketplace of martial arts in Foshan during the 1920s, we must remember that Wing Chun was just a minor style among many other (usually much larger) associations.  The challenge facing Ng Chung So, Chan Yiu Min and other early practitioners of the art was to carve out a social space in which Wing Chun could thrive. To do so they had to both demonstrate the art, but also make alliances with economically and politically connected actors in the local environment.

The Legacy of Chan Wah Shun

Chan Wah Shun, a student of Leung Jan, was the first individual to attempt to open a public school (“public” in the sense that instruction was open to students primarily based on their ability to pay tuition).  His experiment was only a partial success.  He had the misfortune to find himself teaching at the turn of the century and in the years directly following the upheaval caused by the Boxer Uprising.  These were dark times for the traditional Chinese martial arts, which were explicitly blamed and held accountable for the disastrous events of 1900-1901.  The truth is that the traditional hand combat systems came closer to extinction in these years than at any other time during the modern era.

Needless to say, the audience for Chan Wah Shun’s art was not as large as it might have been had he opened his school a generation earlier or even as late as the 1920s, when boxing started to regain its popularity.  His high tuition rates probably did not help matters.

Still, it is important to note that in the late 19th century most people who studied the martial arts did so because they hoped to find employment as a soldier, night watchman or some type of guard.  People from rural regions tended to study boxing either as a means of personal advancement, or because they were involved in a local militia or crop watching society.  The idea that the martial arts could be a part-time hobby for middle class individuals was just barely starting to take root in the early years of the 20th century.

While Chan Wah Shun’s tuition seems outrageous from a modern perspective, it was really more comparable to paying for an associates degree or some sort of accreditation program that would help you to get a job in the future.  Between the general funk that all of the martial arts were experiencing at the turn of the century, and the high cost of instruction, it is not surprising that Chan Wah Shun is said to have only had about 16 students.  While he succeeded in making the art “public” (to those who could afford it) Wing Chun had yet to gain the backing of an independent and thriving body of students.

Chan Wah Shun did more for Wing Chun than to simply train a small core of apprentices.  He went out into the community and interacted with other martial artists.  Over the years he gained a reputation as a talented fighter and a competent master.  He personally earned respect for the Wing Chun system in the local area.  The reputation that he built turned out to be important because it helped to advance the careers of a number of his students.  Other Wing Chun players from his generation, such as Leung Bik, tended to be more circumspect and were not as eager to put themselves out in the marketplace as public figures.  In commercial terms this probably granted a certain advantage to Chan Wah Shun’s students.

Chan Wah Shun’s most successful student, and the one that assumed this public role, was Ng Chung So.  Chan Yiu Min, the son of Chan Wah Shun, inherited his father’s medical knowledge and went on to open at least two martial arts schools of his own.  He is an important figure in his own right, but an exploration of his career will have to wait for another post.  Ng Chung So was really the first of Chan’s students to emerge as a successful public teacher.  He became the public face of Wing Chun in Foshan in the nineteen-teens and twenties.

Ironically much of Ng Chung So’s basic biographical data is poorly understood.  The Ip family generally states that he was born sometime in the 1860s and died in the 1930s.  An alternate tradition preserved by Yiu Choi’s descendants claim that he was not quite that old.  They guess that he was born in the 1880s and may have lived up through the 1950s.  If Ng Chung So did die during the 1950s then it should be possible to sort this out with the help of local documents and other primary source materials.  I am not aware of anyone having tackled this question yet.

Fortunately we do have some good details about other aspects of his early life.  Ng Chung So was born into a fairly well off family that was connected to Foshan’s handicraft industries.  His father was the owner of a prosperous ceramics shop.  Rich deposits of local clay made Foshan a natural center for the ceramics industry.  In fact, pottery is still produced in some quantity in the region today.  As a young adult Ng Chung Sok would start his career in the same industry.

His father was on friendly terms with Chan Wah Shun (who at the time was likely practicing traditional medicine).  When Chan Wah Shun started to teach, he immediately enrolled his two sons Ng Siu Lo (the older brother, and Chan’s first disciple) and Ng Chung So (the second son, and Chan’s second disciple).  Multiple sources indicate that in the earliest phase of his career Chan actually taught the boys in their own home.

This practice was not all that uncommon.  Occasionally wealthy individuals might hire boxing instructors for their sons either as a source of exercise if they seemed sickly, as a form of diversion, or to prepare them to take the military service exam as an adult.  Home-schooling such students was a common practice for a number of reasons.  There were not all that many suitable commercial or public spaces in southern China, especially if one lived in an urban area.  Occasionally temples were rented by martial artists, but for wealthier individuals it was more common to either support an instructor as part of their household, or to at least have the instruction carried out within their own walls.wing chun in foshan

According to the Ip family tradition, Chan Wah Shun was unable to publically teach while Leung Jan was still active in the area.  The older master had no desire to teach and so his student was constrained by social convention not to.  Leung Jan may have retired around 1895.  All martial arts instruction in the region was disrupted by the Boxer Uprising (1900), and was specifically prohibited by the local government for a few years after that.  Local officials in Guangzhou feared that copy-cat attacks on British merchants and tourists would be used as a pretext for the British Navy in Hong Kong to seize the entire Pear River system, so they enforced this ban quite rigorously.

It seems reasonable to guess that Ng Chung So received his initial period of instruction between 1895 and 1900.  Of course these dates are just approximations, and are very dependent on which family history you accept.  They should be approached with some caution.

By about 1905 a sense of normalcy was restored and multiple martial arts institutions (including the Hung Sing Association) reopened their doors in and around Foshan.  It was at this point that Chan Wah Shun approached Ip Oi Dor about renting the Ip clan temple for use as a school space.  This was where Ip Man would first become aware of Wing Chun and would later become a student of Chan Wah Shun himself.

It seems that both of the Ng brothers resumed training with Chan Wah Shun after he reestablished his school in its new location.  Nevertheless, it would appear that it was the second son who was either the more dedicated or successful student.  As his teacher’s health began to deteriorate towards the end of the Foshan phase of his career, Ng Chung So handled more of the class instruction.  He was responsible for teaching the younger disciples, including Ip Man, much of the system.  When he finally retired (apparently after having had a stroke) Chan Wah Shun entrusted the continuing education and care of his youngest disciples to Ng Chung So.  At that moment the informal leadership of the public aspect of Wing Chun in Foshan passed into his hands.


Ng Chung So: The Forgotten Face of Wing Chun

It is commonly asserted that Ng Chung So was the only individual (or possibly one of a very small number) to teach Wing Chun in Foshan for some years after the death of Chan Wah Shun.  It appears that Ip Man continued to study with him until 1908 when he left to attend high school in Hong Kong.  Ip Chun reports that upon his return Ip Man discovered that Ng Chung So was one of the few disciples of Chan who was still active and the only one who was publically teaching.

We do not know very much about this early period of instruction.  Ng Chung So apparently followed the family business and had a ceramics store of his own as a young man.  Perhaps that gave him the monetary and spatial resources he needed to finance his interest in Wing Chun and continue to teach the art?

We have more information about the later phase of his teaching career in the 1930s.  Unfortunately it can be difficult to parse fact from rumor when discussing these years.  Leung Ting claims that from about the mid-1930s onward Ng Chung So taught out of the backroom of an opium and gambling den located on Shi Lu Tau Street (“Entrance to the Rocky Road”) in Foshan.

This establishment may either have been a joint venture between Ng Chung So and Yiu Choi (his student), or it might have actually been owned by the latter’s elder brother, Yiu Lam (also known as “Bird-fancier Lam”).  Again, one must be careful with accounts like this.  The liberal use of opium fits into many romantic reconstructions of life in China during the 1920s and 1930s.

Of course by the middle to late 1930s morphine and heroine were causing much more serious drug problems.  Leung Ting dismisses the social relevance of the rumor that he himself passes on by noting that in the 1930s opium use was legal, and so this was not a big deal.

Of course the situation, if true, would be much more complicated than that.  Opium was legal in some respects, but only if it came from certain sources and its distribution, use and the treatment of addicts were all nominally controlled by the state.  The Nationalist Party leadership made deals with certain gangs granting them the right to distribute certain quantities of narcotics in return for set fees.  Of course it was not uncommon for various criminal organizations and the state to violently clash over these agreements.  The questions of legality notwithstanding, there were strong social prohibitions against the use of opium.  Anti-opium leagues were vocal in the south, and the Nationalist army in Guangzhou had even executed a number of soldiers for opium use.

The social significance of drug use, or an association with the drug trade, was very much dependent on what sort of patronage networks you happened to be part of.  At the very minimum, if Ng Chung So was operating out of a known opium den in the 1930s it might indicate that he was connected to important local political factions who benefited from this trade.  In fact, the Wing Chun community of the 1930s and 1940s had a number of connections with local Nationalist Party (GMD) officials, but that is a topic for another post.

Despite his surroundings, or perhaps because of them, Ng Chung So was successful in attracting a number of students.  Following the pattern established by Chan Wah Shun tuition was high and most of his followers came from well-off merchant families. Among his best known students we find He Zhao Chu (the son of a wealthy bakery owner), Li Shou Peng (a prominent local doctor), Zhang Sheng Ruo (son of a wealthy wing chun historyhardware store owner), Li Ci Hao, Luo Huo Fu (owner of a successful restaurant) and Liang Fu Chu (treasurer of the Ping Xin Restaurant).  Additionally, the so called “Three Heroes of Wing Chun,” Yuen Kay San, Yiu Choi and Ip Man, all either associated with, or studied at, Ng Chung So’s school.

It is now possible to say something about the socio-economic profile of Wing Chun and its place in Foshan’s martial arts community.  Ng Chung So was in direct competition with the Jingwoo Association for young, modern, educated students.  However, where Jingwu promised modernized, scientifically reformed, boxing subordinated to the goal of “national salvation,” Wing Chun remained a firmly traditional and local style.  It existed alongside local power structures and its goals were parochial rather than national in scope.  In fact, this tension between localism and nationalism, or regional versus national control, was one of the defining social cleavages of the entire Republic of China era.  Foshan’s martial arts history is interesting precisely because it throws these larger struggles into such sharp relief.

Like Ip Man, Ng Chung So also suffered financial setbacks in the 1930.  Local lore related by multiple sources indicates that Ng was not an effective money manager.  Reportedly he squandered his fortune feasting and drinking with his friends and Kung Fu brothers.

Again, it is hard to know exactly what to make of these accounts.   Chinese folklore is full of stories of wandering swordsmen who disregard wealth but value loyalty and hospitality above any other virtue.  This creates a two-fold problem.  Actual martial artists apparently felt some pressure to live up to the norms of the “Rivers and Lakes.”  In some cases this may have contributed to their eventual impoverishment.

Still, almost all of these accounts come from the students and friends of a given master after they have passed on.  The stories that these students tell are always so similar in their basic structure that one suspects that these norms may have also been affecting how a teacher was remembered, quite apart from his actual personality.  In short, the image of the spendthrift swordsman is a common stereotype in martial arts hagiography.

Of course there are also a number of other reasons that a formerly wealthy individual might lose a lot of money during the 1930s.  The great depression affected China as well as the rest of the world, and many previously promising investments failed.  The local economy was stagnant during much of this period, and the government instituted a variety of extraordinary tax programs to pay for it its military expenditures.  At least some of these taxes more or less took the form of wealth confiscation.   In this sort of economic environment, hunkering down and consuming your capital rather than investing it is not an irrational strategy.  We should at least remember these background factors when considering Ng Chung So’s financial difficulties.

Money problems aside, Ng’s efforts to promote and strengthen Wing Chun were a success.  During the 1920s and 1930s he personally trained many of the Wing Chun Sifu’s that would go on to prominence in the local community.  These same students were also able to provide some level of financial support to their teacher as his economic situation deteriorated.  Ng retired from public instruction sometime in the 1940s (possibly during the Second World War) and moved in with Yiu Choi who continued to support him as a “private tutor.”


