More rough cuts from Kung Fu History Book

17 Dec

[Another rough cut from my forthcoming book on Chinese martial arts history, an outline stretching from the Waring States period to the Republic]

Several writers have called the Boxer Uprising a national embarrassment, but the consequences were far worse than anything that term could ever describe. The Yi He Quan’s violence resulted in indiscriminate retaliation by the foreign powers. The occupation of the capital allowed not only the foreign troops, but foreign nationals including missionaries, to engage in what one American correspondent called “the biggest looting excursion since the days of Pizarro.” It is said that in order to avoid being raped, thousands of Chinese women committed suicide by throwing themselves down wells. The American commander, Adna R. Chaffee said “It is safe to say that where one real Boxer has been killed, 50 harmless coolies or laborers, including not a few women and children have been slain.” The “Boxer Protocol” that the Qing government agreed to sign on September 7, 1901 had even more damaging long term consequences; foreign powers could now permanently station troops in the capital and China agreed to pay a crippling reparation of more than $330 million.


While the Spirit Boxers who served as the foundation of the Yi He Quan movement had at best been peripheral to the mainstream martial arts community, we know that many martial artists eventually became swept up in the uprising. Once the imperial court sanctioned the Yi He Quan, it clearly emboldened some legitimate martial artists to participate. Xing Yi Quan teacher Li Cunyi (李存義) joined the Yi He Quan in Beijing in 1900 to fight the foreign armies, and Mei Hua Quan teacher Zhao San-duo (趙三多) would reappear briefly in Guan country, Shandong province. Others were effected unwillingly; Sun Lu Tang (孫祿堂) was forced to relocate his family out of Beijing, and Cheng Ting Hua (程廷華) was actually shot and killed by German soldiers.

Those that survived the primary violence still had to fear retribution. As Adna R. Chaffee’s quote above suggests, the foreign powers executed anyone they even suspected of being a “boxer.” Furthermore, foreign retribution was not all they had to fear. The Chinese people were not just humiliated by the Boxer Uprising, they were angry. Much of that anger was directed at the martial arts community, which they viewed as the ignorant peasants who had incurred the wrath of the foreign powers, relying on superstitious nonsense that had been less than useless against western firearms. In the immediate aftermath, martial artists across the country were forced underground.


There is another dimension to this anger that I think is often neglected. Despite common perceptions that by this point the Qing Dynasty was already in decline, there had indeed been progressives within the government. In 1898, these progressives had initiated the “Hundred Days of Reform” (戊戌變法) in an attempt to reform and modernize. Their reactionary opponents, the leaders of the coup that ended those reforms, had also been the same faction that had allied themselves with and sanctioned the Yi He Quan. Thus, another legacy of the Boxer Uprising was that in the mind of progressives, the martial arts community was forever linked with the short sighted reactionaries who had blocked reform, failed to maintain the nation’s strength and provoked the foreign retaliation. Martial arts practice ended up on the wrong side of a growing intellectual movement.

It is often difficult to identify a specific date as the beginning of an intellectual movement, and just as hard to create a label that truly does it justice. The Self-Strengthening Movement (自強運動) of 1861 to 1895 represented the first turn towards the west for knowledge, at least technical knowledge. However, it remained a relatively conservative approach. When we speak of the New Culture Movement (新文化運動), we are not simply speaking of the advocacy of western learning, but also a disillusionment with and ultimately a rejection of traditional Chinese culture. A classic example of this thinking was the writer Lu Xun (魯迅). His “Diary of a Madman” implied that China’s traditional culture was cannibalistic, and “The True Story of Ah Q” showed the typical Chinese as weak and self-deceiving. The full-fledged New Culture Movement emerged as a call for the creation of an entirely new Chinese culture based upon global (i.e. western) standards, especially a dedication to science, rationalism and political democracy.


