An Overview of Chinese Martial Arts in the Olympics

By William A. with Translations by Mei C.

duobiao
Poster of the 2008 movie “Champions”

“It is difficult to find a Chinese citizen in good shape, eager to learn new things, with a strong and proper attitude in life, this makes them lack courage and motivation. They have the characteristics of sick men; How many generations must pass until we realize that this situation must change? We must wake up to this reality. The National Arts (Guoshu) are the remedy against the disease of the sick men of East Asia, this is the best weapon to strengthen the body and protect the nation”

Guoshu: Zhejiang Province National Arts Monthly Journal (Guoshu: Zhe Jiang Sheng Guoshu Guan Yue Kan, 1929) (Acevedo & Cheung, 2014)

China’s participation in the 1932 and 1936 Olympic Games was considered a test by certain segments of society to prove that China was not a lesser nation in the world stage and a way to change a battered image after a series of military defeats at the hands of foreign powers. However, the games were not the only athletic events the Chinese had participated prior to the Olympic meet. Competitions organized by the YMCA in the years before the Olympiad had given the Chinese a chance to measure themselves up against Japanese and Filipino teams (Morris A. D., 1999). What made the XI Olympic Games in Berlin stand out was the fact the Chinese presented for the first time a display of Chinese martial arts to the world at large. In this article we will explore some of the entries published in the magazines affiliated to the Guoshu project and the Chinese press of the time to give us a glimpse of the preparations leading to this world class event.

Unlike the 1932 games where only one Chinese athlete participated, preparations for the Berlin games started almost immediately after the Los Angeles games were in the books (Morris A. D., 1999); besides team selection to participate in the sanctioned sports the Chinese decided to present a taste of their own culture via martial arts. Choosing martial arts to represent Chinese style “gymnastics” was very much in line with  the political aims of the nationalist government of the time reflected in the importance given (at least on paper) to native practices like Guoshu (national arts including martial arts), Guohua (national painting), Guoyue (national music) etc. (Mingda, 2009) The above does not imply that the Chinese had a unified view regarding athletics and how to strengthen the nation by martial arts practice. A major point of discussion was how to reconcile the inclusion of ancient methods of physical development in a modern world, as illustrated below:

 To be able to disseminate guoshu in society, guoshu should be studied using scientific methods, open to the public in general, researching different systems and organizing them in a systematic way…

National Arts: Zhejiang Province Monthly Magazine  (Guoshu: Zhe Jiang Sheng Guoshu Guan Yue Kan) 1929. (Acevedo & Cheung, 2014)

A year after the 1932 Olympics, Zhang Zhijian head of the Central National Arts Academy added a sports program to be taught at a newly built Nanjing’s Central National Arts Academy Specialized Sports College as a response to the pressing need to prepare qualified coaches with knowledge of other sports besides Guoshu (Acevedo, Hood, Cheung). As for recruitment of candidates to be part of the martial arts team, the process was subjected to some general requirements as outlined in the 1934 edition of Guoshu Tongyi Yuekan – United National Arts Monthly Magazine:

The Central National Arts Academy has decided on athlete’s qualification to join the Olympic Games with the purpose of promoting our Nation’s sports. The Nation’s organization for the preparation to the Olympic Games held its first meeting in Tianjin  to decide the teams to join the following competitions: Zu Qiu/ soccer, Tian Jing Jing Zou/race walking, Ju Zhong/weight lifting, You Yong/ swimming, Xi Shi Quan Shu/ western boxing and Guo Shu performance. The qualifications of the performers are:

  1. Age between 19 to 26 years old
  2. Graduates from middle or high school who practice Quan (Chinese boxing) and, Qi Xie (apparatus/weapons)
  3. Weights between 150 to 240 pounds, all qualifiers will be trained and selected by the central organization.

There is no mention of sparring events as a means to select the best martial artists to be part of the national team as depicted in the 2008 movie Competing for First Prize (Duobiao) known in the west as Champions. The selection of athletes was not exempt of difficulties, especially for the western boxing competition as was reported in a 1935 article published in Guo Shu Zhou Kan – National Arts Weekly Magazine.