Conclusion: Ng Chung So’s Place in the Wing Chun Community

As the popularity of Wing Chun has exploded, both after Bruce Lee’s death and the latest spate of Ip Man movies, there have been numerous attempts to paint one individual or another as the “leader” of Foshan’s Wing Chun clan, and the true “inheritor” of the system.  Many of these arguments are transparently political, placing one lineage against another, and more recently, martial artists on the mainland against those in Hong Kong.  Unfortunately most of these accounts promote a partial or unrealistic vision of the martial arts in Foshan.  That is a problem, because Foshan actually has much to teach us about how the Southern Chinese martial arts developed and interacted with the broader social community.

In actual practice, Wing Chun does not appear to have had specific “inheritors” and “leaders.” Yet if it did, the “leader” of the Wing Chun clan during these years would have been Ng Chung So.  While Ip Man, Yuen Kay San and Yiu Choi are remembered as the “Three Heroes of Wing Chun” for their remarkable fighting prowess, it was actually Ng Chung So who built the schools, trained the students and kept the public face of the art alive.

This is critical because at the end of the day the martial arts are a voluntary social systems. They require regular investments of both human and social capital if they are to thrive.  Ng Chung So appears to have understood this, and so he continued the work that Chan Wah Shun had started.

Unfortunately the social structures that underpinned the entire martial arts community of Foshan were badly damaged by the events of 1949 and later the Cultural Revolution.  Ng Chung So’s students seem to have been hard hit.  By in large, they did not return to the art.  His memory does not enjoy the active support and promotion of any major lineage today.

Further, each lineage has a very understandable tendency to rewriting history in its own image.  As a result the real contributions of Ng Chung So to the Wing Chun community are largely forgotten.  He is rarely mentioned in current discussions and when he comes up he tends to be cast as a strictly supporting or subordinate figure.  Yet that is not how he was perceived at the time.  Coming to terms with Ng Chung So’s contributions and legacy is a necessary first step in exploring other forgotten aspects of the Wing Chun community during the 1920s-1940s.

foshan temple
Turtles swimming in the rain at the Foshan Ancestral Temple. Turtles are symbolically associated with the Northern Warrior (the titular diety of the sanctuary) who is often shown as a snake wrapped around a turtle. Photo Credit: Whitney Clayton. Source: Authors Personal Collection.

The 19th Century Hudiedao (Butterfly Sword) on Land and Sea


Image taken from a vintage french postcard showing soldiers gambling in Yunnan province. Note that the standing soldier on the left is holding a hudiedao in a reverse grip. Source: Author's personal collection.
Image taken from a vintage french postcard showing soldiers gambling in Yunnan province. Note that the standing soldier on the left is holding a hudiedao in a reverse grip. Source: Author’s personal collection.


Understanding the actual history and use of hudiedao (or Butterfly Swords) reflects the challenges faced by students of martial studies more generally. These short paired swords, with their distinctive D-shaped hand guards, are one of the most commonly seen weapons in the southern Chinese martial arts. Wing Chun, Choy Li Fut, Hung Gar, White Crane and numerous other styles all train with these distinctive blades.

In fact, these weapons have become emblematic of southern Chinese martial arts. They have been featured in countless movies, television programs, instructional DVDs and public demonstrations. They have been popularized to the point that they are currently making routine appearances in children’s cartoons.

I doubt that it would even be possible to count the number of Wing Chun schools that employ the hudiedao (or Baat Jam Dao, meaning “eight cutting swords”) in their school logos and regalia. These knives function as a symbol of legitimacy on multiple levels. In post-WWII Wing Chun practice and folklore the knives have been reserved for only the “best” and “most dedicated” students. Demonstrating proficiency in their use indicates a mastery of the systems as a whole. At the same time they are undeniably exotic. There is nothing in the traditional western arsenal quite like them. Indeed, they have a number of unique features, and a somewhat shadowy history, even within their original Chinese environment.

Butterfly Swords have benefited immensely from the successive waves of popular interest that followed events such as the rise of Bruce Lee or the various Ip Man movies. This once obscure weapon now has its own pop-culture following. This in turn has led to the rise of all sorts of stories and myths concerning the origins of these blades.

Some seek to tie them to the Shaolin Temple, and claim that the swords were employed by the monks for protection on the road. Of course the actual historic accounts of the monks of Henan province never mention anything like butterfly swords. Other stories focus on the connections between the hudiedao and secret societies. Occasionally they are called “River Pirate Swords” by western weapons collectors. There is some evidence that both land and sea based bandits did employ these blades in southern China, though they had no special claim on the weapon.

It seems that this weapon’s recent popularity has led to a profusion of legends that have obscured and overwritten its more mundane origins. These swords seem to have existed in a fairly stable and recognizable form in southern China since at least the start of the 19th century, and possibly before. In fact, some of the earliest western descriptions of Chinese weapons in the Pearl River Delta region provide us with detailed accounts of these blades including their appearance and use.

Chinese language historical and military records have very little to say on the topic of Butterfly Swords. These weapons were never adopted by either the Banner or Green Standard armies. This is precisely what makes the early western accounts so interesting. They stopped to comment on things that were, at the time, either too basic or utterly uninteresting to warrant mention by most educated Chinese individuals.

Hudiedao appear to have started off as one regional variation of the numerous double sword traditions that had been popular in the Chinese martial arts going back as far as the Ming Dynasty. While different sorts of double sword traditions are seen throughout the country, the blades used normally resemble typical jians or daos. The shorter blades and D-shaped guards seen on southern hudiedao may be a result of contact with Europeans, though this point is still open to debate. Guangdong was more tightly tied into the global trade system than other areas of China in the 18th and 19th centuries and it is hard to ignore the passing resemblance between these weapons and western military hangers and cutlasses.

Far from being the weapon of only the “most elite” warriors, the hudiedao appears to have been popularized and adopted by a large number of 19th century martial artists precisely because it was relatively easy to master and adaptable to a large number of styles. In other posts we have already reviewed how the hudiedao was adopted as a standard sidearm of Guangdong’s provincial militia in the volatile mid 19th century because they could be mass produced and taught to new recruits who probably had some sort of background in village boxing.

During the 1840s government trainers provided daily drilling to literally thousands of militia members on the use of the hudiedao in and around Guangzhou. I suspect that this, more than anything else, might help to explain the subsequent popularity of the weapon with local martial artists. After all, individuals like Leung Jan and Chan Wah Shun were a product of this environment.  Should we be surprised that the two most commonly taught weapons in Wing Chun (the hudiedao and long pole) were also among the most commonly issued militia arms?

Of course double swords are also visually impressive weapons and they have always been a favorite of opera singers. Some of our best early pictures of their use show them in the hands of local performers.

The recent resurgence of interest in the hudiedao has been something of a mixed blessing. On the one hand these swords have become a powerful symbol of what is unique and interesting about the southern Chinese martial arts. Yet their original shape, history and capabilities are not well understood. The following post attempts to build on our previous discussions by introducing four new period observations of these weapons.

Two of these are early accounts (from the 1830s-1840s) in which western observers describe both the physical appearance of these unique weapons and the social environment that surrounds them. One account focuses on land forces while then other provides a much rarer look at the place of the hudiedao on merchant vessels.

The other two witnesses are both late 19th/early 20th century photographs. In both cases these images were published on postcards and have been previously overlooked by students of Chinese martial history. These photos are particularly important because they allow us to match specific examples of these weapons to a known time and place. As important as antique weapons are, they usually come to use as decontextualized artifacts with no known history. Collectors are then left to guess at their age and purpose. Obviously this makes it difficult to reconstruct the social history of these weapons.

Butterfly Swords in Sketches of China by W. W. Wood (1830)


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

When analyzing period documents it is necessary to start by asking a few questions about the background and general reliability of the author. William Wightman Wood (1804-?) is best remembered today as a poet and for the introduction of photography into the Philippines where he worked as a manager of a coffee and sugar plantation.

As a young adult he spent a few years living in Hong Kong and Macao in the 1820s and 1830s. While there he started the Canton Register  in 1827. This was the first English language newspaper in China and it was made possible through the generous support of James and Alexander Matheson of the notorious Jardine, Matheson & Co. In addition to reporting the news Wood published editorials that bitterly attacked the British East India Company’s monopoly on China trade. He also vocally criticized the concessions that foreign traders were forced to make under the “Canton Trade System.” The paper ran only briefly before the East India Company forced Wood out. He later returned to the region and tried his hand at trade with little success. In 1831 he started a second newspaper, but that project also failed.

While he did have extensive “on the ground experience” Wood was notably less sympathetic in his views of the Chinese life and society than some of the other authors I have discussed on the blog. At the same time even his critics conceded that he was a talented writer and artist, and he certainly had an eye for the habits of daily life.

When looking at the specific quote above its interesting to note how Wood situates the hudiedao (always referred to in period sources as “double swords”) within his overall discussion of Chinese arms. He spends more time discussing them any other single weapon. He also introduces both the hudiedao and the bar-maces (sometimes called “iron rulers”) after observing the particularly “cruel” nature of some Chinese weapons. In the case of the butterfly swords he notes that one of the goals of these weapons is to “hamstring” one’s enemies.

This last point is particularly interesting. One would be tempted to simply dismiss it as a western exaggeration except that the guidebook to Nathan Dunn’s extensive collection of Chinese artifacts, displayed in Philadelphia in 1838 (10,000 Chinese Things by Enoch Cobb Vines), makes exactly the same claim. Dunn was an extremely sympathetic observer and a careful collector. He spent years cultivating relationships throughout local society and his Chinese agents brought him a wide assortment of artifacts and descriptions of their use.

I have previously wondered if this association of butterfly swords might not be a remembrance of their use in “hamstringing” as a judicial punishment by the Canton yamen. Some sources indicate that this punishment was used on those who attempted to escape prison or exile before being banned by Chinese legal reformers. However the appearance of this same story in a second source now has me wondering if perhaps the association between this weapon and maiming one’s opponent was not more widespread in 19th century popular culture.

More interesting still is the description of the weapons provided by Wood. Many of the surviving hudiedao and early photographs from the mid 19th century have surprisingly long blades.  Other examples from that period seem more designed as thrusting weapons. However the swords that Wood observed in the 1830s were much shorter, in his opinion no longer than daggers. I had previously assumed that the hudiedao shrank in size late in the 19th century, though this account seems to suggest that there were always shorter weapons in circulation. Or perhaps the length and heft of these blades was actually increased during the tumultuous 1840s and 1850s?

Readers should note that Wood mentions the surprising thickness and weight of the hudiedao blades. Apparently this, and their triangular flat ground profile, are characteristics that have remained stable over time. Lastly his observations about the quality of weapons made during the 19th century (poor fit and finish, but with the nicer swords being notably better) aligns with the description of other early collectors.


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.

Hudiedao and other Arms on Merchant Vessels

BOAT MAKING AND SAILING.—A large smuggling-boat constructed at Hong Kong, employed forty carpenters for one month and cost with rigging 1600 dollars. These boats do not last more than three or four years without repairing; their dimensions are about: –

Length…………………..70 cubits
Breadth amidship……….13 “
Depth of hold……………5 “
Height of the main mast…50 “
Do. Mizzen do…………35 “
Drawing water…………..3 ½ “

This boat would only be second class; the first class would be seventy-eight cubits long; a cubit is fifteen inches English. When fully manned, the crew are as follows: first and second captains, sixty rowers, and ten sailors to steer and shift sails. The crews are residents or natives of Whampoa; and if married, their wives are not allowed with them, lest their presence would damp their courage in danger. One of these fast boats will carry 350 chests of opium, or 400 of Congo tea. The profit from each voyage are arranged thus. Provisions, six dollars per day, or 180 Dollars per month; the proprietor then takes half, and the remainder is divided among the crew; the first captain takes 100 percent., the second captain fifty percent about all others on board. With a calm sea and a fair tide the boat can go six miles an hour without using sails, with a good breeze ten or twelve miles at the same time.

