“Anti-Foreignism” and the Southern Chinese Martial Arts⋅
Introduction: Anti-Foreignism in Republican Guangdong
Students of the traditional Chinese martial arts are frequently reminded that until very recently these systems were “closed” to outsiders. Then, in the wake of Bruce Lee, Kung Fu masters around the world decided to magnanimously open their schools to foreigners. Needless to say this was very different from the “good old days” of the 1920s-1930s when the traditional hand combat systems were used to protect the Chinese nation and fight imperialism.
Such accounts have become accepted as basically a “common sense” interpretation of the popular history of the Chinese martial arts within the global market. Yet Prof. Thomas A. Green has pointed out that we should be cautious when approaching such stories. In his 2003 essay “Sense in Nonsense: The Role of Folk History in the Martial Arts” he points out that many of these accounts bear all of the markers that one would expect to see in “popular legends.” These stories serve an important social function (reinforcing group solidarity and passing along a shared world view) while at the same time enrobing the styles that pass them along in the halo of ancient and exotic achievements. Rather than complaining about strenuous training practices, modern students should be grateful that they even have access to such secrets at all. It wasn’t always the case.
Of course this does not mean that some teachers might not have carried a genuine antipathy towards the west, or foreign things in general. Yet the frequency of these attitudes is something that should be studied, rather than simply assumed from the handful of (mostly post-WWII) accounts that we usually discuss.
Virgil K. Ho has recently argued that historians tend to vastly overstate the strength of anti-western and anti-foreign sentiments in Guangdong province during the Republic period. Both western and Marxist historians have tended to favor a few stridently vocal nationalist voices which are readily apparent in the written historical record, while ignoring the opinions of the vast majority of the areas citizens and business owners. These individuals generally had a more nuanced, and positive, assessment of the foreign districts of Guangzhou (Shameen) as well as western dress and custom.
Hong Kong’s relative political stability and dedication to the “rule of law” was often held up by middle class citizens of Guangdong who tired of the KMT’s corrupt business practices and frequent expropriations of private wealth to make up government budget shortfalls.
This is not to say that Guangdong was unimportant to the formation of Chinese nationalism, or that there were not real periods of tension (and even violence) between the western powers and the local communities in southern China. There certainly were. The Hong Kong strike of 1925-1926 comes to mind as one such example.
Rather Ho’s point is that it is dangerous to generalize from these exceptional cases. Most citizens of southern China had no problems separating their anti-imperialist concerns from a more generalized feeling of “anti-foreignism.” After all, the local economy was deeply impacted by globalization.
In Ho’s words, the population had learned that there were both friends and competitors within the international sphere. Of course this degree of nuance (or perceived indifference) did not always sit well with the more strident May 4th Reformers and nationalist thinkers. [For more on this topic see Virgil K. Ho. “The Limits of Hatred: Popular Attitudes Towards the West in Republican Canton.” in Understanding Canton: Rethinking Popular Culture in the Republican Period. Oxford University Press. 2005. 49-95].
Ho makes a number of interesting points. Yet his reassessment of the degree of anti-foreignism in southern China could probably be expanded. One might start by considering the historical record left by the explosive growth of the martial arts in the area during the Republic era. This renaissance was getting underway precisely during his period of study. Further, the many links between the local martial arts schools and the region’s political and economic debates suggest that if you wish to understand the development of nationalism in southern China during the 1920s and 1930s, this would be a good place to start.