Chinese Martial Arts in 19th century China

The following are English language accounts of 19th century Chinese martial arts in China, which have always been rare due to the scarcity of English observers and translators at such an early time. I’ve stopped right before the Boxer Rebellion/Uprising (1898-1901), which deserves its own treatment and will be covered in a future article.

The first here is from 1817 and, while perhaps not specifically martial arts, discusses a Chinese manner of fighting and has a number of elements worth considering.

Pulling the queue was a common theme in 19th century western illustrations

First, the queue that was worn by Chinese is an important consideration. The queue, or “tails” below, was a mandatory hairstyle worn by males during the Quin (Manchu) dynasty (1644-1912) that consisted of shaved temples and a long ponytail. Initially reluctant to drop the topknot and adopt the new style, Quin rulers gave the choice of adoption or execution. After two hundred years, the queue eventually became a point of pride that males were loathe to lose.

That Chinese grabbed queues and grappled was a common observation and should be unsurprising–it is a built-in handle and anywhere the head goes, the body must follow. Other points notable in the account include the “foul method of fighting,” a common refrain to those used to the more limited rules of western sportive pugilism, and the deadly reputation of Chinese kicks.

When two Chinese quarrel, they generally seize each other by the tails, which they twist violently, both often fall to the ground, and it is surprising to see how long they can endure such acute pain, their eyes seem bursting from their sockets, the whole countenance is distorted, and I am convinced that pugilists of the best bottom must yield in such a contest from utter incapacity to bear the dreadful suffing: though violent to madness in gesture and language, they seldom proceed to action, and I have seen a smart tap from a fan satisfy extreme rage; when, however, they actually have recourse to blows, they fight most foully, and death has been known to ensue from a kick.

Journal of the Proceedings of the Late Embassy to China, Henry Ellis, (1817)

Shortly following that account, a shipwrecked voyage of 1819-1820, led by Europeans, but with a crew that was “composed from almost all the nations of Asia, a motley group indeed, and exhibiting a most fantastic and groteque appearance,” journeyed across southern China to reach the European settlements at Canton. During the course of the journey, they got liquored up, had an internal scrap which caught up a local, got punished, and were told to keep out of trouble and told to stay away from the whorehouses.

In the course of this day several of our people being intoxicated with samsu, a pernicious spirit, make from jaggery, (coarse sugar) and also from corn, drank always warm by the better class, began to fight with one another in the square, which soon caused the place to be filled with the natives as spectators. In our endeavours to get them without the gates, one of them struck Mr. B., and then gave him a fair challenge to box; but for his temerity he soon got so sound a drubbing as to convince him how far inferior a Hainanese is to a European in the noble art of self-defence Although this man was thought a professor in that branch of the fine arts, yet, I fancy, this was the first, and will, probably, be the last, time he will venture upon a similar experiment.

The poor fellow, however, fought toughly for about 20 minutes before he asked for quarter, and the surrounding multitude never once interfered in the contest, although they evinced great interest as to the result. Shortly after this noisy and tumultuous scene had begun, information having been conveyed to the authorities, two mandarines, officers of police, made their appearances, attended by executioners, as their office is best explained in our language, and also a few soldiers.

Immediately on the entering of these persons a death-like silence took place, as if at that instant not a soul were present, and this contrasted with the precious uproar, was certainly very remarkable, such is the deference paid to men in the adminstration of the laws. As soon as the mandarines were seated in large arm-chairs, brought for that purpose, they inquired gravely into the cause that led to the disturbance, and quickly perceiving that their countryman was in the wrong, ordered him to receive two dozen strokes on the bare breech.

Woodcut from China: its costume, arts, manufactures, etc, Vol. 4, Breton (1813)

Woodcut from China: its costume, arts, manufactures, etc, Vol. 4, Breton (1813)

The punishment was inflicted with a flat bamboo, about three inches broad and seven feet long; this was used with both hands, the culprit being held down by four men in such manner as effectually to prevent his moving either hand or foot. He was then put into what is called a conju, which is a heavy board about three feet square, with a hole in the centre for the neck: to this board was attached a label, in large characters, to make more public the crime for which he was punished.

