Here at the frontier, the leaves fall like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians, and you, you are a thousand miles away, there are still two cups at my table.

Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn, a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter. If your mind isn't clouded by unnecessary things, this is the best season of your life.

~ Wu-men ~

Wednesday, April 20, 2022

Firearms and the Development of Southern Chinese Martial Afts

Below is an excerpt from an article that appeared at Kung Fu Tea that described how the arrival of widespread western firearms affected the development of martial arts in China in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The full post may be read here.

 Giving Up the Gun: Revisiting a Classic Argument.

In 1979 a Dartmouth English Professor named Neol Perrin wrote one of the more popular and more widely read books on the history of the martial arts.  It was titled Giving Up the Gun: Japan’s Reversion to the Sword, 1543-1879.  While a non-specialist, and more interested in Japanese literature than military history, the book gained quite a following.  I first encountered it in high school after I developed a fascination with the Japanese sword arts.  While so many of my classmates were delving into the dark secrets of Ninjitsu, I was more interested in understanding why there was an entire island full of warriors who carried swords rather than guns until the second half of the 19th century.  Apparently students of martial studies are born rather than made.

Professor Perrin shared my curiosity on the subject.  Or maybe not.  To the great chagrin of historians everywhere, sometimes people with very little interest in their stated subject matter write historical books anyway.  Perrin was actually interested in something much more contemporary.  The true focus of his slim volume, published at the absolute nadir of the Cold War, was nuclear disarmament.  Could the developed states of the world dismantle their high-tech arsenals and slow the pace of proliferation?  At the time it seemed to be the only question worth asking.

The Japanese were an interesting test-case for Perrin.  The establishment of the Tokugawa Shogunate had been a long, bloody and uncertain process.  Further, it was an affair that swords played relatively little role in.  They had not really dominated the Japanese battlefield for hundreds of years.  As the size and technical sophistication of the Japanese feudal armies increased the sword and bow were replaced with the spear (yari) and the matchlock.  Firearms, both in the guise of matchlock rifles and cannons (some of them quite large) were the key to the ultimate establishment of the new government.

Much of this technology was quite sophisticated. The Japanese got so good at copying western weapons that they were able to modify the designs and even begin to export these arms to other, less technically advanced, buyers.  They developed devices to allow groups of gunners to engage in accurate mass fire at night (an important skill before the invention of the heavy machine gun), and they learned all sorts of lessons about how gunpowder changed the battlefield.

Then everything changed.  Once in power the new government closed the doors to social mobility and fossilized the class system.  The peasants were systematically disarmed, which was an important event as networks of religiously motivated peasant revolutionaries had been one of the groups to most successfully employ guns on the battlefield.  Even the samurai ceased to carry firearms in public.  For that matter the three meter spear, which had dominated the battlefield for hundreds of years, slipped into obscurity and was nearly forgotten by all but the most esoteric martial arts schools.  Instead there was renewed interest in the cult of the sword.

It was only in this late period that the sword became the “soul of the samurai.”  Prior to that top honors had gone to the bow, the spear and, very briefly, the gun.  Even contemporary sword masters realized that their weapon was obsolete on the “modern” battlefield of the 17th century.  At best it was a weapon of personal defense if you were unhorsed or your spear was lost.  Yet it is the sword that dominates the last era of Japanese feudal history.

Nor was this seeming loss of military technology mirrored in other areas of Japanese society.  While isolated from much of the world the Japanese did attempt to keep up on medical and scientific developments through their limited contacts with the west.  I have always been under the impression that standards of living were pretty high in Japan compared to some of the more marginal areas of southern China that I have studied, though I would need to look at some actual economic data to know for sure.

For Perrin this was the crux of the issue.  The Japanese were not forced to give up the gun by foreign domination, or social and technological decay.  It is easy to understand the loss of technology through these sorts of processes.  Instead they (meaning the political and cultural elite) made a choice to take one sort of military technology and put it back on the shelf.

This was an unprecedented moment in human history and Perrin wanted to know whether it could act as a model of nuclear disarmament.  Many of the critics of his work have fundamentally misunderstood his project.  He was not an English professor pretending to be a historian, and hence writing bad history.  He was actually an English professor pretending to be a social scientist.  Perrin’s real aim was to talk about causality.  He wanted to develop a covering law that explained disarmament, and he did so through a single, highly detailed, case study.

Japanese historians quickly pointed out that the Samurai never actually gave up the gun in any definitive sense.  They continued to maintain some coastal batteries and individual Lords maintained stockpiles of these weapons.  There were even periodic reminders by the Shogunate that all Lords were required by law to maintain large number of muskets and insure that their troops were drilled in using them, should the need should ever arise.  Pretty much the only group in Japanese society that lost its connection with firearms was the peasantry, but this relationship was not so much “given up” as “forcibly severed” as part of the maintenance of an absolutely brutal class based feudal system.

Many historians have been quick to dismiss Perrin.  He wants to talk about variables like “culture” and “choice,” where as they turn to “realist” political analysis.  The Japanese turned away from the gun because after the establishment of the new government the state entered a period of peace that lasted for 200 years.  Weapons development is expensive and socially disruptive.  No one does it just because it is fun.  Countries do it because they are forced to over the course of certain types of conflicts.

The development of firearms exploded in Europe between 1650 and 1850 not because the west was more rational, more scientific or more technologically advanced.  The real reasons were purely political.  This was a period of almost continual warfare and violent conflict.