At night the “watch” consists of six men relieved every hour. Time is calculated by burning a joss stick (if they have no watch), with four marks at equal distances. A “watch” extends from one mark to another, and is lighted at eight o’clock, so they burn two during the night. The last “watch” ends at four o’clock A.M.

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.

The crew seldom goes on shore. The captain has no power to strike any of the crew nor put a man in irons, but by common consent the disturbers are put ashore; no articles of agreement are entered into; the captain selects his men, and generally advances them a dollar or two. There is no medicine on board; no one is permitted to smoke opium, unless the boat is anchored in a safe place…..

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

Robert Montgomery Martin (1801 – 1868) lived a life of adventure and exploration of the sort that was really only possible in the 19th century. Born into a protestant family in Dublin, as a young man Robert was involved with voyages of exploration to Africa, the Indian Ocean and Asia. Later in life he became deeply involved in “the colonial question” and proved to be a prolific writer. In 1844 Martin was named the treasurer of the newly created colony of Hong Kong. However after falling ill and quarrelling with the governor he left the post in 1845 and thereafter turned to literature. Needless to say his extensive travels provided him with a seemingly unending supply of subject material.

While well-traveled Martin was certainly not an “old China hand.” He only spent a brief period of time in Hong Kong, though he did get to see the colony at a critical point in its development (he famously predicted that it would fail). Still, he had spent a sizable percentage of his life on various sorts of merchant and naval vessels. That probably explains the detailed interest that he took in the outfitting of a typical south China merchant/smuggling ship.

Obviously the important revelation in this quote is that by the 1840s hudiedaos had become a standard part of any ocean going vessel’s armaments. The ship described by Martin above carried a total crew of 72 individuals (including officers). In an engagement up to 20 of those people (more than ¼ of the crew) might be armed with Hudiedao. One would guess that most of the other would carry pikes or man the various guns.

While reviewing the 19th century literature I have certainly come across other references to sailors carrying hudiedao in the waters off Southern China. Yet this in the only inventory of a merchant ship’s armory that I have ever seen.

For years the received wisdom was that the hudiedao was a product of the late 19th century explosion of interest in the martial arts. It was seen as an eccentric, non-practical, weapon of martial arts masters caught up in their own warrior dreams.

These quotes, along with those presented here help to paint a different picture. The hudiedao was in fact one of the most commonly issued and encountered weapons in southern China. The government purchased them in large numbers and issued them to the gentry led militia forces of the mid 19th century. At the same time they were adopted in mass by a wide variety of civilians, ranging from private guards and opera singers to sailors and merchant marines.


Early 20th Century Images of Butterfly Swords

I would now like to briefly turn my attention to the two images which illustrate this post. The first of these shows a group of “soldiers” and civilians apparently engaged in gambling in Yunnan province in the early 20th century, prior to the 1911 revolution. Two of the individuals in the center of this frame are armed. The soldier of the right has some sort of ring handled sword (possibly a dadao like weapon) slung across his back. Unfortunately we can’t see its blade.

We are more fortunate with the individuals on the left. He is holding a single hudiedao in a reverse grip. One can just make out the shape of the D-shaped hand guard at the bottom of the handle. By my own rough estimate the blade of this weapon is probably about 10 inches (or about 15 cm) long. It also appears to widen about three-quarters of the way towards the point, giving it a flare similar to that seen on many ox-tailed daos (a weapon popular with civilian martial artists and marketplace performers). Given the resolution of the original photograph it is hard to make a definitive statement, but I would hazard a guess that this knife had a steel hand guard.

The second image presented in this post continues with the nautical theme introduced by Martin. It is taken from a vintage postcard in my own collection showing the arms room of a vessel called the Wang-Ho. I intend to take a much closer look at the strange story of the Wang-Ho and its sister ships in a future essay. However, for our present purposes it is enough to point out that the above image does not show an authentic mid 19th century armory.

Instead this vessel was bought in the opening years of the 20th century, refitted in Shanghai and sent to California (by way of Japan) to be a tourist attraction. The ship hosted visitors, featured a crew of “authentic” Chinese sailors, fought mock battles against pirates and introduced many people to a certain vision of Chinese martial culture and the martial arts. Of course the ship also featured a gift shop (where this postcard was purchased) which was actually located in the armory pictured above.

I think that we can safely assume that all of the arms in this photograph were either produced in Shanghai at the turn of the century or bought in its secondhand markets. There seems to be some variety in the polearms, but all of the hudiedao look remarkably similar. Given that they are nearly identical to one another I would assume all of these swords were made in a single batch.

While these swords have a more pronounced hatchet point than most modern martial arts weapons, their general blade shape is familiar. Compared to the swords of the mid 19th century these are very short and wide. While still capable of a thrust they have blades that would be effective chopping weapons. The D-guards are thick and highly reflective, leading me to suspect that they are brass. Also interesting is the fact that the quillions on these swords is rather short and clearly intended to protect the wielder’s wrist rather than to catch an opponent’s blade. This photograph indicates that the hudiedao that have dominated the modern imagination are a direct descendant of blades made in the early years of the 20th century. The swords that may have been used when these systems were first coming together in the 1840s-1850s were likely somewhat different.

A detail of the armory in the Whang-Ho showing the butterfly sword collection. Source: Author's personal collection.
A detail of the armory in the Whang-Ho showing the butterfly sword collection. Source: Author’s personal collection.


Conclusion: What have we learned about 19th Century Butterfly Swords?

One of the ways of judging the maturity of a research program is by looking at how it responds to the addition of new observation. If our understanding of some theory changes radically every time a new piece of information is added, that is a pretty good sign that we are still building an elementary level of understanding. If, on the other hand, most newly discovered observations fit the general pattern that we have come to expect, that indicates that our theories about the past are starting to gain some traction.

This post has introduced four new puzzle pieces for individuals attempting to reconstruct the history of the hudiedao and understand how it came to occupy the prominent place that it currently enjoy in the southern Chinese martial arts. The two published accounts originate from the early part of the 19th century (the late 1820s and mid 1840s) while the two photographs capture events in the final years of the Qing dynasty.

In general I think that these accounts fit well with the understanding of the butterfly swords that has grown out of the previous posts on this topic here at 功夫网. The review of a standard ships arms locker certainly reinforces our previous conclusion that by the mid 19th century the Hudiedao had become a standard sidearm for not just martial artists and opera performers but also private guards, militiamen, sailors and law enforcement officers. Further, the weapon was already in widespread use by the 1820s, and possibly earlier.

For me the biggest surprise in these accounts was Wood’s characterization of the early hudiedaos as a dagger sized weapon. It is unfortunate that he never gave us the exact measurements as he did for the bar maces. But this might indicate that during the relatively conflict prone mid 19th century these weapons became longer and heavier as they were expected to see actual battlefield combat.

Finally the butterfly swords of the early 20th century assumed a set of proportions that modern martial artists would be more familiar with. Their blades remained relatively wide and hatchet-pointed, but they shrank in length to 8-10 inches. Of course given the tremendous variety in surviving 19th century examples, we need to be cautious about extrapolating too much from a handful of observations. While this seems to have been a general trend, it would appear that there was always a lot of room for personal preference in the construction of a hudiedao.

As we improve our understanding of these weapons we will simultaneously learn more about the environment that gave rise to martial arts like Wing Chun, Hung Gar, Choy Li Fut and White Crane. This can assist scholars in understanding their place in the development of southern Chinese civil society, and martial artists in assessing their progress as they attempt to understand and master these systems on a more technical level.


If you are interested in understanding historic hudiedao (Butterfly Swords) please also see:

A Social and Visual History of the Hudiedao (Butterfly Sword) in the Southern Chinese Martial Arts.

Butterfly Swords and Boxing: Exploring a Lost Southern Chinese Martial Arts Training Manual.

Through a Lens Darkly (9): Swords, Knives and other Traditional Weapons Encountered by the Shanghai Police Department, 1925.

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

Through a Lens Darkly (7): Selling Swords and Printed Martial Arts Training Manuals in a 19th century Guangzhou Market.

Tools of the Trade: The Use of Firearms and Traditional Weapons among the Tongs of San Francisco, 1877-1878.


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).  Notice the similarity between these swords and the type that were bought for the Whang-Ho in Shanghai.

Research Note: Organizing the Women’s Section of the Jingwu Association, 1920.

Two senior students outside Sage Hall at Yenching University, March 1928. Source:

An Unexpected Find

It is basically a truism to say that the Western public didn’t know very much about the Chinese martial arts in the 1920s.  More interesting is the question of why.  Given the global popularity of Judo and Jiu-Jitsu, Chinese reformers, intellectuals and physical education teachers were more than happy to explain to anyone who would listen that China was “true” home of the East Asian martial arts. And given the popularity of these practices in educational and middle-class circles during the 1910s, some of them could even back up those observations with a bit of a demonstration.  Indeed, the Chinese martial arts were exhibited with some regularity on the campuses of America’s top universities throughout the 1920s and the 1930s.

The real problem was not a lack of information.  It was a lack of cross-cultural desire on the part of the Western public.  Japan’s geopolitical fortunes made its martial culture a pressing issue that could not be ignored.  One might seek to debunk the claims of Kano’s various Judo instructors (as members of the sporting press often did), or you could try to appropriate these new martial technologies for one’s self (a strategy adopted by a growing number of Western students).  Yet it was hard to ignore the Japanese martial arts.  They seemed to demand an answer, just as Japan’s growing political dominance in Asia would eventually force the world’s hand.

The Chinese martial arts were in a very different position.  It is not that people were unaware of “Chinese Boxing” or what it might look like. Chinatown celebrations, sometimes including martial artists, made it into the period’s news-reels.  And the tales from the Boxer Rebellion had dominated the Western imagination a generation earlier.  Nevertheless, if Japan’s martial traditions came to represent a geopolitical riddle that must be solved, China’s fighting arts became synonymous with those aspects of Asia that were better forgotten.  Or, if one was of a more romantic disposition, taken off the shelf for the occasional festival, but certainly not taken too seriously.

Reformers thus faced an uphill battle as they tried to win for China a measure of the respect that Judo and even Kendo had brought to Japan’s physical culture.  Again, not all members of the international community within China ignored the martial arts.  A few even seem to have found them worthy of personal study. But it was reporters for China’s many English language newspapers who seem to have really led the way in trying to convince people to discuss them.  Perhaps they were best positioned to understand that the domestic surge of interest in China’s indigenous fighting systems following the 1911 revolution was not, in fact, backwards looking self-Orintalization.  Instead it represented potent trends within China’s growing national consciousness.

It was precisely the links with modernity and resurgent nationalism which made the Chinese martial arts newsworthy, both for Western reporters and local reformers.  This, in large part, seems to have determined what sorts of stories got published during the Republic era.  While there was certainly the occasional piece documenting local practices, the vast majority of stories followed the fortunes of progressive reform movements, such as General Ma’s New Wushu, the famous Jingwu Association, or the KMT backed Guoshu movement.

One might debate the degree to which these groups were representative of what was really going on within China’s martial arts during the Republic.  When we recount this narrative from a unitary national perspective, these sorts of organizations are practically the only thing that is ever discussed.  And its undeniable that each of them made critical contributions to the shape of the Chinese martial arts as they exist today.