As an example to others, he was placed, accoutred as he was, just without the gates of our residence, under a guard of soldiers. The mandarines then sent for those of our people that had been fighting in the morning, and after a patient heariing of what they could advance in extenuation of their disorderly conduct, they ordered each one dozen bastinadoes a-la-mode-dupays [one dozen strikes with the stick in the manner of the country].

Diary of a Journey Overland through the Maritime Provinces of Hainan and China (1822)

The tracts mentioned in the next account are interesting as they represent brief instruction manuals and must have been common because there is a translation of one from 1874 far below. This is the first of two accounts that mention training with weights and bag punching. Creatively named postures and techniques is another theme that extends to modern day.

Pugilism in China–The art of self-defence is regularly taught in China. It is much practiced, although not countenanced by the local governments. In the penal code, nothing appears concerning it. Tracts are printed which would, in all probability, accompanied by their wood-cuts, amuse the fancy in England. The Chinese have no pitched battles that we ever heard of; but we have seen a pamphlet on the subject of boxing, cudgelling, and sword-exercise, in which there are many fanciful terms.

The first lesson, for a Chinese boxer, consists of winding his long tail tight round his head, stripping himself to the buff, then placing his right foot foremost, and with all his might giving a heavy thrust with his right fist against a bag suspended for the purpose. He is directed to change hands and feet alternately, restraining his breath and boxing the bag of sand right and left, for hours together. This exercise the fancy call “thumping down walls and overturning parapets.”

In the second lesson, the pugilist grasps in each hand a “stone lock,” i.e., a heavy mass of stone worked in the form of a Chinese lock. Then, being stripped and tail arranged as before, he practises thrusting out a mans’s length these weights, right and left, till he is tired. He is to change feet and hands at the same time. This lesson is called “a golden dragon thrusting out his claws.” Next comes “a crow stretching his wings–a dragon issuing forth from his den–a drunken Chinaman knocking at your door–a sphinx spreading her wings–a hungry tiger seizing a lamb–a hawk clawing a sparrow–a crane and a muscle reciprocally embarrassed,” with various other specimens or fanciful nomenclature for divers feats of the pugilistic art.–Canton Reg., June 18.

The Asiatic Journal and Monthly Register (1830)

This next mention, while translated and written in 1841, shows the position of Chinese martial arts a century or more earlier. Today’s gongfu/quanfa/wushu/guoshu practiitoners may be surprised to learn that the martial arts were long thought a lowly practice in China, an idea that came along with emigration to the US in the late 1800s. A martial artist was more likely to be a beggar, charlatan, vagabond, or street entertainer than a monk or respected teacher of the art. Our modern conception of the martial arts as primarily a Shaolin monk practice owe more to early 20th century Chinese fiction than reality. The following account is a translation of the Ta Tsing Hwang te Shing Heun, or Sacred Instructions of the Emperors of the Ta Tsing Dynasty. The emperor mentioned here, Kangxi, reigned from 1661 to 1722.

Amongst the degenerate practices of the age was pugilism, against which the emperor very gravely inveighs, and exhorts his people to introduce more manly sports, superior to the amusements of loitering vagabonds.

Chinese Repository, Volume 10, Jan-Dec, 1841 Canton

The passage below, from 1843, offers the weaponed and empty handed illustrations here, the visuals of gouging the eyes and other open hand attacks, and again offers a Chinese martial artist’s adoption of postures or attitudes. I’m intrigued by the vocal punctuations and wonder what specifically that may have been (naming of techniques, particular words, a Chinese form of kiai?). Also bear in mind that while the open hand is here criticized compared to the fist, some WWII combatives instructors promoted open hand strikes after their experience in Shanghai.

