To Topple a Dynasty: Kung Fu Rebels and the Cycle of History

Fightland Blog

By Sascha Matuszak

Peasants and war, a wandering scholar once told me, are the two things at the heart of China’s historical cycle of oppression and rebellion, a cycle that goes back centuries and will someday topple the Communist Party and whomever comes after. There’s ancient wisdom in what he told me atop Tiger Leaping Gorge more than fifteen years ago. One of the old Chinese classics, The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, begins with the lines “long united must divide, long divided must unite,” likening the course of history to waves hitting a beach, and the heroes who alter that course to the white foam that appears then disappears all in a moment.

Respected scholar David Shambaugh believes the cycle is about to come around and bite the current government sometime very soon. In his essay, “The Coming Crackup of China,” Shambaugh writes, "The endgame of Chinese communist rule has now begun. Its demise is likely to be protracted, messy and violent," unleashing a torrent of responses from across the spectrum. Whether or not China under Xi Jinping is more confident or less, more focused or more unstable, or how violent a potential collapse is a debate The Romance of the Three Kingdoms shows to be irrelevant. This has all happened before and it will happen again.

The last time China’s government collapsed was just over 100 years ago, when the Qing Dynasty fell after almost four centuries of rule. The fall didn’t happen in a day, ranging instead over a century of unrest and violence that began around 1850 and ended in 1950 when the Communist Party consolidated rule over most of the country.

The martial arts played a critical, prominent role in the rebellions and warfare that tore the nation apart and eventually toppled the Emperor. Four rebellions in particular put the role of the martial artist in times of social unrest into perspective, and also help place the current martial arts infrastructure in China into stark contrast with the institutions that existed 100 years ago.

Those rebellions are the Red Turban or “Opera Rebellion” (1854 - 1855), the Red Spears Uprising (powerful in the 1920s and 30s), The Boxer Rebellion (1899 - 1901) and the most destructive civil war in the history of mankind, the Taiping Rebellion (1850 - 1864).

Bandits, Performers, Wandering Monks, Boatmen, Peasants

The “Opera Rebellion” included some marketplace performers or acrobats and martial artists associated with opera troupes, but most of the rebels came from an attractive cast of Pearl River pirates, thuggish boatmen on the Grand Canal, destitute farmers, and low-brow commoners of every stripe and color. The lower class Chinese of the Pearl River delta were crushed under Imperial taxes meant to pay for the war against the Taiping rebels, which was raging at the same time. Instead of paying for the war effort, the taxes incited more rebellion.

In this excellent essay, “What Can the Opera Rebellion Teach us about the Social Toleration of Violence (and the Martial Arts) in Late Imperial China?”, Ben Judkins argues the most important thing to be taken from this rebellion is the aftermath, not the actual fighting. Officials and martial arts societies in Guangzhou at this time were faced with a choice: join the rebels and chaos or join the Imperials and order. The elites and their martial retainers chose order. After that choice was made, the rebellion was crushed and the elites went on a violent purge of the underclasses, slaying up to a million boatmen, wanderers, broke people, performers, unaffiliated thugs and martial artists.

The Opera Rebellion demonstrates the tendency of the Chinese elite to use and exploit the martial element of society when needed, and destroy and pacify it when not. Judkins uses the story of Sun Wukong the Monkey King from Journey to the West to flesh out this idea:

“At the start of the story Monkey (a natural martial artist) is more concerned with wreaking havoc on the world than doing anything good or wholesome. In fact, Monkey seems to have an actual aversion to “good and wholesome.” ... And that is exactly what Heaven needs ... Rather than destroying Monkey he is set to this particular task. A deity fits an iron band around his head that causes him indescribable pain when he does anything “evil” and makes him the apprentice/servant/guardian of a wandering monk intent on retrieving ancient scriptures from India.

