Over at King Fu Tea, there is a very interesting article on the historical secrecy of teaching Asian martial arts in the US. An excerpt is below. The full post may be read here.
I recently reviewed Charles Russo’s excellent work, Striking Distance, which discussed the spread of the Chinese martial arts on the West Coast of the United States during the middle of the 20th
century. It is a great contribution to the ongoing discussion of the
history of these fighting systems, and anyone who is unfamiliar with it will want to check it out.
In this post I would like to offer a slightly different perspective
on a theme that arose repeatedly throughout Russo’s study. How should
we think of the supposed secrecy that surrounded the Chinese martial
arts in the West prior to the late 1960s? This is a topic that Russo
treats with a fair amount of nuance.
To begin with, some pretty prominent teachers actually taught western
students prior to the “lifting of the ban”, and even those who did not
personally do so (such as Lau Bun)
had senior students of their own that were more than willing to take up
the torch. Nor is it really clear how many western students were
petitioning these masters for Kung Fu instruction during the 1950s. It
must be remembered that the Chinese martial arts were a pretty esoteric
subject at that point, and not even as popular within their own
community as they would become in later decades. It may have been very
easy to enforce a “teaching ban” in an era when practically no one was
asking to be taught.
Even worse, an over-emphasis on the supposed secrecy of the Chinese
martial arts has had some perverse effects on how we discuss them. As
Paul Bowman (among others) has noted, when we emphasize the “ban” on
outsiders the end result is to throw the charge of racism back on the
Chinese-American community when in fact they were the ones who were
subjected to vast amounts of actual (not imagined) discrimination.
Still, Russo reminds us that we cannot simply dismiss these norms out
of hand. While some Chinese teachers were willing to violate them,
they also report being the victims of various sorts of pressures,
ranging from economic to actual threats of violence. After numerous
interviews he concluded that there was no reason to doubt the accounts
of actual teachers reporting these attitudes within their own
community. Still, by the early 1970s the flood gates were open. So
possible range of years in which a ban could have seriously restricted
the economic freedom of large numbers of potential students and teachers
is actually pretty limited.
All of this is very interesting, but it is well worth remembering
that the Tong associations of either San Francisco or New York did not
monopolize access to, or the public discussion of, these fighting
systems. In the grand scheme of the globalization of the Chinese
martial arts they were rather minor players who had more influence over
members of their own community than the various masters who started to
emigrate directly from China to the west throughout the 20th century (Zheng Manqing being a prime example).
While they may have preferred that traditional hand combat methods not
be taught, or even discussed, with outsiders, other groups had very
By the second and third decades of the 20th century
various thinkers in China realized that the martial arts could be
employed as important tools of state building and nationalism. Many of
these efforts drew inspiration from the Japanese use of Budo culture in
these same roles decades earlier. And once the TCMA began to be
reimagined as tools of the state, they immediately became part of
China’s growing “public diplomacy” efforts.
In an earlier time public diplomacy was often referred to as
“propaganda.” This typically refers to coordinated media programs
designed to influence the thoughts and feelings of the citizens of other
countries so that they are more favorably disposed to one’s goals or
preferred policy outcomes. Such efforts can take a variety of forms,
and they can be led either directly by state actors or individuals in
the private sector.
During the Second World War the term propaganda was seriously
discredited and left with only negative connotations. It fell into
disuse, except as a slur. Political scientists and policy makers today
are more likely to speak of “public diplomacy” or “national brand
management.” Still, the basic idea is much the same.
Nor is public diplomacy necessarily a bad thing. It is hard to think
of how it is even possible to address certain pressing problems within
the international system, from deterring the spread of radical religious
identities to building a consensus to fight climate change, without the
skillful use of public diplomacy. It is one of the very basic
implements of diplomacy and statecraft that every country has in their
As Chinese policy makers observed the West’s fascination with
Japanese martial arts such as judo and kendo they quickly realized that
their own fighting systems could play an important role in shaping how
China was perceived by the global public. After all, the West was
looking to the Budo arts to try and understand how the Japanese
“national character” had contributed to their surprising military and
economic rise. Essays on judo and kendo were surprisingly common in the early 20th century, and a fair number of individuals were deciding to try these practices out for themselves.
In contrast, the Western public tended to view the Chinese as
politically disorganized, economically backward, socially insular and
physically weak. This was the climate in which the image of China as
the “Sick Man of East Asia” began to circulate.
By promoting a streamlined and revitalized system of martial arts
training certain policy makers hoped not just to rebuild the domestic
body politic, but also to influence how China was perceived on the
international stage. If the new Republic wished to receive any
assistance in its struggle against Japanese imperialism and later
communism, it was necessary to demonstrate both that the state was
unified and that the people possessed the will to resist oppression.
The discussion of China’s proud martial arts heritage, and recent
efforts to revive and modernize it, could accomplish both of these tasks
at the same time.
In a recent post we looked at newsreels from the 1920s and 1930s in which the Western movie-going public was exposed to these exact messages.
It was also interesting to see how the discussion of the Chinese
fighting arts differed from contemporary discussions of Japanese
This post looks at an even earlier example of the use of the Chinese
martial arts in Republic era public diplomacy. During the spring of
1920 Rodney Gilbert wrote an essay titled “China, Parent of Jiu-Jitsu”
for the aptly named Bulletin of the Chinese Bureau of Public Information. Later that summer the essay was reprinted in various formats in a number of sources including the North China News in Shanghai (a paper for which Gilbert), the Mid-Pacific Magazine (Volume 20, Number 5), The Literary Digest (May 29th) and the Far East Republic.
