Chinese martial arts in a new China with a new culture
The New Culture Movements was active and influential in China among university students and intellectuals who had studied abroad and embraced modernity. Of major concern was the health of the Chinese population, which suffered due to a combination of poor diet, disease, poverty, crowded living conditions, opium addiction and finally, a lack of concern about and knowledge of public health. Following the first Sino-Japanese war in 1895, many Chinese felt that their country had become a “sick man” who needed strong medicine.
Proponents of modern physical education also confronted a Confucian society had deeply rooted prejudices about what the proper man looked like physically. He was pale skinned, thin, almost emaciated. This aesthetic reflected the many hours a Confucian scholar spent studying books and writing calligraphy. Also, musculature was viewed as an indication that the person engaged in manual labor. Compared to Western physiques, the Chinese insisted that they maintained moral superiority due to this Confucian ethic and lifestyle.
The debates on military training and physical education were launched by Chinese intellectuals.
Ideas such as social Darwinism and survival of the fittest, which were introduced at this point in time, influenced some to believe that military drills could strengthen Chinese martial spirit to save China from imperialist invasion. In schools, “Ti Cao” (calisthenics and gymnastics) classes were introduced with the the main goal of creating “martial spirit” in the nation, and military-style calisthenics became the standard.
In the private sector a number of societies were organized to promote a new vision of martial arts in modern China. The Beiping Physical Culture Research Institute was established and began to publish a magazine called Physical Culture. The Jingwu Physical Culture Society was the biggest and most popular Chinese martial arts society which spread through China and South East Asia from 1917 to 1929. Jingwu Physical Culture Society was the first sports society to combine Western and Chinese physical culture, which not only taught Chinese martial arts and military training, but also taught Western sports, such as gymnastics exercise, athletics, football, basketball, volleyball, tennis and swimming. It marked a transition from the martial arts serving solely as a soldiers’ tool to a middle-class recreation which had the potential of improving Chinese society as a whole. The Jingwu Association attempted to challenge the popular view of the martial artist; “Chinese martial arts practitioner does not equal ‘gangster,'”thug,” or ‘goon.”
However, not all intellectuals of the period viewed military-style calisthenics as suitable for school curriculum. Prejudices remained’
“.. your average unintelligent, immoral soldier coming right out of the barracks and in one swoop becoming a teacher” – 6 Physical Culture Weekly Special Edition, January 1920.
Chen Tu-hsiu, one of the Chinese Communist Party’s founders and editor of a magazine entitled New Youth, criticized the classical feudal education system for over emphasizing literary memorization and neglecting physical exercise, yet disagreed about putting martial arts in the school curriculum because of his anti-traditionalism and anti-militarism positions. Chen called for “no boxing and no violent competitive games” (New Youth, 1 January 1920).
One of the other famous anti-martial arts writers was Lu Xun, who argued that the propaganda of traditional Chinese sport was based on superstition, feudalism and anti-science. In Lu’s view, over-emphasising the function of Chinese martial arts might raise a similar “patriotism” to that of the Boxer Rebellions in 1900.
“I do not mind if some people think martial arts is a special skill and enjoy their own practice. This is not a big matter. However, I disagree with the propaganda of traditional Chinese martial arts because educators promote martial arts as a fashion, as if all Chinese people should do the exercise, and most advocators promote martial arts in a ghost-like spirit. This social phenomenon is dangerous” (New Youth, 15 February 1919).