Woodcut from The Chinese as they are (1843)

Boxing seems to be considered as a part of a soldier’s accomplishments, since if, by mischance a man lost his weapons, he could have recourse to his fists. In combats upon the stage, the competitors are represented as throwing away their swords, and prolonging the struggle with their hands. The foreground of the following illustration represents a couple as they appear after casting away their swords. The Chinese throw the body into every variety of attitude, but seem to know nothing about the mode of parrying a blow. Instead of this, they endeavour to thrust their long nails into their adversary’s eye, who is also not aware that a very slight stroke of the hand would ward off the mischief aimed at his visual organs. It is, however, still more wonderful that they should be strangers to the practice of firmly clenching the fist; but they merely strike with the hand open, or with the fingers slightly bent. A great deal of parade is made in the way of prelude; the breast and the arm begin bared, and presented in a manner truly characteristic of the nation. Specimens of this preparatory display are now and then seen in common life, where the effect of a fierce volley of rounds is deemed insufficient; but it has never been my lot to see a blow struck that would give a European a moment’s smart.

Woodcut from The Chinese as they are (1843)

In a little work I have on the art of fencing, a man is represented in the act of striking a heavy weight, suspended by a string, for the purpose of increasing muscular strength; and a practice similar to this was well known among our prizefighters some years ago, though it seems that the Chinese had the start of us in this ingenious discovery. If we could see anything like a graduated arc, we might fancy they had the principle of the ballistic pendulum, invented by Robins, to ascertain the force of balls when projected from the mouth of a cannon. I was once threatened with a practical proof of this art near what is called the barrier, at Macou, because a companion of mine had given some offence to the keepers of the wall, by taking advantage of a dismantled part to get a peep at the other side. One of them, as champion of the rest, came up and made a vigorous display of the various body positions into which he could throw his body, either for annoyance or defence. At every important shift, he uttered a thundering vociferation, to give greater effect to what he was doing, and ever and anon his companions shouted as they stood gazing from the wall, while the writer remained quietly waiting to see at what part of these evolutions it might be necessary to interpose as a matter of self-defence; but as this interposition did not appear to be called for, I retired, after giving this soldier and athlete ample time to try his hand at something more than show if he chose.

The Chinese as they are (1843)

In this 1868 translation of a Chinese farcical play, the translator describes the status of Chinese martial artists (“pugilists”) in much the same terms as the emperor 200 hundred years earlier. First is the description of the practice of martial arts in China, followed by the relevant scene from the play. In this scene, A-lan (which from a later translator probably would have been written Ah Lan or Ah Lon) has just lost, to a gambler, a pig which he was supposed to have sold. He asks the gambler to teach him martial arts in order to face his wife when he returns.

I also enjoy the emphasis on the creatively named postures, which we’ve already seen. The reference to one of the forms being “Kwan Ping” is fascinating as this may be a reference to Yang Lu-chan (1799-1872), who was born in Guangping (Kwan Ping) and whom Yang style Taijiquan (Tai Chi Chuan) is named after. Of course, it could also be a reference to the Imperial Guards or something else entirely, but the timing is right for Yang Lu-Chan.

Yang Lu-chan (1799-1872)

Professors of the noble art of self-defence are not uncommon in China, they generally unite to their calling that of quack-doctor. Selecting some bumpkin in the crowd, the professor will give him leave to aim a blow at him in any manner he likes, and proceed to demonstrate with what ease it may be parried. This is always done by catching the wrist of the attacking party in some unexpected way, and not improbably the return attack consists of a kick in the stomach, or a blow on the forehead from the sole of the professor’s foot. Then the pugilist will thump himself on the ribs with an iron rod till the place grows black and blue, and the blows resound like strokes on a drum. He applies a plaster (his own specialty of course) for a few moments, and when he removes it, in some inscrutable way, bruises and discolouration have banished, and given place to yellow and rather dirty skin!

A-lan. But just put me up to a little boxing, do now.
First Gambler. Very well. Stand like this.
(They spar, A-lan is knocked down.)
A-lan. What do you call that posture?
First Gambler. Its name is “Speedy promotion.” Now try this.
(Teaches him a new attitude, and again knocks him down.)
A-lan. What is that called?
First Gambler. It is called “Kwan Ping presenting the seal.”
A-lan. Are there any more?
First Gambler. Oh yes, “The three hands,” or this, “The bright arrow.”
[Teaches him various postures, then makes an attack upon him as he supposes A-lan’s wife will, and allows A-lan to knock him down several times.]
Good, good! Well those are quite enough for you to beat your wife.