Our nation preparing for the Olympic Game – Boxing (Quan Dou)

If the team is not qualified to compete then change to performance. Selection of competitors mainly from Ji (Hebei Province) Lu ( Shandong Province)
From Shanghai Communication
Next year the Olympic Games will be held in Berlin, we have decided to compete in boxing. The National Sports Assistant Committee has already asked advice from Germany regarding competing in Boxing. Shanghai Guo Shu Guan’s Mr. Zhu told the reporter that our Boxing/Quan Shu is behind other western countries, it is the truth, by attending the competition we will meet other boxers who are more advanced and as a result the hope of winning is very slim. Other reasons are the lack of promotion of this sport in our nation; most of us are contemptuous of this sport. As for those skillful fighters who do not pass on their skills to others are some of the reasons by which boxing is not popular in our nation. Even though some of us have been trying hard to promote it for the past few years, but we have not been able to popularize it, facing the fact that the Olympic Games are around the corner, we still have not been able to build any confidence in our competitors by not knowing the rules of the sport.  

Our National Sports Association sent out a letter to the Olympic Games Association in Germany attempting to compete in the Quan Sai/boxing competition and have the required assistance with the detail rules of the game before competing, the request was denied. Therefore, we are not qualified to compete in western boxing and we have decided to join the games by performing Chinese Guoshu to promote our sport. But due to limited funds at hand, we can only send out four people, the main selection will be held at around Shadong and Hebei provinces, not because these two provinces are well known due to the fact that many Chinese martial arts styles have originated in the area, but because that is where many skillful martial artists are located.

The selection will be held during the National Sports Games this year, rules of selection will be set by the Zhong Yang Guo Shu Guan, then once people are selected they will be trained well and hope fully they will have excellent performances during the Olympic Games.

Even though boxing was known in the cities with expat population and/or with an active YMCA it was not as popular as some have suggested; an example of such attitude is illustrated in a promotion organized to increase subscriptions by the Shanghai’s Chin Fen Sports Monthly through an essay competition to answer the query “what game or past time should be adopted by the Chinese nation”. Out of 3,476 entries, 915 votes went to soccer, 825 for basketball, 309 were for martial arts while boxing occupied the eleventh spot (Morris A. D., Marrow of the Nation, 2004). There is at least a western boxing manual published in 1934 prior the Berlin Games (Kennedy & Guo, 2005), despite the need to grow the boxing know-how our survey revealed only a few articles to such aim from 1937 onward in the Jian Yu Mei/Fitness and Beauty Magazine starting with the Xi Yang Quan Shu Te Ji/ Special edition of Western Boxing published by Lee’s Fitness School. This publication was not associated with the Guoshu movement.

It is also important to note that despite the wave of Guoshu magazines/journals, the vast majority of the 42 periodicals found were published in provinces of Eastern China; 34% had its centre in the city of Shanghai, 14% in the province of Jiangsu, 11% in Shandong  province, 9% in the province of Zhejiang, 5% each in Shanxi province and in the cities of Beijing, Tianjin, the island of Hong Kong and other centers that it was not possible to identify, and 2% each in the provinces of Guangdong, Fujian, Hunan and in the city of Tokyo. None of these publications were edited in the Western provinces such as Gansu, Guizhou, Qinghai, Shaanxi, Sichuan and Yunnan, as well as in the autonomous regions, although the publications might have been distributed in a limited way in those areas (Acevedo & Cheung, 2014). Based on the above one could infer that any western boxing publication had an even lower distribution in the country if any. Despite the difficulties preparing a boxing team, the Chinese managed to send two fighters to Berlin. Another important point regarding the selection of Guoshu candidates is the fact that there was some bias towards the place of origin, the National Arts Weekly Magazine article’s assessment that those from Hebei and Shandong province were better martial artists echoes a similar argument given by western hand to hand combat pioneer William E. Fairbairn when recruiting personnel for the Shanghai Police Department (Robin & Child, 2005).