The movement had its foundations in the 1890’s, with increased contact with foreigners and the appearance of translations of western publications. Thus, in some respects we can also view the Boxer Uprising as a reactionary response to the same trends which were producing the New Culture Movement. After the uprising, the New Culture Movement identified the Yi He Quan, and by extension all martial arts practice, as emblematic of everything that was objectionable in the old culture and of the reasons why the people of China had become weak. If the Yi He Quan were an indication, then martial artists must be “backward” and “superstitious.” (Cohen xii) In his 1915 book, Sun Lu Tang hinted at these biases, saying “There was a prejudice in the old days that literates despised martial arts as martial artists were short on learning.” (Dan Miller’s translation)

The government briefly suppressed the practice of martial arts following the Boxer Uprising, closing private academies (武館) in the capital in particular. In 1905, another movement towards reform resulted in the abolition of the military examination system. Those martial artists who had prepared candidates for the exams, as well as those who had viewed martial arts training as preparation for a military career, faced a new reality. For almost a decade, the practice of martial arts seems to have sat on the edge of extinction. The real challenge remained the fact that in this new intellectual environment, martial art training was not simply unfashionable (it had always somewhat been) but was now identified as a symptom of the same feudal culture which had doomed the nation to failure and humiliation.


Of course, martial arts practice did not suffer extinction. Around the country, they reemerged in the mid-1910s along with the establishment of several organizations that today’s practitioners are familiar with; the preeminent of which is the “Pure Martial Athletic Association (精武體育會 Jing Wu Tiyu Hui). We must not only ask “how” this happened, we must ask “why?” It was at this point that martial arts practice most fundamentally changed. Prior to the turn of the century, martial arts practice had either been conducted by active military men or in villages where, in addition to providing training for their militia, it was a recreation for children and for adults during times when they were not engaged in agricultural labor. (Kennedy Jingwu p1). In this new period, martial arts practice becomes an urban activity engaged in by the middle class; for health, physical education and recreation.

Among those who contributed to the introduction of Western thought into Chinese society was Yan Fu (嚴復1854-1921), a scholar and translator whose translation of Thomas Huxley’s Evolution and Ethics (in Chinese 天演論) brought Social Darwinism to the forefront of Chinese intellectual discussion. In some circles it has been argued that Yan Fu deliberately ignored the ethical dimensions of Huxley’s original work to advance the political agendas of national competitiveness and physical self-strengthening. Yan Fu stated that “The power of a nation is based on people’s physical strength.” (Lu Zhouxiang p.484) His work made familiar the concept of “survival of the fittest” (in Chinese天擇).

It was Social Darwinism and “survival of the fittest” which prompted an interest in Western models of physical education (Ti Cao體操) and military drilling (Bing Cao兵操). The rational was that the nation was week because the population was physically weak. The poor suffered from poor diet, disease, and crowded living conditions. Xu Yi Bing (徐一冰), a pioneering educator who opened the “Chinese Calisthenics School” (中國體操學校) in Shanghai in 1909, believed much of China’s contemporary problems were a result of its lack of attention to physical education;

The people of our nation are weary and spiritless, our bodies emaciated by disease. We trudge on towards death, and if we bother to find why, we see that it is nothing else but the harm of our abandonment of [physical education].
(Marrow of nation P 2)

On the other hand, the educated had been raised in Confucian society which held 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. (Kennedy and Guo Jingwu 54-55) Chinese society lacked the modern, Western concept of public health and as a result had failed to properly evolve into a modern nation state.


To strengthen the nation and resist Western imperialism, physical education (體操) would produce a new generation of able bodied men with “martial spirit” developed by military drilling (兵操). Thus physical education and military training were perceived as over­lapping activities. It was, as Andrew Morris described it, a “militarized” physical education movement in which the Chinese initially looked to the German and Swedish models as opposed to the “sport”, fun and entertainment approaches of the Anglo-American model. As early as 1902, schools began to incorporate these “Ti Cao” calisthenics and gymnastics classes with “martial spirit” as their main goal. Beginning in 1904, private institutions focused on modern physical education also began to appear in major Chinese cities.

Thus, as much as the introduction of Western ideas produced a new manner of criticism of the martial arts, it also introduced a new context in which the martial arts might justify and legitimate themselves. Military-style calisthenics in the 1910s included some aspects of traditional martial arts, the famous novelist Mao Dun (茅盾) remembered practicing spear drills in middle school. (“My Life” p 72) Yet Western boxing and fencing were more universally practiced and respected. Even more telling, some physical education proponents also embraced Japanese Judo, seeing in it a martial art with traditional Japanese origins successfully converted to the standards of a modern international sport. (Marrow p 6) Martial arts would be acceptable only if they could demonstrate that they had been modernized and could serve as a proper form of physical education.


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