Through a Lens Darkly (9): Swords, Knives and other Traditional Weapons Encountered by the Shanghai Police Department, 1925.
Introduction: Practical Martial Arts in the Age of the Gun.
As I have mentioned elsewhere, when thinking about the traditional Chinese martial arts we have a tendency to assume that these systems were created in an era without firearms. With the coming of the almighty gun they either became obsolete or were preserved for their spiritual, philosophical and traditional value. This theme became a troupe in countless Kung Fu movies, novels and newspaper stories. Of course it is totally untrue.
Worse than that, it is almost exactly backwards. The current complex of ideas and institutions that we identify as the “Chinese martial arts” seem to have first arisen and come together in the middle or late Ming dynasty. This was a time when both early rifles and artillery were coming to dominant the battlefield’s of Asia, the Middle East and Europe. China was no exception to this trend.
As social order disintegrated in the 19th century the Chinese martial arts once again started to gain social momentum around the country. This was a period characterized by banditry, urban crime, and the rise of organized narcotics smuggling (first opium, later morphine and heroine). From the mid 19th century onward criminals and bandits had disturbingly easy access to both rifles and handguns. During this same period the Colt revolver became the preferred weapon of many “armed escort” companies.
Of course this is exactly the same time that the foundations for the modern Chinese martial arts were being laid. Many of the most popular styles practiced today were invented during the end of the 19th century, and other older styles were reformed and repackaged to make them appealing to a new generation of students. Rather than martial arts and firearms being substitutes, they are actually complimentary goods. The consumption of both goods actually rose at the same time.
This should not be a huge surprise to modern readers. After all, firearms are a plentiful feature of the modern world. For that matter crime and a pervasive feeling of insecurity are still with us today. These are some of the very factors that drive individuals in the West to study martial arts in the first place. Nor has the plentiful supply of modern firearms led police, intelligence or military organizations to abandon hand combat training. Far from it.
I want to reiterate this point because it reminds us of a fundamental, but often overlooked, truth.
The martial arts, as they exist today, are a fundamentally modern phenomenon. For all of the rhetoric of “traditional culture” and “ancient customs,” the truth is most of the arts of Japan and China that are actually practiced are a product of the late 19th or early 20th century. They survive and thrive today because at least some of the tactical and cultural issues that they were attempting to address at that time are still problems that we face today. The feeling of vulnerability in the face of social decay, or the need to find a means of self-actualization in an increasingly hostile world, are not problems that any one culture has an exclusive monopoly on. That is good news for students of the traditional fighting arts. It means that we can find new ways to adapt and stay relevant.
The Weapons of the Chinese Martial Arts as Encountered on the Streets of Shanghai.
I recently ran across a set of wonderful photographs that really illustrated this tension between the coexistence of multiple types of violence during the Republic of China era. This was a time when the martial arts were experiencing rapid growth in China. In fact, these different technologies of violence did not just coexist, rather they interacted with and fed off one another, leading both to evolve and change in the process.
Nowhere is this mutual give and take more apparent than in Shanghai during the 1920s and 1930s. We are quite fortunate as a number of good studies of both the cities various police efforts and its prodigious supply of organized criminal factions have been written over the years. Other research has focused on the importance of the foreign concessions or the different intelligence agencies and secret police forces in shaping life in the city. I have only investigated the question briefly, but I have not been able to find a similar literature on police and crime for any other Chinese city, or region, during the 1920s.
Students of Chinese martial studies are often interested in the relationship between law enforcement and criminal groups as these two sectors of society were among the largest, and best funded, employers of martial artists. Police departments hired martial arts instructors and were interested in the creation of new hand combat skills to solve concrete tactical problems. Likewise the various secret societies and criminal factions of urban China also employed boxing instructors and used these skills in both their business ventures (gambling, protection, prostitution) and their frequent disputes with one another. By the 1920s and 1930s it was not uncommon for the Triads and other gangs to use both martial arts schools and lion dance associations as fronts for their criminal enterprises.
This created something of a problem for the police. On the one hand most serious criminal gangs were armed to the teeth with modern rifles and handguns. At this period of time basically anyone who could write a large enough check could buy a tommy gun through the mail. As a result the police also began to carry automatic handguns, flak vests and carbines. The photograph at the head of this article is of a set of police officers in Shanghai in the 1930s. In most respects they look exactly like any modern unit that you might see today.
However, the older modes of violence never totally lost their place in the criminal order. Swords, knives and daggers continued to be commonly encountered weapons, and they were used to kill people on a routine basis. A wide variety of other weapons were also encountered by police officers in the course of raids and arrests. These weapons are interesting as they give us a glimpse into the milieu that the modern Chinese martial arts came of age in.