CHINESE STUDENTS GOING TO BERLIN
Thirty Chinese students will be present in the International Olympic Tent Camp at the Grunewald, the Chinese Olympic Committee announces. In the display of sports the Chinese will give a display of Chinese boxing. The team sails from China in the middle of June and will arrive in Berlin on July 20.

The Hong Kong Telegraph, 1936

Funding was also an issue, in May of the same year the press reported that even though government and private individuals had provided $189,000 plus an additional $10,300 pledged from other organizations the total amount was still insufficient to cover all the expenses of the Chinese delegation. The China Amateur Federation also announced the team members of the Guoshu delegation in the same article:

NEEDS OF CHINESE OLYMPIC TEAM
More Funds Wanted to Cover Expenses
… Six members for the Chinese boxing team, four men and two women have been announced by the Federation as follows:
Men: Chang Wen-kwang, Wen Chi-ming, Chen Huai-hsieng and Chin Shih-sheng
Girls: Chai Lien-wan and Fu Shu-yun

The selection process was also covered by other non Guoshu publications such as the Ti Yu/Sports journal:

Weight lifting team and Guoshu performance team Pre-selection

Our nation has decided to join the 11th Olympic Games, the ways of preselecting Ju Zhong/weight lifting and Guoshu performers are determined by the Quan Guo Ti Yu Xie Hui/National Sports Association. Promotion of our Guoshu has been carried on for more than eight years, many Guoshu academies have been established in many cities and provinces; in addition Guoshu performances have been added to the Di Liu Jie Quan Guo Yun Dong Hui/Sixth National Games. Many westerners don’t know the meaning of Guoshu, their level of understanding of this sport is lacking when compared to Rou Shu / Japanese Judo, therefore, we have selected nine Guoshu performers to participate in the Olympic Games, having this chance to promote the value of Wu Shu.

Note: Short bios were included by us and not appeared in the original entry:

Males

Jing Shi Sheng (1907 – 1982) joined the Whampoa Military Academy as an instructor in 1937 participated in the First Shanxi Province Martial Arts Tournament in 1953 and the National Wu Shu Assembly in 1979.

Kou Yun Xing (1898 – ?)  in 1925 he started his martial arts training and by 1928 participated in the first national arts (Guoshu) examination and finished on the second place group.

Zhang Wen Guang (1915 – 2010) was accepted to the Zhongyang Guoshu Guan in 1933; in 1935 he was chosen to join the team that gave martial arts demonstrations in Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia, the Philippines and other countries and regions. By 1953 Zhang joined the  Beijing Sports University to teach martial arts and was instrumental in the development of martial arts of New China.

Zhang Er Ding

Wen Jing Min (1905 – 1985) started his martial arts training when he was 7 years old. In 1929 he was admitted to Peking Gendarmerie Command as martial arts instructor. In 1930 transferred to Shanxi as martial arts officer instructor. Wen married Berlin fellow performer Liu Yu Hua; Wen also worked as physical education instructor for Hubei Institute of Education, Central China Normal University and the Wuhan Institute of Physical Education

Zheng Huai Xian (1897 – 1981) started learning bone setting when he was 13 years old, by 1918 his martial arts training began in Fanzi Quan and later on learnt Taiji Quan, Bagua Zhang and Xingyi Quan from Sun Lu Tang. After 1944, Zheng joined Chengdu Sports College teaching staff and continued teaching martial arts and therapeutic methods.

Females

Fu Shu Yun (1916 – 2004) joined the Guoshu Academy in 1931 and after graduating from the Academy in 1934 was hired as an instructor. During the Sino Japanese war she continued teaching martial arts and worked as a nurse, relocating to Taiwan after the Communist takeover. Fu Shu Yun worked in some Taiwanese movies and continued teaching martial arts past his 90s.

Cui Lian Yuan

Liu Yu Hua (1916 – 2008) despite her love of martial arts Liu gave them up for a while due to personal circumstances until friends convinced her to start training again prior to the 1953 competition in Tianjin where she won a first place. Due to her involvement in martial arts she and her family were prosecuted during the infamous Cultural Revolution. After the end of this dark chapter she participated as a special representative of the 1977, 1978 National Wushu Tournament and 1979 National Wushu Exchange Conference.  