A-lan is then soundly thrashed by the wife when his newly learned techniques fail him.
China Magazine (1868)

Woodcut from Outlaws of the Marsh (ca. 15th century)

The following reminds us that there is a reason why the Shaolin monastery is associated with martial arts; it is true that Shaolin has long had a reputation for staff fighting. The idea of monks skilled with crossbows (ballista) is undeniably cool.

The Art of Self-Defence in China
Priests in China have long practiced military and calisthenic exercises, for defending their temples, and persons, on their journeyings, and to mortify the flesh. A monastery near Hwang-pi, in the prefecture of Han-yang, contains four hundred priests, of whom more than a hundred are skilled in military arts, fencing, boxing, and the use of the nu [Chinese character deleted], or ballista, with which they defend their neighbourhood from marauders.

From the Shaulin kwan p’u, we learn that the priests of the monastery of Shaulin, in Honan, have long been celebrated for their skill in single-stick exercise.

Kung-fu [Chinese character deleted], is a species of disciplinary calisthenics, practised by Tauist priests.

Kiau-ta [Chinese character deleted], is the name of the maitre-d’armes, or kiau-sz’ who teaches boxing, fencing and sword exercise. This name has been unfortunately given to the Christian Teacher, a man of peace. Shwa kwan [Chinese character deleted] to fence with quarter-staves, and shwa teng pai [Chinese character deleted], to play with foils and shields, are other terms used.

Notes and Queries on China and Japan, N. B. Dennys, vol 3. (1869)

A reiteration from 1873 that martial arts are often found in connection with beggars or, more charitably, as street performance.

Others [other beggars] go through all the exercises of the noble art of self-defence, only beating the air, not boxing a brother-beggar; and begging priests are frequently met with.

Once a Week, Volume XII, September 27, 1873

Here we are lucky enough to have a partial translation and cuts from one of those types of brief and cheap instructional tracts mentioned earlier.The translation of the title is said to have been a bit free with the material in arriving at “The Noble Art of Self-Defence” in China but the translator felt it captured the intention even if it was not literal. You may find the complete PDF here, what is below is what I considered the most relevant excerpts from the discussion.

The Chinese have very little idea of fighting with the fists. It takes a good deal of provocation to induce them to fight at all. The amount of bad language which will be bandied between two strapping coolies and end in nothing more decisive than bad language would serve to provoke a dozen fights in the British forecastle, where ” Now Bill, call him an adjective substantive, or he’ll call you one,” seldom fails to initiate the assault and battery which all present are longing to see. When Chinamen do fight, bamboos, or half-bricks are much more in request than nature’s unassisted weapons, or if they are driven to an empty-handed enconnter they will seize each other by the head and scuffle about in a way which would go to the heart of any member of the sporting interest.

Anything more exquisitely ludicrous than a couple of Chinese induced to put on the gloves (after an example of their use from Englishmen) I have never seen. They cautiously backed on each other until the seats of their trowsers almost touched, each one bending himself nearly double to avoid the imagined terrific blows his antagonist was aiming at his head, and at the same time striking vaguely round in what schoolboys call the windmill fashion. If either of them “got [original is missing a few words] somewhere in the region of the other’s knees.

Thus, for the reprisal known as ‘The hungry tiger catching the sheep,’ the following directions are laid down (See lllustration I.):

A-advances his left foot, and attempts to strike a blow with his open right hand:
B- brings both feet together, standing up firmly, pops in his left with a downright blow, and lets him have the right over the chest to aid the effect.

A glance at Illustration II will shew that Chinese bruisers are not particular as to what we should call unfair play:

A-draws back his left foot and attempts to scratch B’s face with his right hand:
B-draws up his left foot suddenly, strikes out with his left, and lets him have the right over the waistband.

The next three Illustrations are occupied with the old English game of quarter-staff. In number III, A is trying with all his might to prize up the end of B’s staff (each apparently oblivious of the lovely blow on the left side of the head to which he is exposing himself, without any possibility of parrying it) when B suddenly inserts his staff under A’s left ankle and tumbles him over, A’s own efforts contributing to his ignominious fall. This is looked upon as great fun.