However, as I illustrated in my volume (with Jon Nielson) on the social history of the Southern Chinese martial arts, at the regional and local level, these nationally focused groups often had much less influence than one might expect.  Indeed, the roots of current disconnect between what might be termed China’s official Wushu programs, and its many disparate folk martial arts, can be found in fissures that began to emerge in the 1910s and 1920s.  One only has to consider how even the most optimistic membership estimates for the Jingwu Association simply pale in comparisons to the tens of millions of Red Spear Militia members during the same period to get a glimpse of everything that we typically leave out of “national level” discussions of Chinese martial arts history.

Still, one of the great virtues of the Jingwu, and later the Guoshu, movement was its desire to fight the widely held stigma that martial artists were merely illiterate and uncouth strongmen. If China’s citizens were to be brought into the modern age, their physical culture would have to lead the way. Producing books, newspapers, pamphlets and newsreels not only insulated the newly emerging wushu culture from the scorn of the May 4thintellectuals, it also provided a pool of concepts, practices and images from which one could build a truly national culture on.  These reformers tend to be somewhat overrepresented in our historical studies precisely because they were obsessed with leaving a written historical legacy.

Yet as I read the treaty port newspapers of the 1920s or 1930s, I am struck by how little of our understanding of this period is really a “new discovery.”  It certainly feels new when you first encounter it in the pages of Andrew Morris or Stanley Henning, but that is because we have neglected most aspects of Chinese social history, and not just the bits having to do with the martial arts. A dedicated contemporaneous student, or anyone keeping a scrapbook on “Chinese boxing,” might have been able to construct a remarkably accurate picture of what was going on within these national groups, even if they didn’t speak Chinese.  A remarkable amount of material was being published in English for anyone who wished to follow along.  What is remarkable is that so few readers wanted to try.

All of this was driven home when I came across an article titled “Chinese Girls to go in for Sports” in the February 26thissue of the Canton Times. This relatively short-lived treaty port paper carried some interesting features on the Chinese martial arts, though not to the same degree as something like The China Press.  Still, it was the subject matter of this article that really struck me.

Articles about the Jingwu Association are easily located in English language papers during the 1920s.  Most of these are accounts of public demonstrations, but this piece was different.  It provided a matter-of-fact discussion of the creation of the organization’s women’s group in 1920.

For all of the detail within this piece, one critical name is missing.  That is Chen Shichao.  The sister of the better-known Chen Gongzhe (one of the major organizers and financiers of the Jingwu Association), Chen Shichao did much to advance the cause of China’s female martial artists.  She seems to be largely responsible for Jingwu’s progressive views on gender and the training opportunities that women were afforded within the organization.


A group of female students demonstrating the jian at Fukien Christian University sometime in the 1920s. Source:


Chen Shichao’s achievements were the result of many years of hard work, and they sometimes earned her blistering criticism in the press.  She began teaching women’s classes in 1917. The next year she organized a women’s performance and demonstration team.  In 1920 she would be named the first Director of the Jingwu Women’s Sports Association.

It was the organization of this later group that sparked the article to follow.  However, it does not mention Chen, or any of the other female instructors. Most Jingwu chapters had what we might think of as dual leadership structures.  On the one hand there was a director, board and various officers who were inevitably among the city’s leading citizens and well-connected merchants. These individuals were responsible for raising much of the funding needed to finance buildings, clear bureaucratic obstacles, and to ensure the degree of social and political backing necessary to keep the practice moving.  A second group of officers, generally assigned by the organization’s head-quarters in Shanghai, would then be sent to oversee the actual instruction of the martial arts curriculum, as well as the preparation of newsletters, the organization of cultural events and other sporting endeavors. These individuals were actual employees of the Jingwu Association and drew a salary from the organization. Basically, this was the sort of division between corporate officers and board members that you might see in lots of different areas.

That same division of responsibility is illustrated in this article on the organization of the woman’s group.  The meeting saw the appointment of a President, two vice-presidents, and a seventeen-member board.  These women were very well connected and represented elite levels of Shanghai society.  It is somewhat slow going without the actual characters of their names, but it is possible to identify a number of these women in the historical record and read about their careers and those of their husbands.

Sadly, one of the notable things about this list is how many of these husbands and family members died by assassination during the 1920s and 1930s.  Breaking down everyone’s biography would take us too far away from the Jingwu Association. But even a quick review is enough to remind us of just how perilous life as a political operative was during the Republic of China period.

Still, even though I am hesitant to actually dive into all of this, I bring this list up for a very specific reason. Throughout the 1910s and early 1920s Jingwu claimed to be a non-partisan group whose national aims were, in many ways, above the realm of “mere politics.”  This is often contrasted with the Guoshu movement which was explicitly backed by certain factions within a single political party.  It aimed to indoctrinate its members into loyalty to a specific party and leader, rather than just the nation.

In a sense this is true.  Yet this list also suggests that Jingwu wasn’t actually holding the political world at arms-length. Instead, as you reconstruct the life histories of individuals on this list its possible to get a sense of the sorts of favors that the organization was looking to call in, and the types of political support that it thought it needed.  Again, this is an interesting research project for us now, but one suspects that much of this would have been obvious to newspaper readers in the 1920s.


A photo of female martial artists from the Jingwu Anniversary Book. The woman on the left is Chen Shichao, one of the most vocal campaigners for the equality of female martial artists within Jingwu. She toured China and south east Asia promoting female involvement in the martial arts.


Chinese Girls To Go In For Sports

Shanghai April 20.—Prominent Chinese Women of the city have launched an athletic club to be called the Chin Woo Girls’ Athletic Association which will offer courses in Chinese boxing, fencing, archery, the National Language, hygiene, tennis and basketball.

The Association was organized at a meeting held at the Great Eastern Hotel on Saturday at which time Mrs. Tang Shao-yi, wife of the Chief Southern Peace delegate, was elected President.  Other officers are Mrs. Yao Chuan-pen and Miss Chang Chao-han, vice presidents, and Mesdames Nieh Chi-Kwei, F. C. Tong, Y. D. Shen, C. T. Wang, T. F. Soong, Liao Chung-kai, Ho Shu-hua, Hsu Kwei-lung and Jabin Hsu and the Misses Chang Sian-wen, Chang Shan-soo, Cho Pei-fang, Chai Tsenan, Huang Yuen-shen, Chen Chin, Tong Pei-lan, Sung Guai-yu, Tang executive committee.

The organization will have headquarters at the fires branch of the Chin Woo Athletic Association, Fu Tuk Lee, North Szechuan Road.

“Chinese Girls To Go In For Sports” The Canton Times. April 26th, 1920. Page 3.




If you enjoyed this article you might also want to read: Research Notes: Han Xing Qiao Opens the “Internal Arts” to the West, 1934


Research Note: Kung Fu Diplomacy During the Cultural Revolution

An advertisement for a “revolutionary opera.” Many such shows were staged during the Cultural Revolution.


The History of Practice vs. The History of an Idea

This post continues an occasional series looking at the ways in which the traditional Chinese martial arts were discussed in the PRC’s propaganda and cultural diplomacy efforts from roughly the early 1950s to the early 1980s.  We have previously seen some newsreel footage of important martial artists during the early part of this period, as well as an English Language article on a critical event in the development of modern Wushu which was staged in 1953. This article is a little different in that it jumps ahead and examines a discussion of the TCMA dating to the final years of the Cultural Revolution.  Published in China Reconstructs (the PRC’s premier Cold War era English language propaganda magazine) it is an important (if somewhat difficult to interpret) time capsule.

The complexity of this particular article derives from the fact that when we talk about “martial arts history” we often forget that this topic actually encompasses several subjects.  For instance, we might discuss the origins of a specific embodied technique (the history of practice), or we might instead focus on the development of the organizations or leading personalities in the transmission of this technique (an institutional or social history).  But this does not exhaust the range of possibilities.  We might also ask about the spread and evolution of the ideas, beliefs and ideologies that motivate all of this. This is particularly important when thinking about the global transmissions of the martial arts in the 1970s and 1980s. The image of these practices, and the cross-cultural desires that they stoked, typically preceded the actual transmission of embodied technique.  Within the global marketplace advertisements almost always come before, and shape our understanding of, practice.

While distinct areas of inquiry, it is very difficult to totally sperate the realm of ideas from that of technique.  On the one hand, relatively few people actually practice even the most popular martial arts at any given point in time.  They are always a somewhat restricted, often marginal, embodied experience.  However, ideas propelled by printed publications and visual media can easily saturate popular culture, becoming mass phenomenon.  And yet these ideas can shape the sorts of martial practices that emerge in any given time or place.  While these two different modes of research may require distinct sources and methods, ultimately we need to bring both the history of practice and the history of ideas together to understand the development of any martial arts tradition.

The article that we will be reading (and discussing) below was also published in the pages of China Reconstructs and was intended to affect the image of China, and its martial arts, in the West.  Indeed, it may be useful to begin by thinking of all of the different visions of the martial arts that this article was designed to answer.  Judo was by this time quite popular in the West and was even an Olympic sport. Its success largely defined the global understanding of the martial arts in the 1960s and early 1970s.

But by 1975 new trends were evident.  Karate was increasingly popular, and Bruce Lee’s Kung Fu Fever was in full swing throughout the English-speaking world. The emergence of this popular culture phenomenon encouraged masters of various Chinese martial arts styles (often from Hong Kong, Taiwan or South East Asia) to open schools throughout North America and Europe.

This basically ensured that the martial arts would begin to appear in ideological debates.  In many cases these teachers expatriate claimed to be the true guardians of “authentic” Chinese culture and would use the martial arts to point to the various ways that it was under attack in China itself.  In other cases, instructors who were sympathetic to the PRC would argue that its reforms and support of wushu suggested that it was the true champion of the Chinese nation.

Occasionally these debates became quite heated. But given the growing cultural identification between the martial arts and China within the popular imagination, they were not something that the Chinese government could ignore.  Throughout the 1970s we see repeated attempts to both promote wushu abroad and to shape the popular discussion of the martial arts.  The following article pursues both of these goals as it seeks to convince Western readers that the Communist Party had successfully successfully accomplished China’s modernization effort while also preserving what was best in its culture.

Such an argument is not unique.  Nationalist party policy elites made similar proclamations during the Republic era (1911-1949), and one still hears the same points being made today.  However, this article is a bit different in that it’s vision of the Chinese martial arts was shaped, in large part, by the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976).  While instructors in the West often proclaimed that authentic martial arts in China had been driven to extinction by this event, the article went to lengths to point out that a substantial revival in the popular practice of wushu was already a foot.

Before moving on to the article itself, I would like to point out a few important points that readers should notice.  To begin with, the vocabulary within this piece is interesting.  The terms “Kung Fu” and “Martial Art” (both of which were increasingly popular in the West in the late 1970s) are never used.  Instead the author only uses the term “wushu” as well as some much older, almost anachronistic, terms such as “shadow boxing.”  This struck me as significant as the earlier article from the 1950s which we recently reviewed never once mentioned “wushu.” It employed a variety of other terms that would have been familiar to Western readers.  But by the 1970s the rhetorical momentum had consolidated around this new terminology, even in English language propaganda.

As in the 1950s, the author and editors of this piece also went out of their way to portray the martial arts as an aspect of a living, vital and (most importantly) modern China.  Once again, they would drop heavy handed references to Chinese workers being employed in high tech industries and scientific fields.  Yet all discussions of traditional ethnic identity (which defined so many discussions of Wushu during the 1950s) are missing from this later piece.  Instead the author turns to gains in gender equality in an attempt to underscore the progressive social role that wushu plays within Chinese society.

Western readers are informed that while Confucian pride had restricted the practice only to men, under the tutelage of the CCP, more women than ever were joining the art.  Interestingly this same claim was also made by the KMT in the 1930s/1940s and the Jingwu Association in the 1910s/1920s.  If nothing else the consistency of the claim speaks to the strong desire to see the Chinese martial arts as a progressive social force, and to be able to claim credit for the achievement.

