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 ~

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Secrecy in Martial Arts

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.

Secrecy vs. Advertising in the Chinese Martial Arts
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 different plans.

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 toolbox.

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 systems.

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 establishments.

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 own training.

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 consider.

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 abroad.

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 post.

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 opera stage.

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 public.

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.

1 comment:

Compass Architect said...

The real secret in the practice of the martial arts is to focus one's time and effort on what is relevant.

It pays to take some time to talk to the right person who can assist the budding student on defining what techniques are relevant.