The next device is entitled The stopper over all (see Illustration IV). The gentle-man on the right is trying to be offensive with both foot and staff, but his intentions are frustrated. Number V., however, is well worth attention as an example of that successful use of the foot which seems so exasperatingly unfair to us;

A-stands well up, gets his hands together and strikes a down blow (7th cut) at the same time drawing back his right foot:
B-gathers himself well together on his right foot, gets up both ends of his staff (7th guard), parries the blow with all his strength, and at the same time pops in his left foot.

Please observe him popping in his left foot. An example of the same kind will be found in Illustration VI., though here it is difficult to see, if the combat were “on the square” (which I believe to be the correct equivalent, in sporting circles, for bona fide) and not merely got up for show-it is difficult to see what is to prevent the man with the two swords from striking a sound back hander with his right which would cause his antagonist to take his meals standing and sleep on his face for a considerable period.

Of the remaining six pages of this unsatisfactory little work, four are devoted to exercises with double swords, and two to those with shields.

They all partake of the same got-up-beforehand character. In one (see Illustration VII.) he with the spear appears to be concentrating his whole attention upon carefully putting it into the guard of the other’s right hand sword, where it is immediately jammed by a turn of the wrist, leaving the unhappy wielder exposed to his enemy’s left hand weapon.

The same observation applies to the last Illustration with which I will trouble the reader, number VIII. This is called The Snipe and the Oyster.

The man with the spear is carefully putting it between the two shields of the other, who closes their rims upon it and holds fast, matters thus coming to a deadlock, and the audience looking on, whilst the combatants tug and pull with well simulated rage, in such breathless suspense as may sometimes be witnessed at transpontine theatres, when two ruffians, having carefully locked the hilts of their daggers together, proceed to drag each other all round the stage to very agitato fiddling and the lights turned down.

China Review vol 3, no. 2, , Sept 1874

While some of the accounts above are contradictory, even in something as simple as the prevalence of martial arts in China (pugilism is common/ pugilism is uncommon), hopefully the commonalities allow the reader to draw a better picture of the martial activities in 19th century China.




  1. […] out Martial History Magazine’s excellent piece on Chinese Martial Arts in the 19th Century. The following are English language accounts of 19th century Chinese martial […]POSTED BY MARTIAL HISTORY CHINESE STYLE! « STRIKING THOUGHTS | NOVEMBER 24, 2009, 6:44 AM
  2. Great article!POSTED BY WILLIAM | NOVEMBER 24, 2009, 2:57 PM
  3. […] Couch of Martial History Magazine sent me this article he put together Chinese Martial Arts in 19th Century China.  He has collected a bunch of short pieces written by Westerners about fighting in China.  I […]POSTED BY MARTIAL HISTORY MAGAZINE | WEAKNESS WITH A TWIST | NOVEMBER 27, 2009, 11:55 AM
  4. The boxing figures in the woodcut The Chinese as They Are (1834) has clearly been copied straight from Qi Jiguang: Jixiao nXinshu (1561) or a later edition of that.POSTED BY MARNIX WELLS | NOVEMBER 27, 2009, 2:13 PM
  5. I think Kwan Ping and his seal refers to an attendant to Kwan Yu (Guan Yu) from the Three Kingdoms History/Romance.POSTED BY MARNIX WELLS | NOVEMBER 27, 2009, 2:16 PM
  6. Sorry, I mean the woodcut of 1843 (not 1834)!POSTED BY MARNIX WELLS | NOVEMBER 27, 2009, 2:18 PM
  7. Guan Ping was the son, and seal bearer, of Guan Yu c. AD 200, canonised as ‘God of War’. They were revered as martyrs to justice and loyalty sworn to uphold the doomed Han dynasty. Guan Yu is usually depicted with red face, thick whiskers, and huge halberd.POSTED BY MARRNIX WELLS | NOVEMBER 30, 2009, 3:43 PM
  8. […] for Annoyance or Defense” Jason Couch has an amusing blog post at Martial History Magazine that gives 19th century accounts by Englishmen of their (generally patronizing) impressions of […]POSTED BY “EITHER FOR ANNOYANCE OR DEFENSE” « FUNCTIONAL FITNESS AND SELF-DEFENSE NEW ORLEANS | DECEMBER 1, 2009, 3:11 PM

About the Author

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may also like these