Attentive readers might note that other sorts of hierarchies have also been eliminated from the discussion of the Chinese martial arts.  While this article profiles the growing popularity of practice among China’s workers, there is no mention of masters or teachers.  No specific styles are named.  In fact, even organized classes seem to be a rarity, happening only in a handful of work units.  Instead it paints a remarkably “democratic” picture of cooperative learning in which small groups of people come together to exchange techniques.  And while certain older individuals are valued for their skills (indeed, they might even be permitted to travel to acquire new techniques to bring back to their work units or villages), it is pretty clear that they lack any sort of institutional authority.  That seems to be concentrated in the hand of local and regional “physical culture” committees who have decided, for their own reasons, to target wushu for future growth.

Other things are missing from the discussion as well. There is no reference to the extensive growth of wushu departments in China’s universities and institutions of higher learning in the 1950s or 1960s. Nor is there a discussion of the role of certain martial arts and Qigong in the country’s medical practices prior to the escalation of the Cultural Revolution.  The article does mention the potential of these practices to strengthen and improve the health of workers eager to do their bit to build socialism. But again, no source of deep expertise seems to be necessary to achieve these ends.  All one need to do is to find a “veteran” worker from one’s own commune who can act as a coach.

Even when true mastery appears, it is evident that author has gone to some lengths to hide it for ideological reasons.  At one point the article speaks of a local peasant by the name of “Wang” who was capable of performing great feats of strength. He was oppressed by the Qing who labeled him a “boxer-bandit” as he was seen as a threat by the reactionary leaders of local society.  But the new Communist government supported his efforts and even his publication of a book later in life.  It seems almost certain that this is an oblique reference to Wang Ziping, who was a favorite both the Guoshu and early Wushu movements.  Indeed, Wang even became known as a distinguished medical doctor later in life.  The government used him as a subject for propagandistic films and even included him on a diplomatic trip (where he demonstrated the power of wushu).

The way that he is treated in this article is quite different.  Given his fame, I suspect that anyone connected to the Wushu community have immediately guessed who was being discussed.  And holding Wang up as an example of martial excellence was safe as he had actually died of illness two years before this article was published.  Still, by refusing to print his full name, and focusing primarily on his connections to local society, Wang is recast as just another patriotic citizen doing his best to support the CCP.

It is not difficult to understand the various ways in which this portrayal of wushu advanced the ideological objectives of the Communist Party during the final stages of the Cultural Revolution.  This was a unique vision to the Chinese martial arts far removed from Bruce Lee’s onscreen heroics or the dream of massive competitive tournaments that had dominated the 1950s.  Yet it was a vision of the Chinese martial arts that reflected contemporary Maoist thought.  All of this can be seen in the non-competitive, non-hierarchic, highly cooperative vision of Wushu.

Yet does the vision outlined in this article reflect the reality of practices on the ground?  The common argument heard within Western martial arts classroom from the 1970s-1990s was that the traditional arts were dead in Mainland China.  More specifically, they had been killed off by the start of the Cultural Revolution. Yet this article suggests a vibrant martial arts movement, not withstanding the lack of hierarchy or organization beyond the local level.

Daniel Amos’ pioneering ethnographic research conducted in Guangdong in the late 1970s suggests that the Cultural Revolution failed to suppress the martial arts at the local level.  Indeed, the thing that actually came the closest to killing them off entirely was the massive reform of the economic and social system earlier in the 1950s.  Deprived of their traditional sources of support, and even their larger social purpose, almost everyone simply stopped practicing the martial arts relatively early on.  There was no need for the state to ban them when most people simply didn’t have a reason or opportunity to continue to practice.  The exception to these trends occurred in the relatively elite educational, athletic and medical realms where teams of professionals began to organize new Wushu programs.

Amos notes that what the Cultural Revolution really did was to reverse these two trends.  Local party leaders were unable to protect University athletic programs or hospital Qigong clinics from the wrath of the Red Guard.  This led to the widescale institutional dismantling of these programs. But all of this tended to play out very different in the actual work units.  Seeing that their local party leaders were incapable of providing any form of protection from this new threat, reformed gangsters, former secret society members and retired martial artists quietly began to reassemble their networks and to take on new students.  The fear of the Red Guards seems to have led these vulnerable individuals to look for private sources of security.  Many individuals did begin to study wushu within their work units during this period, and it would ultimately set the stage for the explosion of the folk martial arts sector in the late 1970s, immediately after the conclusion of the Cultural Revolution.

Ultimately this article is interesting as it speaks to multiple historical trends.  This is an ideological document that was intended to be read as such.  But it also describes both the growing popularity of martial practice in the last years of the Cultural Revolution, as well as organizational decapitation that the era’s “reforms” had brought about.  This complexity is one reason why this article deserves careful study as we set about reconstructing the history of the idea of the Chinese martial arts in the West.



Another press photo capturing a larger group of Taijiquan practitioners in Beijing in 1984.




Tsangchow Takes to Wushu in a Big Way

By Chang Kuang-Chun


Early every morning residents of Tsangchow, near the Pohai Sea in Hopei province [editor’s note: Bohai Sea in Hubei province], flock to the People’s Park in the center of the city. They go there to do wushu, a traditional form of exercise.  Arriving by bicycle or on foot are workers, shop assistants, government cadres, doctors, students, retired workers and Red Army veterans. Among them are children of seven or eight years, and oldsters in their 70s or 80s.  In groups from three to ten they gather under the trees, beside the pond or in front of the pavilions.  Some do shadow boxing while others fence with swords, spears or other weapons—all in the wushu style.

As the hour of work approaches they go off in various directions.  The whole year round, rain or shine, summer or winter, the same scene is re-enacted. This takes place in at least a hundred other places in different parts of the city with altogether several thousands of enthusiasts.

On the city’s outskirts and in the surrounding rural areas, wushu is equally popular.  Each of the 32 communes in Tsanghsien county has its own representative team.  In some communes every brigade has wushu classes, and after dark in some brigades classes go on in three or four brightly lighted training grounds.  City and country contests are held each year and during holiday festivals workers and peasants get together to give wushu demonstrations and learn new movements from each other.


Past and Present

Although Tsangchow is now a bustling railway center on the Tientsin-Pukow line, it was formerly a desolate place with few inhabitants. It is said that as long as 1,500 years ago the local people took up Wushu to defend themselves from persecution by the reactionary ruling class.  Moreover, because it was an isolated spot, it became an area to which exiles were sent by the authorities, and many of these exiles taught the local people new wushu movements.

In old China the reactionary ruling class, afraid that wushu would be used as a weapon by the people, willfully persecuted many experts of the art.  One of them, known as “Wang the Thousand-pound Lifter”, one day saw a run-away horse and cart galloping through the street.  He tried to check the horse but missed his hold.  He grabbed the back of the cart and, wrenching it with all his might, overturned both cart and horse.  For this feat his fame quickly spread among the people but the reactionary Ching dynasty bureaucrats branded him a “bandit boxer” and forced him to flee the area.

After liberation wushu gained new popularity and Wang became one of its chief exponents.  Encouraged by the People’s Government, he took an active part in the study and revision of traditional wushu movements and wrote a book on the subject.  The position and prestige accorded wushu in new China is completely different from what it was in the old days.


Rearrangement and Improvement

Following Chairman Mao’s call, “Promote physical culture and build up the people’s health,” a movement to learn wushu spread rapidly in the Tsangchow prefecture.  Physical culture committees at all level in the area have named wushu one of the main sports to be popularized.  They often arrange for old wushu experts to exchange experiences or send them to learn new movements from professionals in other parts of the country.

In line with Chairman Mao’s policy of making the past serve the present and weeding through the old to bring forth the new, they are gradually rearranging and refining this ancient art.  Rejecting the dross, they have eliminated rigid movements that are injurious; assimilating the essence, they combine the fine points from different forms and boldly create new ones.  They aim to integrate strength with plasticity, create gestures that are firm yet flexible, movements are smooth and extended and forms that are graceful.  While aiming to build up the people’s health, they retain the characteristic wushu features of both attack and defense in dealing with the enemy.

In the past there were many schools of wushu, and none would allow its most advantageous movements to be known to any other school.  This gave rise to great antagonism among some schools. Today, people learn the art to strengthen their physique for the common purpose of building socialism and defending the country, so rivalry between the different schools has given way to a new spirit of unity among wushu sportsmen.  With the support and encouragement of the Communist Party and the People’s Government, amateur training classes for young people have been opened in the Tsangchow prefecture, and wushu is included as part of the physical training program in many schools.  Old and respected professional experts volunteer as coaches in the various centers and wholeheartedly try to pass on their skills to the younger generation.

In the past, influenced by the Confucian idea that “man is superior and woman is inferior”, few women learned wushu. Today, among enthusiasts in Tsangchow, women constitute one-third of the total.  On some training grounds, 60 percent of the participants are women.


Improving Physique

In Tsangchow’s People’s Park an oldish man was practicing shadow boing under some trees.  He was Yin Tsung-chi, a sales clerk who had been doing these exercises daily for more than 20 years.  He took to wushu after liberation when he was in poor health and often fell ill due to the hardships he had suffered in the old society.  After taking up shadow boxing his health improved so much that now at 54 he can work as hard as any of the younger people in his shop.  Talking of his experience he says, “Wushu trains the whole body.  Constant practice makes one’s limbs supple and improves one’s spirit.  Now I can do a full day’s work without feeling tired and I have unlimited energy.”

Mu Ming-kai, a young worker at a Tsangchow plant making parts for the chemical fertilizer industry, was in poor health when he started work in 1967.  He couldn’t do heavy jobs or climb to any great height.  He felt this limited the contribution he could make to the building of socialism.  The leaders at the plant and his co-workers invariably gave him only light work and he felt ashamed of his weakness.  He asked veteran worker Chi Feng-hsiang to teach him wushu.  With several years of training, his health has improved.  He is always in the forefront when there is heavy work to do, he climbs to great heights without hesitation and consistently works well.

Chang Kuang-Chun. 1975. “Tsangchow Takes to Wushu in a Big Way.” China Reconstructs, No. 7 (July). 47-48.



If you enjoyed this you might also want to read: Through a Lens Darkly (52): Taijiquan in Communist China and the United States in 1972



Paradoxes of Success in Lightsaber Combat

A competitor at the recent tournament in Paris. AP Photo/Christophe Ena.



Lightsabers Go Legit

What follows is a meditation on recent events. It is not every day that you sit down, open your phone, and find Trevor Noah performing a Daily Show bit about people you know. It is even odder when you first spoke with these individuals as part of an ongoing Martial Arts Studies project.  With that, here is Noah’s hot take on the quickly evolving world of Lightsaber Combat as well as his theoretical argument on the socially constructed nature of all sports. Check it out!



The appearance of this skit on my phone closed out what had been a hectic two days.  On February 10th Cédric Giroux, the leader of a French organization named the Académie de Sabre Laser, hosted a national lightsaber tournament in Beaumont-sur-Oise, near Paris.  In the interest of full disclosure, I should note that Giroux is a knight within the Terra Prime Light Armory (TPLA) system, which is the same group that my ethnographic research with the LSC community has focused on. That fieldwork focuses on the North American branch of the movement. Sadly, I have never been able to visit the French lightsaber scene in person.

At some point I will probably have to make a trip to Paris to correct that.  While there is a tendency to think of Star Wars as a quintessentially American story (basically a Western/Samurai mashup set in space), the franchise is very popular in Europe.  And Lightsaber Combat is probably even more popular on the other side of the pond than it is here.  Ludosport, one of the major lightsaber groups, hails from Italy, and Paris is also home to the Sport Saber League, another large and successful organization. It is my entirely unscientific guess that Lightsaber Combat is probably more popular in France than anywhere in the world.  That fact immediately opens up all sorts of fascinating questions for students of both cultural and martial arts studies.