As the date of departure drew closer, preparations for the Guoshu team included performing before large audiences to ensure the athletes were used to the pressure:

Reporting the Olympic Guo Shu team performance in Nanjing and Shanghai – Ti Yu Yue Kan 1936 

Our nation has decided to join the Olympic Games, the Guo Shu Team has already started its selection in Shanghai, there were four male members being selected: Zhang Wen Guang, Jin Shi Sheng, Zheng Huai Xian, Wen Jing Ming. The female team includes Cui Lian,  Fu Shu Yun. Two male candidates are Zhang Er Ding and Kou Yun Xingfemale candidate is Liu Yu Hua. (Zhang Er Ding has already been selected and will be performing during Olympics). The total of 9 members were gathering in Nanjing Zhong Yang Guo Shu Guan, they were trained according to their specialties in Quan Xie/weapons and fist forms. To encourage the team to have a better performance at the Olympics, they were asked to perform openly to the public. In Shanghai the Youth Club also selected couple martial artists to represent their respective clubs joining the performance along with the Olympic representatives.They demonstrated at the Nanjing Youth Clubthey did so openly to the public. There were more than a thousand people who visited and watched the performances. The events at Shanghai and Nanjing included the following program:

Nanjing Performances:

  • Speech from Team leader Hao Ming
  • Fu Shu Yun performed Lian Huan Tui
  • Zhang Er Ding performed Shuang Dao
  • Jing Shi Sheng performed Shao Mo Quan
  • Cui Lian Yuan performed Cha Quan
  • Kou Yun Xing performed Xiao Mei Hua Quan
  • Liu Yu Hua performed Long Hang Quan
  • Cui Lian Yuan  & Zhen Huai Xian performed Shuang Dao Qiang
  • Zhang Wen Guang  & Wen Jin Ming performed Kong Shou Jin Qiang
  • Kou Yun Xing performed Chun Qiu Dao
  • Zheng Huai Xian  performed Fei Dao

Shanghai Performances:

  • Shao Mo Quan by  Jin Shi Sheng
  • Da Hong Quan by Liu Yu Hua
  • Si Lu Cha Quan by Cui Lian Yuan
  • Luo Han Quan by Zhang Er Ding
  • Mei Hua Quan by Kou Yun Xing
  • Kun Lun Jian by Jin Shi Sheng
  • Liu He Shuan Dao by Zhang Er Ding
  • Z i Long Qiang by Liu Yu Hua
  • Tai Ji Quan by Fu Shu Yun
  • Dui Quan by Wen Jing Min and Zhang Wen Guang
  • Wu Dang Dui Jian by Zheng Huai Xian & Zhang Er Ding
  • Shuang Jian by Fu Shu Yun
  • Mei Hua Dao by Kou Yun Xing
  • Shuang Dao Jin Qiang by Cui Lian Yuan and Zheng Hui Xian
  • Dan Dao Jin Qiang by Liu Yu Hua  & Kou Yun Xing
  • Kong Shou Duo Qiang by Zhang Wen Guang  & Wen Jin Ming
  • Wu Hang Zhui  by Hao Ming
  • Fei Shuang by Zheng Huai Xian

 

The final Guoshu team was made out of three students from the Guoshu Guan; Wen Jing Ming, Fu Shu Yun and Zhang Wen Guang; from Henan Liu Yu Hua, Jing Shi Sheng and Kou Yun Xing, from Shanghai Zheng Huai Xian and Cui Lian Yuan and from Beijing Zhang Er Ding. In addition to preparing a demo team, the Chinese also sent an entry to the Olympic Sports & Physical Education Film contest to be held in Berlin during the Games covering Chinese martial arts with demonstrations of Chu Minyi’s Taiji calisthenics (Taijicao), shuttlecock/Jianzi and archery (Morris A. D., 1999). The Chinese Olympic team made a stop in Singapore along the way to Germany and were received enthusiastically by the overseas Chinese community; Guoshu was demonstrated as part of the celebrations. Similar reception awaited the team in Berlin. Recent released footage of the Olympic demos have been posted on Youtube, the routines shown and others taught at the Guoshu Guan were included in the early years of the PRC’s Wu Shu program.

