The Nationalist Party (GMD) and the Guoshu movement of 1920s

10 Jan

Thus, it has been argued that the 1920’s ushered in a different political climate with an increasing nationalistic sentiment. It was in this decade that Dr. Sun Yat-Sen reorganized himself and established the Guomindang or “Nationalist Party” (國民黨). With nationalism also came renewed militarism; the Nationalist Party allied themselves with several local warlords in Guangdong province, sought organizational assistance from the Soviet Union and ultimately set up the Whampoa Military Academy (黃埔軍校). The appeal to nationalism was certainly explicit;

Today we are the poorest and weakest nation in the world and occupy the lowest position in international affairs. Other men are carving knives and serving dishes; we are fish and meat. Our position at this time is most perilous. If we do not earnestly espouse nationalism and weld together our four hundred million people into a strong nation, there is a danger of China being lost and our people being destroyed. If we wish to avert this catastrophe, we must espouse nationalism and bring this nationalist spirit to the salvation of the country.
(de Bary, pp. 106-107)


Zhang Zhi Dong had rejected all “old methods of training” and had no use for either spears or swords. Later, under Yuan Shi Kai, the Ministry of Education had issued the “Guidelines for Education” which embraced both the German style military drilling and incorporation of Chinese martial arts training. In the 1920’s, military men with close affiliations to traditional Chinese martial arts also rose to prominence just as increasing nationalist sentiment favored the promotion of their methods. Nationalists could argue that they were uniquely valuable because they were uniquely Chinese. (Lorge 213) At the same time, the outcome of the First World War undermined the reputation of the foreign, German style military drilling.

I don’t oppose playing ball in the least, but I do oppose this feverish consumption of foreigners’ goods. This is exercise, but it is the exercise of the gents and ladies of the leisured classes. If you want to exercise your body, is a blade not enough? Is a sword routine not enough? Are wrestling or boxing not enough? Of China’s eighteen types of martial arts, not one is incapable of drenching our entire bodies in sweat, stimulating all the body’s blood, tendons, and bones. … Now it is all just about blindly following the West, and when you think about it this is really our greatest national shame.
Feng Yu Xiang (馮玉祥)

Feng Yu Xiang (馮玉祥) had originally been part of Yuan Shi Kai’s Beiyang Army (北洋軍) but had changed affiliations several times before joining the Nationalist Party. Feng was probably unaware of the irony, but his statement was the exact inversion of Lu Xun’s response to Chen Tie Sheng;

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.
(New Youth, 15 February 1919)


In this new nationalistic point of view, there was nothing inherently “wrong” with Western exercise, but it was completely unnecessary for China. The Chinese had a long history of physical culture which had simply been obscured by those enamored with Western thought; “Ignorant students, their minds drunk with the spirit of Europe, still say that China has no Tiyu history of. Ah, how could they be so wrong?” (Morris 43) This included Chinese martial arts, which were equally “qualified to be part of Tiyu.” (Morris 43)


Of course, there was merit to this position as well. Historically, the Chinese had archery, the ancient football game of “Cu Ju” (蹴鞠), horse riding, wrestling and the lifting of stone weights. Relevant to our study, all had featured in military training and most had found their way into popular martial arts traditions. Some nationalists would take the argument a step farther; Chinese physical culture was unique and had unique benefits. Western calisthenics, Western weight lifting or Western boxing might build strong muscles; but Chinese martial arts were unique in their cultivation of Qi.

Surging nationalism also changed the terminology. As we have seen, through China’s history martial arts had been described with many terms. Beginning in the Ming Dynasty, and through most of the Qing as well, Quan (拳) was perhaps the most common term associated with its practice. But now Quan (拳) was easily confused with, in many circles flatly associated with, the failed “Boxers” of the Yi He Quan (義和拳). As we begin to see all things become associated with the nation-state, “National Painting” (國畫), “National Music” (國樂) and “National Medicine” (國醫), we also begin to see “martial arts” become “National Arts” or “Guoshou” (國術). Of course, a “National Art” also implies patriotism, loyalty to the state, as opposed to the various other loyalties and affiliations martial artists traditionally had.

On March 12, 1925 Sun Yat-Sen died of liver cancer at the age of 58, making way for the rise of his protégé Chiang Kai Shek (蔣介石). Chiang came from a wealthy family of salt merchants and had been raised with orthodox Confucian values. He attended the Baoding Military Academy (保定軍校) in 1906, and then went to Japan to continue his training. He served in the Imperial Japanese Army from 1909 to 1911. He returned to China in 1911 to participate in the events surrounding the collapse of the Qing Dynasty.


It was in Japan that Chiang met the aforementioned Chen Qi Mei (陳其美). Chen mentored Chiang, and initiated him into the Tong Meng Hui (同盟會) in while they were in Japan in 1908. Upon returning to China, Chen placed Chiang in charge of the 83rd Brigade, a group which at best has been described as “riff-raff.” (T’ang pp 252-253) These were also the years in which Chiang associated with Shanghai’s notorious Green Gang (青帮). (T’ang pp 252-253 and Berkov 29) In 1912 Chiang was involved in the assassination of Tao Cheng Zhang (陶成章), a political rival of both Sun Yat Sen and Chen Qi Mei. (Loh p 27). In 1915, he was also personally involved in the assassination of the Shanghai garrison commander. (Loh 29) In fact, the Shanghai International Settlement police charged Chiang with a number of felonies for which he never stood trial. (Loh 20, 133) Following Chen Qi Mei’s assassination by agents of Yuan Shi Kai, Chiang joined Sun Yat Sen in Guangdong in 1918.