Given this density of practice, it is not surprising that a large tournament would be staged near Paris, nor that it would attract the attention of the global press. Though I must admit that many of us were taken back by the sheer volume of stories that this meet generated.  The first international report of the event that I ran across was actually a Chinese language CCTV story which included a short quote from an official with the French Fencing Federation (FFE) that seemed to indicate that lightsabers might even be making some sort of appearance at the Paris Olympic Games.  I will be returning to his remarks below. But given the ongoing sensitivities over Wushu’s Olympic fate, it is not entirely surprising that CCTV would have picked up the story.

I was more surprised when my friends started emailing me links to an ESPN story on the tournament a week later.  That turned into shock when I started to see coverage in Time, Newsweek and local newspapers here in Central NY.  These stories were quickly followed up with a second wave of reports less focused on the tournament itself, and more interested in the FFE’s pronouncement that it was accepting Lightsaber Combat as an “official discipline” within its tournament and training structure. In essence it was placing the LED powered lightsaber in the same category as foil, epee and sabre events.  As one headline after another proclaimed, Lightsaber Combat was now a “real sport,” at least if you live in France.

Many people within the general public, and even other sections of the lightsaber community, were surprised by this. But what exactly does it mean to declare an activity that is already being done all over the world to be suddenly “real?”  Luckily Trevor Noah was ready to step in and explain how, when you get right down to it, everything is an invented tradition. Who would have guessed that he was a Critical Theorist?



The man of the hour, Cédric Giroux. Source: //


A Quick Word About our Sponsors! (Or subject….)

This is all very exciting if you have spent a big chunk of the last few years publishing papers and assembling hundreds of pages of fieldnotes on your experiences with various lightsaber groups.  If you want to get a head start on that material, pick up a copy of the Martial Arts Studies Reader and take a look at my recently published chapter. Still, the events of the last week raise a few questions for students of Martial Arts Studies. Why now?  What does this suggest about the global nature of the Lightsaber Combat community?  Will the embrace between this branch of lightsaber competition and the FFE be a good thing?  Lastly, why did this piece of ostensibly great news cause an almost immediate undercurrent of tension and negative feelings within the lightsaber community itself?

Yet this structural division wasn’t always as evident. The rapid expansion of the lightsaber community has opened a space for the growth of increasingly specialized groups.  As I have argued elsewhere, not every student is looking for the same experience (indeed, open-ended play is an important characteristic of this movement setting it apart from the more traditional martial arts), and not every group is equally interested in fulfilling each social role.  The following discussion focuses on the part of community that is primarily interested in approaching all of this as a competitive combat sport.  Indeed, this process of specialization will probably sound familiar to students of the Historical European Martial Arts (HEMA), which also seems to be pulled in a number of directions at the current moment.



In this Sunday, Feb. 10, 2019, photo, competitors battle during a national lightsaber tournament in Beaumont-sur-Oise, north of Paris. “We wanted it to be safe, we wanted it to be umpired and, most of all, we wanted it to produce something visual that looks like the movies, because that is what people expect,” said Michel Ortiz, the tournament organizer. (AP Photo/Christophe Ena) ORG XMIT: XPAR104


The First Puzzle

Let’s begin with the question of timing.  In point of fact, this was not the first such tournament staged in Paris.  Indeed, it wasn’t even Académie de Sabre Laser’s first national tournament.  That had occurred the year before.  Nor, with 30+ fighters in attendance, was it the largest such gathering to date.  I believe that the standard starting bracket for Ludosport’s annual international tournament in Italy is 64 fighters.  So why did this specific event “go viral” while other large tournaments get a spot in the local news and are quickly forgotten?

Two (related) variables set it apart.  The first was the seemingly lucky break of generating an AP newswire story that which was quickly picked up by a couple of major media outlets.  Indeed, a close reading of the recent press coverage will reveal that almost all of the articles are variants of a single English language report which was circulated about a week after the tournament. Apparently, the AP press package also included video footage of the fighters, a few interviews and some dramatic photos. It was everything one needs for an engaging community interest story.

Paul Bowman has discussed, at length, the various reasons why we cannot treat mediatized discussions of the martial arts as secondary adjuncts to their “real” practice.  Most of us formed our initial impressions of the martial arts almost entirely through their media representations long before we ever set foot in a training hall. The notion of wandering into a temple on some mountain top in Asia only to discover, for the first time, the fighting arts is a myth.  More specifically, it’s a myth that we learned from mediatized fantasies about the “search for authenticity” in the Asian martial arts.

There seems to be a tendency to shy away from facts such as these when dealing with the traditional Asian martial arts. After all, these are practices that many individuals would like to see as an alternative to the modern “information ecosystem” that structures our lives.  The last thing that we want to admit is that they are simply a continuation of it, or that our notions of what makes something “authentic” may require further introspection. Yet you simply cannot avoid talking about all sorts of media (everything from film to videogames and now even the news) when it comes to the Lightsaber.

It was the “hyper-reality” (as the term was used by Umberto Eco) of both the weapon and practice that first attracted me to this research area. All of the actual techniques used in most lightsaber combat training systems come from the historic martial arts. There just aren’t that many effective ways to swing a blade or stick.  And yet they have been consciously reordered and organized around an entirely fictional narrative history.  All of this is then applied to a fictional weapon that probably could never exist in real world (physicists seemed to be mixed on that as a theoretical question, but engineers are clear that no one is building one any time soon). To say that lightsaber combat is a “hyper-real martial art” is to acknowledge, without equivocation, that it owes its existence to the spread of mediatized images.  It is also a testament to the power that these images have to order social behavior.

Unfortunately, we still don’t know much about how such images effect the development of either a technical practice or the community that supports it. At the most basic level, are these effects felt as a slow continual pressure, shaping the evolution of a martial art in the same way geological forces shape a landscape?  Or is mediatized pressure felt as a sharp, almost stochastic, process which functions by facilitating moments of abrupt disruption?

Lightsaber combat has lot to suggest on this point.  Without a doubt the lightsaber has been the globe’s single most fetishized weapon since Luke Skywalker first ignited his father’s blade back in the halcyon days of the 1970s.  The demand for these weapons was immediately evident as young adults across the country took up broomsticks and immediately started to make whooshing sounds. But, for reasons that I have already explored in another article, an actual supply of lightsabers and instructional material did not rise to meet this demand until the first decade of the 2000s.  Thus the effects of the media on social behavior need to be understood as part of a more complex social process.

Media coverage itself is stochastic (and somewhat unpredictable) in nature.  Some films and tournaments generate more news coverage than others.  Predicting how any set of stories will be received in advance is difficult.  And even when some phenomenon gets sustained press coverage most, stories never manage to “break through” the barrage of information that we all face daily.

This is why it is critical to consider the other variables that media coverage of the martial arts might interact with.  The recent batch of lightsaber articles suggests one factor that is often ignored by North American scholars. Given the laissez faire nature of our economic markets, we tend to assume that the martial arts (and indeed, all sports) are as unregulated throughout the rest of the world as they are here.  This is not the case.  In many other countries amateur and national sport federations have a much closer relationship with the state.  In fact, martial arts have often been adopted and regulated by states to advance very specific social and political goals.  It is often impossible to understand the type of social work that a martial art does, or why its effects (or even its popularity) vary from one state to the next, without taking a close look at how its regulated in the local marketplace.

France presents us with a case study of the different ways in which states might intervene and regulate the athletic sector.  This is a topic that I am still seeking to learn more about, so please excuse any errors in my description.  But in essence, the French government uses a licensing mechanism to determine who can receive payment for athletic coaching or instructional services.  All sports are required to be organized through national federation which then oversee the training and oversight of sanctioned instructors.  Additionally, it seems that even local amateur clubs may receive funding for certain purposes from their respective federations and the government.  Rather than a free market system, the state actually supports (certain) athletic actives and attempts to guarantee a minimal level of competence among paid instructors or coaches.  Individuals who are not so licensed may still run a club, but I don’t think that they can receive money for doing so.

It is thus significant to note that while there are multiple large lightsaber combat organizations operating in France today, only the Académie de Sabre Laser is an officially sanctioned part of the FFE.  A few years ago it went through a public process of reviewing a number of programs before settling on Cédric Giroux’s.  When it did, to the best of my understanding, these other groups were effectively locked out of the economic market for providing instruction in lightsaber combat in exchange for payment. While lots of other groups still exist, the nature of the French system essentially made a single organization a monopoly player, and then placed that monopoly within the pre-existing structure of a national oversight body (the French Fencing Federation).

All of this regulation is enough to give a neo-classically trained American economist (such as myself) hives.  Still, when we seek to understand how a martial arts group (or any sports organization) functions in France, it is not enough to simply study its students or the way it teaches.  Nor even the way that it is represented within the media.  All of these factors need to be considered in reference to the existence of an interventionist regulatory state.  And as we have already seen in this previous discussion of the literature on “established churches,” that is likely to impact the ways that martial arts organizations develop and behave.

This explains our confluence of factors.  It wasn’t just that there was a TV news crew at a lightsaber tournament. Rather, there was both a tournament and a statement from an official confirming a change in the social status of Lightsaber Combat in France, and hence its relationship with both society and the state.  Lightsaber Combat may be something that people in France have been doing (in surprising numbers) for a while.  But it only becomes a sanctioned sport when the powers that be declare it so.


Two Saber Legion fighters duel on August 4, 2018 at their national tournament in Las Vegas, NV. Saber Legion is headquartered in Maple Grove and has grown from four members to 6,000 globally. (Courtesy of Terry Birnbaum, Photographer: Amanda Jaczkowski)


Why So Serious?

All of which brings us to our next observation.  This announcement only applies to events in France and, in any case, I think that the Académie de Sabre Laser has had their relationship with the FFE locked down for more than a year.  If you follow this community closely it wasn’t really a surprise. Yet most of the press coverage seems to have been in English (with a few pieces in Chinese), and those reports did attach a type of discursive significance to the pronouncement that had little to do with France. It is quite a cultural accomplishment to pry someone like Trevor Noah away from his never-ending task of satirizing the current US government so that he can talk about a new martial art.

Yet when reading various social media discussions within the lightsaber community, I got the sense that this story was generating as much anxiety as elation.  As I noted before, this was not the first large-scale national tournament.  It wasn’t even the first time that ESPN had reported (largely favorably) on lightsaber combat.  Readers may recall that they ran some nice pieces in August 2018 when reporting on the Saber Legion tournament in Las Vegas. Rather than coming together as a community everyone seemed to pull back into their trenches and attempt to remind the world (or at least anyone reading their social media comments) that in fact this was “old news,” they had been there first, and one could find something just as good closer to home.

There was an almost studied disinterest in the actual content of what had happened in Paris.  Rather than examining the performances of the winners or commenting on the tournament’s ruleset [after writing this the Lightspeed Saber League put out a very nice video doing just that], most conversations turned inward or to recruitment. What might have been a major moment of celebration for the community instead highlighted its increasingly fractured nature.

One might be tempted to dismiss this all as the sorts of “politics” that you see within any martial arts movement. And I am sure that this is precisely the way that these discussions are experienced at the local level. Still, I wonder if this reaction also suggests the existence of some larger subterranean fears.  This is a relatively new movement and even the largest and most successful groups are still tiny in comparison to most sports, or even martial arts.  A huge media blast is certainly capable of rocking all boats in such a small pond.