National Gymnastic Demonstrations were added to the Olympic schedule, with the exception of the performance by the Chinese team, all of demos took place in the Olympic Stadium as reported in The XI Olympic Games Berlin 1936 Official Report:

… During the first week, following the track and field events. The regulations of the IOC limited the demonstration period to 45 minutes. The various teams could therefore only present a part of the most essential features of the many-sided aspects of physical culture. The series of demonstrations was opened on August 3rd by Niels Bukh, the well-known pioneer in modern gymnastics, with 20 women and 20 men gymnasts from Denmark…

The demonstrations continued on August 4th with Norway’s team of  23 women and same number of men, August 6th Finland 100 women, August 7th Hungary 28 people, Saturday August 8th Sweden team with 600 women and same number of men, 4,000 men and women split into groups performed German gymnastics. The Chinese team demonstration was described in the official report as follows:

The gymnastics of the Chinese team introduced the spectators into an entirely different world. The demonstration of “Chinese Boxing” on August 11th in the Dietrich Eckart Open-Air Theatre showed that Chinese gymnastics arc based upon ancient Chinese conceptions of the universe. The individual exercises have the purpose of giving the body the highest degree of suppleness and elasticity, with self-defense in view. In the partner exercises, which must be carried out with great speed, the Chinese displayed an insensitivity to hard and fast blows which was astonishing. The exercises with the sword, spear and pike were noteworthy. These weapons were carried past the body in dangerous proximity. This was nerve-racking for the spectators but it proved the courage and daring taught by these exercises.

233170327-chinese-national-team-closing-ceremonies-evening-of-comradeship-kung-fu.jpg
Olympic Guoshu Demo 1936

 

Despite the small number of performers when compared with the other gymnastic teams in attendance, the Chinese contingent met with an enthusiastic reception to their martial arts exhibitions. According to Fu Shu Yun all the members gave several demonstrations of solo and two person armed and unarmed routines of several styles e.g. Shaolin, Bagua, Taiji Quan, Chin Na etc. The Dietrich Eckhart performance opened up with a group demonstration. The performances that impressed the audience the most were Taiji Quan by Fu Shu Yun and Zheng Huai Xian’s Flying Fork/Fei Jia. The performances deeply impressed Hitler who invited the team to meet him in private, where he stated that Taiji Quan was an ideal form of exercise he would like to take on. Hitler avoided shaking hands with Zheng Huai Xian as Hitler (who has been reported was a believer and/or practitioner of the occult) thought Zheng had magic powers after witnessing the Flying Fork performance. As a sign of admiration the German Chancellor presented the Guoshu team with a special trophy. The team performed five more demonstrations, declining invitations from other European countries due to time constraints. (Gewu, 1995) (Ellerton, 1980)

CHINESE OLYMPIC GYMNASTS
Performance Given In Munich
“China Mail” Special
Munich, To-day
The performances given here by the Chinese Olympic Gymnastic team under the leadership of Professor Ju Suen-hwa met with unqualified success, the climax being when Miss Fu treated enthusiastic audiences to a display of “Tjinai Chi” exercises. Among those present were Professor Liu Tsiu-sec, head of the Chinese Educational Service, and many other distinguished personalities. The Chinese gymnasts left from an Italian port yesterday.

 Upon returning to China the soul searching began in order to understand the poor results in the different athletic competitions, Dr. C. T. Wang Chairman of the Executive Committee of the China National Amateur Athletics Federation gave an interview for the China Mail, in the interview Wang laid out in general terms ways to address a better preparation while and the same time praising the Guoshu team:

CHINA’S INTEREST IN SPORT
MUCH LEARNED FROM OLYMPIC GAMES
C.T. WANG INTERVIEWED
… “In order that China may compete in the future on the same competitive basis as other European and Oriental nations, we must get together a really strong team, but first we must get the masses interested in sports on a scale, such larger than at present; then we shall be able to discover champions worthy of meeting European rivals on the same basis. There is much intensive and extensive work to be done first, however and we must settle down to the task immediately” stated Dr. Wang.