Throughout the rest of the story Monkey is forced to save his master from all kinds of monsters, and he usually does this in the most violent ways possible. Yet his actions are now “good” because they have been subordinated to Heaven’s cause. It is not clear that Monkey is made any better through this process, and he is clearly just as violent at the end of the story as he was at the start. Yet that is precisely what makes him useful.  As a specialist in violence Monkey literally exists to be exploited.”

The Opera Rebellion was one of the first steps towards solidifying the relationship between the State and martial artists, one in which kung fu societies would either serve the government or be annihilated.

China’s government still uses thugs whenever they need them. The attempted suppression of the Occupy Central movement in Hong Kong through Triads and other gangsters was widely thought to be a Beijing ploy. It certainly fits in with the old tactics that have worked for centuries and the way the whole thing went down in Hong Kong smacks of how the Chinese central government does their thing.

Interesting the lack of response from the established Hong Kong martial arts community. In fact, what little heard from them had more to do with how disruptive the protesters were and not how martial artists should protect their citizens from thugs. Even those martial artists in Hong Kong who supported Occupy Central had no intent of taking the streets back from Beijing-backed gangsters, who also, it needs to be said, dramatically outnumbered and outgunned the “white hat” kung fu guys. Still, when the people needed them in the streets, Hong Kong’s martial community wasn’t there.

When Governments Lose Control

That wasn’t the case a century ago. The Red Spear Society in Henan Province was perhaps the largest pure martial arts uprising of its time, although “uprising” is not entirely accurate. The Red Spears (1916 - 1949) were a response to the complete breakdown of social, economic, and political institutions in north-central China. Famines, warlordism, corruption, banditry along every road ... Henan at the turn of the century was a bad place to be. The Red Spears were essentially groups of more or less trained martial artists who worked with local elites and landlords to establish a semblance of order. But what in fact happened was just banditry in a more organized fashion.

At first, the Red Spears were a natural outgrowth of a strong and pervasive martial tradition (Shaolin and the Chen Taiji family both originate in Henan) responding rationally to bad conditions. Tai Hsuan-chi’s book, The Red Spears, tells of the authors very intimate relationship with the group and the society from which this and many other groups sprang out of. Here a look at the martial arts in Henan in the beginning of the 20th century:

“Most of the men who lived in the village on the plain practiced the martial arts. My middle school in Honan was one of the first in the province and so it was well known. Behind the school was a large athletic field where, in addition to gymnastics, the students practiced the martial arts. I remember the most skillful students, two brothers who came from Lin-hsien and an uncle and his nephew from Sui-p’ing.

In Lin-hsien every March a large competition in the martial arts was held just outside the city in which most of the youth participated. The best participants would dress as well-known heroes from Chinese history such as Chang Fei, Kuan-kung, and others. In Sui-p’ing hsien, people often encouraged their sons to train in the martial arts. They even employed teachers to instruct them, which accounted for their expertise. Young girls would stand at the edge of the field watching the competition and if they found a boy they liked they would seek out the head of his house to see about a marriage. My classmates at the middle school were some of these skillful boys from Lin-hsien and Sui-p’ing hsien.”

The Red Spears and their many offshoots and enemies “ruled” Henan until the Northern Expedition of 1928 by the Chinese Nationalists under Chiang Kai-shek re-established some kind of government control over the area. This is the same expedition that resulted in the razing of the Shaolin Temple and the destruction of several rebel bands, but didn’t actually maintain control. The area would be the demesne of martial artists armed with spears, swords, bucklers, muskets and the odd rifle for another 20 years, until the Communists assumed strong central control over China.

As with the Opera Rebellion, the authorities didn’t immediately annihilate the martial bands and their leaders. They had a choice. Go home and be obedient citizens, or be destroyed. The authorities eventually co-opted many of the societies affiliated (or opposed to) the Red Spears and established a whole new set of institutions to channel and control the martial element within Chinese society. Sports universities and wushu associations, for example, replaced the clans, fiefs, and martial arts schools that formed the core of the martial infrastructure in the 19th century.  Anyone willing to enter this new path for the martial artist was welcome, those who did not were purged.