We must also consider the way that official (state backed) actions in one market can create externalities that ripple throughout the global system.  Within the section of the Lightsaber Combat community attempting to establish competitive leagues, many of the big debates of the moment revolve around rulesets and “standard setting.”  There seems to be a feeling that “we” would all be better off with a single universally accepted competitive framework.  But obviously whoever controls that ruleset (and organization) will reap most of the economic and social benefits from the expansion of Lightsaber Combat.  Again, this is a very familiar story and its why all actors, from technology firms to state governments, fight pitch battles over creation of seemingly boring technical systems.  When an actor like the FFE makes a declaration like such as this, they are effectively putting their thumb on the scales.  And when the international governing body of fencing responds by noting that they are carefully studying the success of the French model, the stakes of the game rise considerably.

Externalities are defined as unintended consequences of decisions to produce or consume goods which are not priced into an initial market transaction.  I doubt that the FFE thinks, or cares, very much about what Lightsaber Combat students are doing in Singapore or the United States. Its concerns are purely national. And yet those groups are feeling both positive and negative ripples from their recent actions.

As students of Martial Arts history, we know that not all of side-effects of government regulatory policies are actually unintended.  South Korea made a conscious decision to back the international growth of Taekwondo in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s (something that had a huge impact on the global martial arts marketplace) precisely because it was looking to develop a global soft power resource.  China is interested in promoting Wushu as an Olympic sport for several reasons, some of which are purely domestic.  But a success in this realm might also reshape aspects of the global marketplace in hand combat instruction, providing them with a potent tool for public diplomacy. It is not a fluke that we so often see government involvement in these areas. In a globally connected, highly mediatized, world, regulatory efforts in one country have a habit of spilling across national borders.  As such, we can never ignore the role of the state and government regulation when attempting to understand the evolution or function of martial practice.


A group of Ludosport competitors, coaches and officials at the first annual US championship, held in Elmira NY in 2018. Photo by Benjamin Judkins.


Conclusion: Losing by Winning?


Still, it is exciting see a relatively new practice receive this degree of attention and validation.  On balance I think the recent press coverage has been good for the Lightsaber Combat community. While it may dredge up some “political” anxieties in certain corners, the larger problem facing any martial arts movement is just getting the message out that you exist and boosting the flow of new members necessary to make any organization or school functional.  I suspect that this burst of coverage will actually prove to be a tide that will lift all ships.

Still, I wonder how all of this will play out in France in the long run.  While its specific regulatory environment is quite different from the United States’, some of the trends we are seeing throughout the world of “action sports” are almost universal.  The older sport federations that have traditionally overseen the sorts of events that end up in the Olympics (gymnastics, track and field, cycling, fencing, etc…) are feeling the heat as media consumption patterns change and fewer consumers follow these sports.  The mechanism differs from one country to the next, but that almost always translates to less revenue for training, competition and institutional maintenance.  At the same time, and for similar reasons, many of these organizations are seeing fewer young athletes come through the doors of their training centers.

One of the universal responses to this trend, seen at both the international and national level, has been to “recruit” newer action sports which generate enthusiasm among the sorts of youthful consumers that television advertisers are seeking to reach.  Long story short, this is how previously fringe sports like rock climbing or skateboarding end up in Olympic venues. Yet to really understand the long-term implications of this, it is essential to think about the sorts of bureaucratic bodies that regulate all of this. Gratefully, a number of sport sociologists and historians already research these topics, so the process is fairly well understood.

By in large, action sports have not really had an opportunity to develop strong regulatory bodies, at either the national or Olympic levels. There are multiple reasons for this. In some cases, individual athletes may not be all that interested in the idea of Olympic competition.  Young people might invest themselves in a sport like skateboarding precisely because they are not interested in a formal, rule bound, athletic culture.  But in other cases, where action sport specific federations do exist, older regulatory bodies have repeatedly staged “hostile takeovers” of new sports in an attempt to promote them as competitive events at the international level.

Perhaps the most famous (and acrimonious) example of pattern was the folding of snowboarding into preexisting Olympic skiing structure. But scholars such as David Goldblatt (and more recently Damien Puddle) have argued that such moves almost always serve the financial interest of the older sport federations while exploiting the newer pursuits.  As Goldblatt put it in a recent article “the argument is always that the elite layer somehow nurtures, encourages, and develops broader grassroots [for the action sports]. And it’s not true. it’s just not true.

Puddle’s work, which documents the tensions between the Parkour community and the gymnastics bodies that are currently seeking to absorb it, would seem to provide a particularly sharp cautionary tale.  Essentially it all gets down to the “principal agent dilemma.” The legacy sports are suffering in popularity precisely because their media images, goals and norms are not aligned with the those espoused by the younger, more creative, action sport enthusiasts.  After gaining administrative control of these activities, there is no reason to believe that these federations will nobly act against their own financial interests, hastening the demise of their core constituents.

I do not know the specific details of the arrangements that have been reached between the French lightsaber community and the FFE. Hopefully we will learn more about them in the coming weeks.  But the two most obvious risks would be that the FFE would seek to reduce the Lightsaber Combat community to a means of recruiting children into otherwise flagging fencing programs.  The other danger is that they would not invest sufficiently in promoting a new series of national tournaments (or including LED sabers in existing tournaments), thus restricting the future growth of the sport.

Still, I think that there are a few reasons to be hopeful in this case.  One of the persistent issues highlighted in Goldbatt and Puddle work on the hostile takeover of action sports is the question of culture clashes.  When a new sport has a very different history or culture from an old-line federation, there are bound to be problems.  Again, it is not clear that most skateboarders or parkour athletes took up the pursuit because they wanted to be part of an “Olympic sport,” with everything that goes along with that.

Yet Lightsaber Combat does have some important commonalities with the fencing world.  A fair number of its competitive athletes have actually practiced or coached Olympic style fencing at some point and are already comfortable in that world.  Additionally, there are only so many things to do with a blade.  Fencing is an almost inherently adversarial, and hence competitive, activity.

It is also interesting to note that many of the big players in this arena have been quite vocal about their Olympic aspirations from almost the start of their organizations. As a more traditional martial artist that is something that I have always found puzzling. Ludosport, in particular, makes a habit of referring to the spirit of Olympic competition in its promotional material.  As such, something like the FFE might end up being a much better fit for the lightsaber community than various gymnastic bodies have been for Parkour.

As always, the devil will be in the details.  As a hyper-real martial art, Lightsaber Combat was born out of mediatized representation of bladed combat.  Its future growth rests in large part on the continued popularity and accessibility of these images. But we cannot neglect the role of the regulatory state or sport bureaucracies in making these communications meaningful and accessible at the local level.   While those sorts of actors rarely make an appearance of discussions of the martial arts in North America, their influence in places like France is much greater.  Nor, in an era of global externalities, can their actions be ignored by those seeking to create a new, universal, combat sport.



If you enjoyed this you might also want to read: Explaining “Openness” and “Closure” in Kung Fu, Lightsaber Combat and Modern Martial Arts 



Individualism, Art and Craft: Reading Bruce Lee by the Numbers




Interpreting Bruce Lee

We may debate lists of the 20th century’s most influential martial artists,* but when it comes to written texts, there is simply no question.  “Liberate Yourself from Classical Karate,”  Bruce Lee’s 1971 manifesto, first appearing in the September issue of Black Belt magazine, has been reprinted, read, criticized and commented upon more than any other English language work.  Like many aspects of Lee’s legacy, it has generated a fair degree of controversy.  But what interests me the most is the scope and character of its audience.

One might suppose that Lee’s essay would have been read primarily by the Karate students that the title hailed, or perhaps by the generations of Kung Fu students who have come to idolize him.  And it is entirely understandable that this text has assumed an important place within the Jeet Kune Do community.  Yet its title notwithstanding, Lee never intended this piece as a narrow argument.  Nor, when we get right down to it, was Lee actually trying to convince anyone to quit Karate in favor of another style.  Such nationalist or partisan concerns were a feature of the earlier phase of his career. By 1971 Lee was concerned with more fundamental issues.

Yet all of these statements are really my own personal readings, and as such they open the door to questions of interpretation. What are the most valid ways to read Lee’s famous essay? And what sorts of interpretations might be unsupportable, what Umberto Eco called “overinterpretations” (See “Interpretation and Overinterpretation: World, History, Texts.” Cambridge University 1990). I have it on good authority that two of my friends are currently preparing a debate on this text, and what it suggests about the validity of various theories of interpretation, which will appear in a future issue of Martial Arts Studies.

With that on the horizon, I am hesitant to venture too far into the same territory.  Yet if he were here, Umberto Eco’s would probably point out that a close reading reveals that Lee seems to have had some well-developed thoughts on how his essay should be read, and what sorts of interpretations of this text (and the Jeet Kune Do project more generally), might be considered valid.  Lee begins his argument with the well known story of the Zen master overflowing a cup of tea precisely to head off responses to his work that might be classified as “arguments from authority.”  Indeed, in the very next paragraph he tells his readers that he has structured his essay like the traditional martial arts classes that they are all so familiar with. First the mental limbering up must happen so that one’s received bodily (or mental) habits can be set aside.  Only then is it possible to see events as they actually are, without resorting to the crutch of style (or perhaps theory) to tell you what you are perceiving.

As a social scientist I am very suspicious of those who claim to be able to put “theory” aside and simply see a situation for what it really is. As one of my old instructors colorfully declared, no such thing is possibly.  “Theory is hardwired into our eyeballs!”  It is fundamental to how our brains make sense of raw stimulus. We all have so many layers of mental habit, training and predisposition that the notion of setting it aside is fundamentally misguided.  Much the same could be said of our bodily predispositions.  Lee is correct in that one can set aside style.  But the more basic structures that Marcel Mauss called “techniques of the body”, or Bourdieu’s socio-economically defined (and defining) “habitus,” are not things that can ever really be set aside. Seeing the world with no filter at all, dealing with pure objective reality, is not possible, no matter how much enthusiasm Lee generates for the project.

On a personal level I suspect that while we all strive (and we should strive) to empty our cups, the best we can actually do is to try and be aware of the unique perspectives that each of us bring to an event. For instance, when Lee composed the arguments and images that make up this essay, it was with the intention of constructing what Eco called a “model reader”, someone who would become sympathetic to the arguments that he was trying to make. This was not necessarily a reader who would quit his karate class and put on a JKD shirt (though that might happen).  Again, Lee was pretty explicit about his aims.  He wasn’t trying to make America’s martial artists more like him in a technical sense.  Rather, it was enough if they simply began to “leave behind the burdens of pre-conceived opinions and conclusions,” and base their training strategies on personal observations of what actually happened rather than someone else’s notions of what should happen.  In essence, Lee was not so much proposing that America’s martial artists change styles (something that by definition could only be a pointless, lateral, move). Rather, he wanted them to begin to think seriously about how they knew what they knew.  He wanted them to change epistemologies.

We can say this much with confidence. Yet knowing everything that Lee wanted, or intended, as an author is tricky.  This was not a long essay, and while key points can be teased out (e.g., a surprising degree of faith in the individual and a notable suspicion of all sources of social authority), many lines in the essay remain open to interpretation.  It is the sort of text that rewards a very close, sentence by sentence, reading. Even then, all we can really know is the intention of this essay, a linguistic artifact created at a specific moment in 1971.  It is interesting to speculate as to what a much younger Lee would have made of this text.  And by the end of his life, in 1973, his thoughts on the value of Jeet Kune Do seem to have evolved rather dramatically.  While we might fruitfully debate the interpretation of Lee’s text, the interpretation of its author remains a much more difficult task.