According to this realpolitik view, weapons development happens only when it is rational to do so.  War accelerates this process.  During times of peace there are other spending priorities that will better insure your hold on power, such as public works or infrastructure spending, so this is where rulers will spend their gold. (For any international relations scholars out there that are keeping score, what I have just described is a “classical realist” theory rather than a stricter “neo-realist” account).

China: The Dragon and the Gun.

It is interesting to consider what happens when we bring China into this discussion.  China has a somewhat schizophrenic reputation on this point.  On the one hand it is credited with the invention of gun powder and the rocket, two of the more important destructive technologies of all time.  On the other hand it is burdened with images of peasant soldiers, armed only with spears, running into the face of machine gun-fire as late as the Korean War.

Rather than these being treated as isolated incidents that were the result of process failures in society’s military/industrial complex, these instances are often taken as being indicative of something about Chinese culture and its values.  It is often said that the Chinese do not value “human life.”  I have even had some of my own Chinese graduate students tell me this when trying to explain some of the more puzzling points of state policy.  Yet I cannot help but notice that all of the Chinese individuals who I associate with do value human life.  It is always some other mysterious person, who no one can quite identify, that lacks any humanity.  This should be a warning flag to those seeking to advance historical arguments based on cultural difference.  I am not saying that culture is never important, but this is a variable that needs to be employed with great caution.  Desperation makes people do “desperate” things, but that is not really the same as proving that they have fundamentally different values.

The 19th century European view was, if anything, more reductionist.  They explained their world in terms of racial categories.  In their view the Chinese lacked the mental or moral capacity to master the modern arts of warfare.  And yet these arguments always rang hollow, even to the individuals who advanced them.  The fact that it was the Chinese who initially created this entire class of weapons could not be forgotten.  Nor could the Europeans afford to overlook the furious pace of Chinese military advance.

In the 1850s Guangzhou found itself badly outgunned against the British.  By 1911 everything was different.  China was awash in modern European weapons and highly trained military specialists.  The state was militarily just as advanced as most European states.  Its defeats in the early 20th century had more to do with political divisions and a lack of unity than any actual military factors.  This means that in only 50 years China was able to radically transform not just their military arms, but the entire social and military structure that produced and supported them.  It had taken all of Europe nearly 200 years to complete this same transformation.  Clearly the Chinese reformers were quite talented.  One of the problems with the “victimization” narrative promoted by the Chinese state today is that causes individuals, in both the east and west, to systematically overlook these accomplishments.

I suspect that the success of the traditional Chinese martial arts may actually account for much of the historical misunderstanding that goes on.  For better or worse, Kung Fu has become a critical part of China’s public diplomacy.  These unarmed fighting systems seem philosophically rich and purely defensive.  I suspect that this perception has helped to ease tensions about China’s growing influence in the world.  But on the other hand, the same whiff of ancient mysticism makes these arts appear to be fundamentally incompatible with the modern world.

The supremacy of the gun over the more physical disciplines of combat is too firmly entrenched in the western mind to be easily dismissed.  It is a message that our media has reinforced repeatedly throughout the 20th century.  From cowboys exterminating Indians, to Indian Jones carelessly blowing away a Middle Eastern swordsman, we are confident in our ability to negotiate a hostile world.  The superiority of the gun seems to reinforce our broader faith in technology.

Nor is the American media alone in this assessment.  If anything Chinese story tellers have been even more enthusiastic in linking the gun to the “modern” world.  In western science fiction we can at least find a place for hand combat, whether it is Luke’s transformation into a disciplined Jedi knight, or Captain Kirk forgoing the niceties of the phaser for the simple pleasures of beating down a malicious alien with his own bare hands.

I have never run across anything quite like a Jedi knight in the Kung Fu genera.  Instead the vast majority of Kung Fu stories tend to be backwards looking.  They look back to a simpler time before the coming of the gun, when more “civilized” methods of defense still held sway.  They paint a picture of a reassuring world where ultimate power went to the individual who worked the hardest, who developed the best Kung Fu, rather than to gangster who could buy the most guns.  In the popular imagination Kung Fu is as much about justice as it is anything else.

I literally cannot count the number of martial arts films that I have seen which revolve around the introduction of firearms and how they destroy the “old order” of things.  Inevitably the hero beats the bad guy with the gun one last time, but the writing is on the wall.  The age of hand combat is drawing to a close.  In the “age of the gun” there is simply no way to defend yourself with your hands.  In fact, there is no way for the individual to defend himself against the industrialized aspect of society.

I despise this narrative.  It is not just that it gets the actual history of Chinese martial arts wrong, but it creates a vision of an unreal past.  Once you have internalized this vision it becomes impossible to understand the true history of Kung Fu even if someone stops to explain it to you.

It is a powerful narrative because it speaks to a lost “golden age” that has just slipped out of our grasp.  It captures the sorts of struggles that individuals feel in their own lives.  This is the story of a world that is passing you by.  Unfortunately it is now the only version of 19th century history that most individuals in China are familiar with.  If you ask them about the martial arts they will all tell, first we used traditional hand combat, then guns came and we modernized.

Historically speaking, this is totally backwards.  First the guns came, and then the modern martial arts developed.  What we see in China is quite similar to the puzzle that made life difficult for Perrin when he discussed Japan.

Firearms have been a fact of life in China since the 1300s.  At first they were difficult and expensive to manufacture, but the government employed large numbers of hand cannons, field artillery pieces and even massive rocket launchers from an early period.  If you are curious about what early military gunnery looked like you should check out the Fire Dragon Manual.  At the start of the Ming dynasty Chinese firearms were probably the most advanced in the world.  So what happened?




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