It’s significant that the authorities felt the need to build new institutions for martial artists, not just in order to exploit the the martial elements when needed (i.e. suppress young Hong Kong protesters, uppity peasants, or old people who don’t want to be scammed), but also because they had no choice. Martial arts in China is a part of society that cannot be burned out, purged into oblivion, or ignored. No matter what happens to kung fu in China, it has always popped back up.

It is still commonplace today for business-owners in a dispute to call upon the kung fu guys they know for muscle. Guns are hard to come by in China, so most of the street level fighting is done with fists, bottles, or knives. In a corrupt society ruled by class and social distinctions more than by the rule of law, kung fu has its place. The Communist Party understands this and has done a solid job of channeling kung fu into the movies, sports, and security apparatus.

That will work as long as the authorities maintain a monopoly on dispute resolution and violence. When the government does not hold this monopoly, the old violent cycle of rebellion and disunity follows.

To Topple a Dynasty

More than 20 million people died during the Taiping Rebellion, history’s nastiest and most destructive civil war. The war lasted for two decades. To try and give this perspective, about 600,000 people died during the American Civil War, which was raging at the same time.

The Taiping Rebellion was born in a perfect storm of widespread economic hardship, official malfeasance and weakness, the rise of regional bandit and kung fu societies, and religious heterodoxy. Geopolitically China was in bad shape, having lost the First Opium War and about to lost the Second. Socially, the entire country was a patchwork of regional governors working within constantly shifting alliances involving a hundred thousand different societies, organizations, gangs, associations and what not ... an unstable quilt of betrayal and greed that operated with impunity beneath the charade of paternal Imperial rule.

The spark that lit all of this dry wood into a 20 year conflict was a self-proclaimed prophet, Hong Xiuquan, who foretold the fall of the ethnic Manchus and their Qing Dynasty to an alliance of quasi-Christian ethnic Han rebels who would usher in a new modern era for China. The martial arts societies that grew and flourished all over China as the Qing’s power waned made up a large part of the Taiping armies. The martial element within society formed under a cultish banner to assault the status quo in the hopes of creating a new society. Their new society was based ostensibly on equality and the abolition of old Imperial accoutrements like Confucianism, Buddhism, and the idea of a Dynasty altogether.

Hong and his followers failed and were eventually crushed. Their failure came about mostly due to Western powers who lent their aid to the Qing Dynasty at a critical juncture, the Battle of Shanghai, and then helped form a modern army that could take on and defeat the Taiping forces. After the Taiping capital at Nanjing was taken, the Imperials spent another 10 years hunting down the rest of the Taiping forces before the threat was permanently extinguished. But by then the damage was done. The Qing went on to survive another forty years, but those were the last stumblings of a mortally wounded empire.

The Communists have drawn many lessons from the Taiping Rebellion:

Crush any heterodox religious movement before it can grow. Keep the “prophets” separated from the commoners who make up the core of every rebel army that ever existed. Co-opt and control the martial arts and never allow the three (commoners, prophets, martial artists) to combine into a powerful anti-government force.

The Taiping Rebellion was, among many other things, such a combination, but where the Taiping rebels failed, the Communists succeeded. A combination of commoners, martial elements, and the cultish power of Marx embodied in Mao eventually did erase the dynasty and establish a new society, also based on ideals any commoner could get behind. The Communist Party has since rehabilitated the Taiping Rebellion, and placed those rebels within the context of a century long struggle to throw off the Imperial yoke and gain freedom for the proletariat.

When Kung Fu Died

The Communists see the Taiping rebels as their philosophical forebears, but are less certain about the Boxers, who rose up 1899 - 1901 against foreigners and the pro-foreign faction within the Qing court. The Boxer Rebellion has been labeled as both the final futile stand of a dying social order and the heroic precursor of a strong and nationalist China.