Between 1926 and 1928, the Nationalist Party under the direction of Chiang Kai Shek engaged in the Northern Expedition (國民革命軍北伐). Utilizing a modernized force trained at the Whampoa Military Academy, the Nationalist Party engaged in a campaign to oust what they considered the illegitimate Beiyang government (北洋政府) in Beijing, end the “Warlord Era” and reunify the nation. Much of the reunification was achieved through creating alliances and incorporating these so called “warlords” into the Nationalist Party. However, when fighting was necessary, the Nationalist forces had been trained in modern methods with Soviet assistance, were armed with Russian and German weaponry, and had a propaganda wing aided by the Chinese communists who had joined with the Nationalist Party under the “First United Front.” It was a formidable military force, and as former commandant of the academy Chiang had the personal loyalty of most of the officers.

Communists executed in streets of Shanghai

Communists executed in streets of Shanghai

On April 12, 1927 Chiang began his quest for undisputed control of the Nationalist Party and initiated the “White Massacre” or “April 12 Purge” (四一二清黨) in Shanghai. Communist military units, radical union members, plain-clothes Communist organizers and left leaning intellectuals were all targeted. Thousands of workers were shot or beheaded on the spot. (Hahn p 111) Chiang for the most part did not use his regular military, he relied upon his connections with the notorious Green Gang and also recruited Red Gang (紅帮) enforcers, the “red staff” (紅棍). The massacre was followed by a party purge that ousted all Communists and leftists, leaving Chiang as leader of a right-leaning party that established itself in Nanjing.

Within a year of consolidating his power, the Guomindang turned its attention toward the regulation of martial arts. As a military man, who had trained in Japan, it was not surprising that Chiang Kai-Shek had already long embraced the martial arts as a tool to strengthen the nation;

There are certain arts and technical abilities a modern Chinese citizen should be conversant with. We must encourage certain arts among which the following is most important: Chinese boxing. Chinese boxing in not simply a form of physical contest; it is also pregnant with meaning for the physical education or our citizens. Its highest ideal is to enable the learner to remain calm and serene, to coordinate his mind and muscles, and to strike home with the full force of both. Such an attitude is somewhat different from the basic assumptions of Western type boxing. We call our type the “Chinese National Boxing (Guoshou),” because we wish to emphasize its significance for the physical and mental health of our citizens. In all our future educational plans, we must regard Chinese boxing as an essential item in the physical education of our citizens and encourage people to learn it with all the persuasion and authority we can command.
(Kennedy Jing Wu P20)

While many of the men behind the scenes of the Jing Wu were important political figures, the organization attempted to maintain the appearance it was apolitical. The second article of the Jing Wu constitution declared that members “were not allowed to become involved in politics.” (Morris p. 197) Chen Tie Sheng famously declared that the Jing Wu “does not carry the stench of politics.” (Morris 198). Reading more detailed histories of the Jing Wu, a reader might be tempted to dismiss their claims as absurd or self-serving, but it may have been simply a necessary function of the 1910s period. The 1920’s were a time of great political change, and Chiang Kai Shek had overtly political designs in regards to the martial arts.

Chiang Kai Shek was perhaps uniquely qualified to understand the challenges presented by the existing martial arts community. He was a military man who had spent considerable time in Shanghai with secret society members and undoubtedly with the martial artists who associated with them. Consider Doak Barnett, a well-known historian who documented conditions in Sichuan province during the Republican period. He reported what Chiang Kai Shek had surely already long known;

There was nothing secret about [secret societies]…. The fact that it is outlawed by the central government does not seem to bother anyone concerned, or, it might be added, deter anyone from becoming a member if he is invited.

The Qing Dynasty had collapsed but very little had really changed. The practice of martial arts produced skilled fighters who frequently had loyalties only to their teacher and tradition. They were available as muscle-to-hire to criminals, secret societies and potential revolutionaries. Chiang had used precisely these sorts of men during the “White Massacre” in Shanghai. The communists had also tried to incorporate and mobilize them.


Furthermore, upon closer inspection, the wave of progressivism we have described thus far really represented a very select few. The Jing Wu Association in Shanghai, Sun Lu Tang’s Beiping Physical Culture Research Institute (北平體育研究) in Beijing and Li Cun Yi’s Chinese Warrior Association (中華武士會) in Tianjin were the exceptions, certainly not the rule. Wu Zhi Qing (吳志青) was the leader of the “Chinese Martial Hero Association of Shanghai” (上海中華武俠會) during the 1920’s. In discussing the community, Wu pointed out that martial arts were still not openly discussed and factions still sought to keep their skills secret. (Morris p. 217) Martial artists still functioned largely as their own sub-culture, felt little connection or loyalty to the nation-state, and had the power to resist. Thus, they continued to represent a significant challenge to anyone wishing to establish central authority. (Lorge p. 216)


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