Still, Lee attempted to make it clear that certain interpretations of his text were out of bounds. It is that authorial strategy that actually brings Eco’s approach to mind as a possible interpretive strategy. He notes that a proper reading would be a humanist one.  For Lee the martial arts are properly a matter of individual human activity rather than the exclusive property of nations or groups.  He notes that his essay should not be seen as a polemic by a Chinese martial artist against Japanese bushido.  Nor should he be read as proposing a new style or system of martial training.  It also seems clear that Lee is the subject of the extended metaphor on page 25.  It is the author who in the past “discovered some partial truth” and “resisted the temptation to organize” it.  The whole story is directed towards Lee’s own students who, in their enthusiasm to wrench meaning from one part of Lee’s text (or bodily practice), might fall prey to Eco’s process of “overinterpretation.”

All of this is only my interpretation of Lee’s essay, and it goes without saying that I am a type of reader that this text never anticipated.  After all, the academic study of the martial arts did not really exist in 1971, certainly not the way that it does now.

What audience did Lee, as an author, seek? What sort of “model reader” did this text intend to create? And why was there even a need to issue a call for liberation in the first place?  One might suppose that the value of freedom, self-expression and increased fighting prowess would simply be self-evident.  The fact that Lee is extolling their virtue, and calling for a fundamental change in the sources of authority that martial artists are willing to accept, suggests that it was not.


While I have never seen a martial arts themed paint by numbers, the “oriental other” was a popular subject between the 1950s and the 1970s.


Paint by Numbers

Eco may be correct that it is essentially impossible to divine the true intent of an author simply from the resulting text. Yet the complexity of that task pales in comparison with the challenge of reconstructing how his or her readers responded to that text at a given point in history.  After all, the author had the good sense to leave us with a document (even if its meaning may have been unclear).  The readers, more often than not, left nothing but nods of agreement or groans of frustration deposited within the etheric sphere.  Trying to reconstruct their experience through our own empathic imagination might really be an exercise in “organized despair.” Yet it is precisely in those moments, where the expectations of the reader and the intention of a text clash, that brief bursts of light are created.  And this fading conflict can suggest some of the critical features that once defined a historical landscape.  While difficult, it is worthwhile to try and discover something about the “model readers” who struggled with, and were organized by, this text.  Indeed, I actually find the readers of this essay even more interesting (and vastly more sociologically significant) than its author. Yet we know so much less about them.

While few readers took the time to provide contemporaneous documentation of their first reading of this essay (I know of no such record), it would not be correct to say that they left no evidence of their passing.  For one thing, the 1970s produced a rich material and symbolic record which suggests some interesting hypotheses about the sorts of audience that Lee would have encountered.  Two such artifacts are currently hanging on the wall of my living room.

They appear in the form of pair of paint by number landscapes, illustrating a wintery New England day so picturesque that one is quite certain that it never happened.  These paintings were completed by a woman in 1971, the same year that Lee’s essay first appeared.  One suspects that if he had taken an interest in art criticism Lee would have had much to say about my paintings. With a few choice substitutions his famous essay could easily be retitled “Liberate Yourself from the Paint by Number Kit” and it would read almost as well.

That, seemingly flippant, observation reveals an important clue about the sorts of readers (and martial artists) that Lee was addressing.  We don’t have a large body of informed martial arts criticism dating from the 1970s, but we do have a vast literature on the criticism of the visual arts.  And several critics explicitly addressed the paint by numbers fad.  The sorts of arguments that they made sound, at least to my ear, uncannily like the points that Lee was trying to make.

By 1971 the paint by number phenomenon was already a well-established part of America’s middle class landscape (much like the neighborhood judo club).  These kits were originally conceived of by an artist named Dan Robbins and Max S. Klein, the owner of the Palmer Paint Company.  After the end of WWII Americans leveraged their increased rights in the workplace, and a period of unprecedented economic growth, to create a new golden age of the leisure economy.  The forty-hour work week meant that workers had more free time than ever before, and they had enough income to fill those hours with an ever expanding range of activities. The visual arts were increasingly popular, but for most people creating their own paintings remained an aspirational dream.  Robbins and Klein decided that simple kits, which required only an ability to color within the lines, would provide Americans with many hours of relaxation while selling an unprecedented amount of paint. Their initial run of kits, which attempted to educate consumers about the latest trends in serious modern art, did not sell particularly well.  But when more nostalgic images of the countryside, animals, dancers and the “exotic East” were introduced, it was clear that a cultural phenomenon had been born.

This did not please most of the art critics of the day. The lack of creativity, indeed, the process of near mechanical reproduction, involved in these “paintings” came to symbolize the worst aspects of 1950s social conformity. [Note also that cover of the 1971 Black Belt issues has Lee  hyperbolically warning America’s martial artists that they are being transformed into machines].  According to these critics, individuals were drawn to art because they wanted to experience creativity. Yet these kits promised them basic results only by foreswearing any degree of individual expression.  When the critics imaged millions of (near identical) Mona Lisas hanging on the walls of the millions of (near identical) tiny homes which populated America’s postwar landscape, they found themselves drowning in a nightmare of suburban mediocrity.

This was precisely the cultural milieu that inspired Umberto Eco to undertake his cross-continental road-trip, explicitly focusing on the question of simulation in the American experience of fine art, which would result in his essay “Travels in Hyperreality.”   That work has proved important to my own understanding of the role of cultural desire within the martial arts.  Still, the judgement of the contemporary critics was clear.  Art was the product of individual inspiration and struggle with a constantly changing world.  These paintings were not art.  At best they were a mechanically reproduced “craft.”

Yet there has always been a strain of American popular culture within which such an assertion does not work as an invective. The entire turn of the century “arts and crafts” movement (seen in architecture, furniture, and the graphic arts) explicitly rejected the elitism of high art and instead asked what sort of social benefit could be derived from the support of, and participation in, wholesome crafts in which people enriched and beautified their environments while supporting local craftsmen. Nor do most of the post-war individuals who spent their afternoons with these kits seem to have aspired to be “artists.”  While such questions may have been fundamental to the critics, these were not categories that structured the lives of these consumers.

Paint by numbers was popular because the process was enjoyable.  People found these kits to be relaxing. The notion that one could make an object suitable for display in one’s own home was intrinsically rewarding. In light of this, the critical emphasis on individual creativity and authenticity seems to have been misplaced.  No one bought a Mona Lisa kit because they wanted to express their authentic “inner vision.” Rather, they wanted to enter into a type of dialogue with that specific piece of art.  They sought to understand someone else’s vision, and to be part of a community that appreciated it.

The entire genera of paint by numbers is marked with an almost overwhelming air of nostalgia, much like the traditional martial arts.  This was an exercise in cultivating (and satisfying) a desire for preexisting categories of meaning.  Through the reproduction of different types of art (religious images, Italian masters, American landscapes, dancing figures, Paris cityscapes, etc….) individuals sought to align themselves with, and appropriate, some specific aspect of pre-existing social authority.  Make no mistake, the creation of real art is hard work.  Yet paint by numbers succeeded as a popular medium because it took seriously the notion of leisure. The physical artifacts that it generated were, in many ways, secondary to the social and psychological benefits created.

A traditional class within the Japanese martial arts might seem quite different than a paint by number kit.  Ideally the later generates very little sweating and yelling, while the former practically demands it. Yet it is no coincidence that these pursuits both exploded into America popular culture in the 1950s, driven by the growth of the post-war leisure economy. Both sought to simplify complex elite activities and present them to the masses in such a way that they could be easily mastered. Indeed, the standardized kata and training methods seen in Meiji and Showa era martial arts schools seem to have appealed to the same social sensibilities that Robbins and Klein sought to capitalize on.

Nor do questions of individual expression figure that prominently in the early post-war martial arts discourse.  We should hedge this last point as, while they were more visible, the Asian martial arts remained outside of the hegemonic aspects of Western culture (Bowman 2017).  To practice Judo in the 1950s was an expression of individual choice and values in a way that would not have been true of Japanese school children taking a Judo class in 1937.  And it is certainly true that many returning GI’s (and later Korean and Vietnam veterans), took up these pursuits. Some sought solace, while others were looking for a source of martial excellence.    For instance, Donn F. Draeger’s letters to R. W. Smith make it clear that he was quite interested in the Japanese koryu, but not the contemporary Chinese martial arts.  His reasons were simple enough. Japan had performed well on the battlefield, yet Chinese troops, by in large, had not (Miracle 2016).

Nevertheless, I doubt that Draeger was expecting to find real, unfiltered, free-style violence within the traditional dojo. One suspects that most of these vets, at least the ones who had actually seen combat, would have had enough of that on the beaches of the Pacific. What seems to have motivated many of these early students was not so much the search for “realism,” as it was the search for a “cultural essence.” Knowing the reality of warfare, one wonders whether they were freed from petty debates about the “reality of the octagon” (or its post-war equivalents).

Draeger threw himself into highly ritualized styles of Japanese swordsmanship not because he believed this was what a “scientific street fight” actually looked like.  He seems to have been looking for a deeper set of answers as to how men had achieved victory in combat in the past.  The answers were partially technical, but they also included more. Rightly or wrongly, it was clear to Draeger that (some) Japanese martial artists had the answers, while the Chinese did not. His friend and fellow researcher, R. W. Smith, came to a different set of conclusions after his own experiences with Chinese martial artist while living in Japan and Taiwan. Their martial arts research was not so much about expressing individualism in the abstract (though Draeger’s interests in body building did eventually take him in that direction), but understanding systems of social authority that had allowed individuals to do amazing things.


Bruce Lee Graffiti. Source: Wikimedia.


Conclusion: A Debate Between Readers

These duel excursus into the graphic arts and the early days of hoplology suggests how one group of readers may have approached Lee’s classic essay.  In larger cultural terms, Lee’s essay may be less daring than it first appears. While such discussions were novel in the small world of Western martial arts practice, art and culture critics had been making points very similar to Lee’s for decades. They had been doing that because activities that were structurally similar to the practice of the traditional martial arts had become increasingly common within American society since the early 1950s.  Lee is often portrayed as a radical or iconoclastic thinker, but when placed next to these critics his calls for individual expression and authenticity within the arts actually replicate the era’s elite social values. More radical, in some senses, were the voices that argued for the primacy of craftsmanship over art, or for a turn towards a foreign (even colonial) set of cultural values as a way of dealing with the malaise of modern life.

The issues being debated by the martial artists of the 1970s (and still today) are so fundamental that Lee’s essay was bound to generate disagreement.  The editors of Black Belt anticipated this. It may be worth reading Lee’s essay in comparison with the issue’s opening editorial on the importance of bowing and traditional etiquette, as well as its final article titled “The Legacy of the Dojo” by David Krieger (50). The first piece contains a quote by an anonymous Chinese martial artist (who may well be Bruce Lee as he often haunted the magazine’s offices) praising the efforts of Japanese practitioners to bring morality into their training halls while noting the often-disrespectful ways that Chinese students discussed their own teachers.  The two pieces, which both make oblique arguments for the acceptance of traditional modes of social authority within the Asian martial arts, seem to offer an intentional counterpoint to some of Lee’s more individualistic notes.

When we consider the larger social trends in post-war America, and read Lee’s essay in conjunction with the pieces that bookend the September 1971 issue, the parameters of the debate become clearer.  Then, as now, the martial arts could be seen either as a vehicle for understanding traditional modes of social authority, or as a means of breaking them down. Readers split on this issue, just as they still do today.  It is precisely this ongoing dialectic that allows the ostensibly “traditional” Asian martial arts to fill so many social roles in the modern Western world. This essay’s genius lies not in its ability to convince one side or the other, but in its ability to draw successive generations into the discussion.


*For the record, Kano Jigoro has my vote for the 20th century’s most influential martial artist.



If you enjoyed this post you might also want to read: Explaining “Openness” and “Closure” in Kung Fu, Lightsaber Combat and Modern Martial Arts


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



Transforming Southern Martial Culture


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

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

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

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




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


A Governor Goes North

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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



Martial Arts and the Weakness of “Established Churches”

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

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

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



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




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