The Boxers were a band of “Righteous and Harmonious Fists” who called for the expulsion of foreigners and the restoration of the Imperial order. For two years they split the Qing government in two, with the pro-Boxer faction including the Empress Dowager Cixi calling for all out war against the foreign powers on one side, and conciliatory diplomats on the other. In chaotic battles involving irregulars armed with swords as well as Imperial soldiers armed with the most modern cannons at the time, the Boxers and their allies defeated foreign armies and besieged foreign legations within Beijing. The uprising also led to widespread killings across China, mainly targeting Christians and missionaries.

The Qing were betrayed by regional warlords who refused the call to war against the foreigners, and after protracted battles in Beijing and Tianjin, the rebellion was put down by the Eight Nation Alliance (Western powers) and their Qing allies. Western troops looted, raped, and murdered their way to Beijing, and after taking the city ordered the Qing to pay reparations (around $61 billion in modern terms) and execute many top officials. This is a critical event in China’s history. People still debate the significance of the Boxers and their effect on China’s psyche and society.

One thing that’s clear is the taint the Boxers’ defeat left on kung fu. For a century, Chinese and foreigners alike were convinced that the Boxers, and by extensions martial artists, were no more than ineffectual Luddites stuck in time.  At best kung fu is a quaint, sad reminder of the olden days, when Imperial China was beautiful, cultured and unspoiled by industrialization. 

It has been hard for kung fu to separate itself from the Boxers’ defeat. Even if martial artists in China could regain their status as an important part of the modern social fabric, the possibility of dissent, let alone rebellion, is almost immediately associated with the tragic failure of the Boxers and their misguided yet brave attempts to save China from the modern world. 

Kung fu People and the Cycle of History

In 19th and 20th century China, martial arts societies replaced the government on many levels. The Red Spears effectively ruled northern China for two decades. Having kung fu guys in your rebel army was pretty normal. That is no longer the case.

Most martial artists in China today are associated with the sports infrastructure, effectively placing them under the power of the local Party Secretary. No school that wants to survive can avoid the sports and wushu associations that govern martial arts in China today. Modern Chinese society has made commercial gain the tie that binds people together. Kung fu schools do well to follow in the footsteps of the Shaolin Temple, a successful corporation that happens to sell Buddhism and kung fu.

Not only that, but after decades of institutionalization and persecution, the martial arts in China are a decidedly pro-government bunch, provided they have an opinion at all. It’s common for small kung fu schools in the countryside to have strong ties to the local police force (an avenue for graduates who want to make a living), and students often wear army uniforms when training. The last masters to live outside of the system hid out in the hills to avoid the Cultural Revolution and advised their students to be obedient and keep their heads down, or face the same fate.

Having said that, the role of the martial artist in Chinese society is still evolving. There is a push and pull amongst the kung fu people who train, the society at large, and the paternal authority above. When martial arts is tied to health, performance, or tourism then the government smiles benevolently and turns a blind eye to any profiteering. But if the society at large requires the “kung fu hero” to step in and defend the defenseless, there is tension. If the government had its way, the martial artist would remain a quaint myth good for multiplexes, tournaments, and quasi-religious tourist sites.

And for much of Chinese history, that’s what martial artists tended to be. Performers and bodyguards, dispute-settlers and paragons of idealistic virtue. It’s only when the government stumbles, leaving a vacuum, that kung fu people become the type of force that step in and help keep order, or help topple a dynasty. In that sense, it doesn’t matter if the kung fu people of today are rebellious or obedient, it matters more that the government maintains a monopoly on force and justice. Once that monopoly is challenged, the old cycle of history tells us that violence is right around the corner.


Check out these related stories:

Razing the Temple: Shaolin Versus the State

Shaolin Warrior Monks and the Japanese "Wokou" Pirates

"The Practical Isn't Pretty": General Qi Jiguang on Martial Arts for Soldiers