Gilbert was a classic example of a unique sort of adventurer that was
drawn to China during the Republic period. He appeared on the other
side of the Pacific flat broke with the intention of becoming a
pharmaceutical salesman, but he quickly found his calling in
journalism. Gilbert lived in China for decades becoming one of the
media’s “old China hands.” He wrote for a number of papers and
eventually ended up having relationships with such prestigious
institutions as the Columbia University School of Journalism.
However, a closer look at this writing quickly reveals that Gilbert
was very conservative. He is best remembered for his many attacks on
communism. Gilbert also played a role in American and Chinese public
diplomacy efforts, writing pieces that supported the Republic’s
government in an attempt to create sympathy among American readers.
During this period he was in frequent contact with political and social
leaders, as well as the OSS (the precursor of the CIA). Nor were
communists his only target. He also wrote a number of pieces supporting
the Chinese government against Japanese aggression.
The longest and most complete versions of this article (which I have
so far been able to locate) appears to be the one published by the Far East Republic, quoted verbatim from the Bulletin of the Chinese Bureau of Public Information.
I have not been able to find a lot of information on this later
publication. Apparently it only ran for a few years, and its goal was
to print English language articles designed to educate and encourage
support for the Chinese government among Western readers. The profile
of many of its contributors seems to have been similar to Gilbert’s.
Again, many of them were notably conservative writers with connections
to various figures in both the Chinese and western policy
This particular essay is quite interesting and a few individuals have
already commented on versions of it. Joseph Svinth reprinted a shortened commentary on the piece as published in the Literary Journal (May, 1920) in the Electronic Journal of Martial Arts Studies (EJMAS) in 1999 Acevedo quoted extensively from Svinth’s version in his own blog post titled “Ma Liang – Chinese Martial Arts Modernizer, Warlord and Traitor.”
Rehabilitating Ma’s image after his notorious crackdown on student
protestors seems to have been one of the specific goals of Gilbert’s
commission. Nor should we overlook the fact that Ma himself had just
published his groundbreaking, four volume, “New Martial Arts of China”
prior to the release of this article. Gilbert obliquely notes the
release of these books before pointing out that various western military
men had examined Ma’s methods and declared that there was nothing here
that could not be adopted by Occidental armies wishing to brush up their
All of this should remind us that when we approach this article we
are looking at a piece of public diplomacy, emerging from a specific
time and place, with a very specific policy agenda. This is not a work
of disinterested journalism or the product of a trained anthropologist.
In fact, one rather strongly suspects that it was General Ma himself
who commissioned the Bulletin of the Chinese Bureau of Public Information
to promote both his book and military training system while knocking
the Japanese down a peg. Given his important but colorful place in
modern martial arts history, this is an important possibility to
Even more critical is to remember that at the same time that the “Old
Tong Code of Silence” may have been in full force in certain
neighborhoods in the US, vastly larger forces were mobilizing around the
idea of promoting the Chinese martial arts on the global stage.
Figures like Ma were well aware of the profound effects of Judo on the
Western discussion of Japan, and they sought to promote the Chinese
martial arts to boost both their own national image and policy goals
Perhaps the apex of these efforts would be achieved during the 1936 Olympic Games when Taijiquan was demonstrated
to a receptive global audience. But that should not be understood as a
unique event. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s there was a steady drip
of English language articles, books, demonstrations and newsreels all
attempting to bring a more favorable vision of the TCMA into Western
discussions of Chinese society. Rather than focusing on a so called
“code of silence,” the more interesting question might be to ask why
these liberalizing efforts failed to gain greater traction, and how they
came to be so totally forgotten. Yet that is the topic of another
When reviewing Gilbert’s discussion of Chinese martial arts readers
may want to keep two questions in mind. First, did he actually witness
the event that he reports here? While it is generally assumed that the
answer must be yes, I can’t help but notice that Gilbert never actually
claims such in his article. Rather the entire discussion is phrased in
terms of what a theoretical visitor might see if he were able to take in
Ma’s (rightly famous) demonstration. Nor does Gilbert make any claim
to expertise in the Chinese martial arts beyond what he has seen on the
Secondly, note the rhetorical skill with which Gilbert makes an
important two part move. First, he asserts the uniqueness of the
Chinese martial arts and their (historically grounded) superiority to
similar Japanese systems. It is this deep connection to the nation’s
history that makes them (and subsequently Ma’s leadership) uniquely well
suited for the simple Chinese people, turning “loutish coolies” into
modern disciplined soldiers. Yet at the same time, the deep truths
behind these practices are seen to be perfectly compatible with western
norms of progress and efficiency. As a result, it is the western
readers and military officers who can immediately identify the actual
value in Ma’s program, while a reluctant Chinese nation is only now
being convinced to embrace what was best about their past. It is the
Chinese people who are surprised by Ma’s success, but not the western
While Gilbert’s readers reside outside this system of bodily
practice, the author succeeds in creating a sense of belonging to an
“insider” community based on the assumption of shared norms. In that
way readers may be convinced of the value of the martial arts as well as
Ma’s heroic leadership. This dual move also serves to legitimate
China’s place in the global community of nations. It is seen to have a
unique cultural heritage which is, nevertheless, of universal value. It
is exactly this claim which would propel the rise of so many Asian
martial arts during the second half of the 20th century.