… “Our Chinese boxers gave exhibitions all over the country and following the Berlin Games performed in the suburbs. They were very well received…”

681JDTRnh_b
Hao Wai Hua Bao – Special Edition Pictorial October 1936. Upper picture depicting Liu Yu Hua and Fu Shu Yun performing “double empty hands”. Lower picture Cui Lian Yuan demonstrating “Knife Picking with Body Turning”.  William Acevedo’s personal collection

By the end of 1936 the Chinese press announced the participation in the 1940 Olympics in Tokyo, however the beginning of the Sino Japanese war and WW II cancelled all preparations. The next opportunity the Republic of China R.O.C. had to showcase its martial arts came with the Tokyo Olympics of 1964. A Guoshu team started preparations with Fu Shu Yun an alumni of the Guoshu Guan at the 1936 Olympics who along with Wang Jyue Jen father of the Tian Shan Pai system in Taiwan were selected as coaches. One of the members of the team was a young Willy Lin who in the early 70s introduced Tian Shan Pai to Brazil and the USA. Unfortunately the plans came crashing down when a corrupt official gamble away the funds destined for the team and the plans were cancelled (Interview with Willy Lin).

After the 1980s China began once again its participation in the Games, the creation of the IWUF in 1990 gave way to the plans of promoting the inclusion of the PRC’s version of martial arts in the Olympics from the year 1992 onward. National and international competitions have been organized in China and other countries, including Wu Shu in the World Combat Games (an event conducted in 2010 and 2013 that includes competitions in mostly combat sports such as: Judo, Muay Thai, Karate, wrestling, boxing, kick boxing etc.). In 2008 the IOC allowed the organizers of the Beijing Olympic Games to run a parallel Wu Shu tournament. In June of 2015 Wu Shu was short listed to move on to the second phase of evaluations to be included in the Tokyo Olympics Program of 2020 only to be defeated later in the year, a hard blow when considering Japanese Karate was allowed into the program. Despite official disappointment, there are some in the martial arts community who welcomed the news, given the invasive influence of the Wu Shu body to standardize more traditional arts. The lack of support in the Americas is also troubling based on my experience judging Sanda/Sanshou competitions where only less than a handful of athletes attending in couple of weight classes are supposed to represent the country in the World Tournaments, it can hardly be called a “national team” selection process. In some South American countries invitation to competitors are only sent to those related to the official who “owns” the membership to the IWUF among other issues that will continue hindering the goal of Olympic Wu Shu in the near future.

Bibliography

Acevedo, W. R., Cheung, M., & Hood, B. (2009). The History of the Central National Arts Academy. Classical Fighting Arts, 42-50.

Acevedo, W., & Cheung, M. (2014). Republican Period Guoshu Periodicals. Classical Fighting Arts, 56-68.

Ellerton, A. (1980). FU SHU-YUN, One of China’s top wushu experts who performed at the 1936 Olympic Games. Fighting Arts International.

Gewu, K. (1995). The Spring and Autum of Chinese Martial Arts. Plum Publishing.

Kennedy, B., & Guo, E. (2005). Chinese Martial Arts Training Manuals: A Historical Survey . Berkely: North Atlantic Books.

Mingda, M. (2009). Reconstructing China’s Indigenous Physical Culture. Journal of Chinese Martial Studies, Summer(1), 8-31.

Morris, A. D. (1998). Cultivating the National Body. San Diego: University of California.

Morris, A. D. (1999). I Can Compete China in the Olympic Games, 1932 and 1936. Journal of Sport History, 545-566.

Morris, A. D. (2004). Marrow of the Nation. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Robin, P., & Child, P. (2005). The Legend of W.E. Fairbairn, Gentleman and Warrior: The Shanghai Years. CQB Publications .

 

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