Another “rough cut”: New Culture Movement criticisms

2 Jan

Chen Du Xiu took to the pages of his “New Youth” journal to criticize the new martial arts program of General Ma Liang (馬良). The general’s “New Chinese Martial Arts” (中華新武術) provides us with an excellent example of this new approach to martial arts practice emerging within the military. Ma Liang had been a product of the new army and its German tradition military drilling, but he was also a strong nationalist and defender of Chinese martial arts. His new training program claimed to have incorporated Western ideas and western callisthenic exercises for physical conditioning, along with Chinese fist/striking (拳), leg/kicking (腿), wrestling (摔角), sword and staff fighting methods which were said to have been “scientifically selected” from the many different traditions. In 1917 Ma Liang’s program was introduced as mandatory training for military, police and physical education training at Beijing Normal University. (Gu “Shilun beiyang junfa tongzhi shiqi de tiyu.” [Sport warlord rule In North China]. In Xin Zhongguo tiyu shi youxiu lunwenji, ed. Liuji, pp. 308-316)


In some regards, Ma Liang’s “New Chinese Martial Arts” might seem rather progressive, even similar to the Jing Wu’s attempts to take the martial arts and rationalize them and make them relevant. Yet Chen Du Xiu’s article in “New Youth” demonstrated he was violently opposed;

We have already had enough of the 1900 “Spirit Boxers”, but now we are supposed to teach Commander Ma’s martial arts in school. Do not once more allow the “extraordinary feats of strength, chaos and spirits”, of which even Confucius did not speak [because of their supernatural content], to come and “deceive the next generation”.
(Morris, 2004, p. 194)


Chen Du Xiu was quick to link what was advertised as a new martial arts program to the disastrous Boxer Uprising. Did Chen really believe this, or was it simply a useful tactic and his opposition really rooted in his ideological anti-traditionalism and anti-militarism? It is impossible to say, but we see the same attitude expressed by the most famous figure to emerge from the New Culture Movement, Lu Xun (魯迅). The following comments by Lu Xun also appeared in the “New Youth” journal;

Recently, there have been a fair number of people scattered about who have been energetically promoting [martial arts]. (note on “quan”) I seem to recall this having happened once before. But at that time the promoters were the Manchu court and high officials, whereas now they are Republican educators – people occupying a quite different place in society. I have no way of telling, as an outsider, whether their goals are the same or different.
(Cohen 230)


Clearly, Lu Xun was comparing the supporters of the new martial arts programs with the reactionary Qing clique which had sanctioned the Yi He Quan.

These educators have now renamed the old methods “that the Goddess of the Ninth Heaven transmitted to the Yellow Emperor”…”the new martial arts” or “Chinese-style gymnastics” and they make young people practice them.

If one were to believe Lu Xun, those promoting the new programs were only attempting to use new terminology to obscure and confuse. That in fact there was no difference between their approach to martial arts training and the highly ritualized, superstitious practices of the Yi He Quan? The tone of his statements is increasingly satirical and sarcastic.

I’ve heard there are a lot of benefits to be had from them. Two of the more important may be listed here:

(1) They have a physical education function. It’s said that when Chinese take instruction in foreign gymnastics it isn’t effective; the only thing that works for them is native-style gymnastics (that is, [martial arts]). I would have thought that if one spread one’s arms and legs apart and picked up a foreign bronze hammer or wooden club in one’s hands, it ought probably to have some “efficacy” as far as one’s muscular development was concerned. But it turns out this isn’t so! Naturally, therefore, the only course left to them is to switch to learning such tricks as “Wu Song disengaging himself from his manacles.” No doubt this is because Chinese are different from foreigners physiologically.

(2) They have a military function. The Chinese know how to box; the foreigners don’t know how to box. So if one day the two meet and start fighting it goes without saying the Chinese will win…. The only thing is that nowadays people always use firearms when they fight. Although China “had firearms too in ancient times” it doesn’t have them anymore. So if the Chinese don’t learn the military art of using rattan shields, how can they protect themselves against firearms? I think–since they don’t elaborate on this, this reflects “my own very limited and shallow understanding”–I think that if they keep at it with their boxing they are bound to reach a point where they become “invulnerable to firearms.” (I presume by doing exercises to benefit their internal organs?) Boxing was tried once before–in 1900. Unfortunately on that occasion its reputation may be considered to have suffered a decisive setback. We’ll see how it fares this time around.
(Cohen, History in Three Keys p 231)


If Lu Xun’s condescending tone suggested that he believed all those advocating the practice of martial arts were ignorant, semi-literate peasants, he miscalculated. “New Youth” subsequently published a rebuttal by none other than Chen Tie Sheng (陳鐵生), the leading writer and editor of the Jing Wu’s publications. (Kennedy jingwu 24) Chen’s rebuttal was equally satirical and sarcastic, while exposing Lu Xun’s relative ignorance of subject matter. (note on sources)

Chen Tie Sheng begins by addressing the very essence of the issue, asking how Lu Xun could possibly confuse the “Boxer Bandits” (拳匪), the Yi He Quan, with the legitimate practice of martial arts (技擊術)? Chen states that Lu Xun couldn’t possibly have had any direct experience with the Yi He Quan, or he could never be so confused. “Boxer Bandits” (拳匪) engaged in “bestial dances” (禽獸舞) (i.e. spirit possession) and relied upon “sorcery” (鬼道主義 ). Authentic martial artists were associated by contrast with what Chen referred to as “humanism” (人道主義), a rejection of the supernatural. Chen’s argument is the same one Joseph Esherick would painstakingly document seventy years later.

Chen’s attacks continued to suggest that Lu Xun was an conceited outsider who knew very little about the things he criticized. Chen countered Lu Xun’s “gun argument” by stating matter-of-factly that “firearms must indeed by used” (槍砲固然要用), but also noting that the military drilling in middle schools included sword and spear practice. Furthermore, real combat included “in close fighting” but that “this doubtless is not something Mr. Lu knows about.” (Cohen 232) Finally, demonstrating that he had just as much education and wit to spar with the literary great, Chen sarcastically called Lu Xun himself a “Boxer Bandit” in that, like the Yi He Quan, he had no real comprehension of what constituted authentic Chinese martial arts at all. (ibid)


Of course, “Quan” (拳) was a term long associated with the practice of martial arts and has generally been translated in English sources as “boxing.” In this volume I consciously avoided using the term “boxing” so as to not confuse the orthodox practice of martial arts with the so-called “Boxers” of the Yi He Quan (義和拳). In Chen’s rebuttal, he uses “Boxer Bandits”, a term which had been widely used to describe the Yi He Quan, but in doing so demonstrates how “Quan” (拳) had come to be linked with the notorious character for “bandit” (匪). Furthermore, Chen uses the more classical “技擊術” in describing legitimate martial arts practice. Perhaps it was this tainting of the term “Quan” (拳) that prompted a search for new terminologies, such as Guoshu (國術).


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