Strenuous Athletics in China, including Pre-Japanese Jiu-Jutsu

From The Literary Digest, May 29, 1920, 117-118, 120

Journal of Non-lethal Combatives, December 1999

Breaking brickbats on each other's heads, tossing heavy tiles at their opponents, balancing half-ton weights on their feet, and a pyramid of nine men atop all, and, finally, smashing with a sledgehammer a granite stone on a man's back, are athletic diversions in China which antedate the history of the Flood and are just coming back into favor as military training. In Cathay, we are told by Rodney Gilbert in The North China News (Shanghai), jiu-jutsu was taught and practised before it was known in Japan, and the Japanese, supposed masters and inventors of this particular type of the manly art, are but poor copyists, humble pupils of their almond-eyed brothers across the dividing sea. The most ardent living patron of the old Chinese physical training is General Ma Liang, [FN1] commander of the Second Division of the Frontier Defense Army and of the Forty-seventh Mixed Brigade, now Occupation Commissioner at Tsinanfu. [FN2] The writer describes an exhibition drill, which looked more like a free-for-all fight, or a shillalah [sic] party raised to the nth power of roughness, than a mere display of physical prowess. When it was finished the spectator expected to see a convoy of ambulances drive on the field to take the victims to waiting hospitals, and to see the last rites administered to the dying. But no blood had been spilled; no bones were broken, and no bruises showed where stones, sticks, flails, brickbats, and slivers struck the flesh.

Such shows begin gently enough, with a placid drill in calisthenics. The drill-ground is carefully rolled smooth and hard, and every pebble and fragment of stone has been removed. Along one wall is a rack of antique Chinese weapons, straight swords, curved swords, lances, halberds, quarter staves, clubs linked together like flails, and many other weapons for which there is no occidental name. At another end of the court are a number of large stone dumb-bells, piles of granite paving stones, and little heaps of bricks and tiles, all of which serve a rather astounding purpose at the end of the performance. After the calisthenics comes a sword-drill with straight swords, which is followed by a drill in the use of a quarter-staff about six feet long. General Ma Liang explains that this stick drill is very useful, since the Chinese are too poor to furnish themselves with other weapons, and because, when well handled, it becomes a very effective weapon of offense and defense. Then comes the wrestling which is fast and furious, and which is no child's play. General Ma Liang explains that it much more completely developed than the 'small part' which the Japanese have borrowed. [FN3] The men strip to the waist and put on short, closely quilted canvas jackets, which are belted with long sashes. The play is too fast for the spectator clearly to understand the rules. But it would seem that all grips are taken on the canvas jackets, tripping is permissible, and leg-holds are allowed. A man is thrown when he loses his balance and immediately releases his hold on his adversary. In most cases, however, he does not go down gently, and some of the throws are so violent that the thud of the body resounds through the courtyard. The writer [Rodney Gilbert] goes on:

In this phase of the drill the Japanese are, of course, intensely interested. General Ma Liang says that thousands of Japanese officers and men have come at one time or another to see the performances, and, according to creditable witnesses, one or two of the best wrestlers have thrown every jiu-jutsu champion whom the Japanese have been able to bring to Tsinan.

Highly dramatic combats with lances and swords follow the wrestling, and while it is certain that the men purposely miss one another in their lunges and slashes, they miss by so narrow a margin that the spectator is out of his seat throughout most of the contest.

After these artists come the strong men, as highly developed as any whom we are accustomed to see in the Occident. One man takes a dumb-bell weighing 266 pounds, tosses it in the air, catches it on his upturned forearms, tosses it again, catches it in one hand, rests it upon his head, and then twirls it about his neck, shoulders, and waist. Another lies upon his back, supports dumb-bells weighing 540 pounds on his feet and hands, and upon these a pyramid of nine men is built. A number of lesser lights perform with lesser dumb-bells, then a man rushes to the front, two others toss a granite paving-stone four inches thick on his back, and it is cracked with a sledgehammer.

This is the signal for a general furore of tile- and brick-breaking among the acrobats. They break bricks in their hands, break them over their arms, over the backs of their necks, and over each other's faces. One man leans over, balances six bricks on the side of his face, while another smashed them all with a seventh. A man with half a dozen tiles in each hand will clip them over his neighbor's ears and break them all. Finally, in the midst of this whirlwind of destruction, one round-headed devotee drops on his knees, puts half a brick on top of his head, upon which a huge slab of granite is balanced, which is then shattered with a sledgehammer. The show is then over.

This is an exemplification of what General Ma Liang in his books describes as "The Chinese New Military Art." In this age of tanks, airplanes, ponderous artillery, and poison-gas, the layman is probably puzzled to understand what a show as that which I have here superficially described has to do with military science. Military people know, however, that the physical fitness and spirit of the men engaged in a modern conflict are still more important than the machinery used. The layman sees in General Ma Liang's drill nothing but a highly diverting circus, but the military man sees in it a system of mental and muscular training which takes a loutish and stupid coolie and makes of him an alert, sensitive, highly disciplined man who can be readily trained in the use of any weapon and is prepared to undertake any amount of training, fatigue, and hardship.

Military men who have seen the show have told the writer that there is scarcely any feature of it which could not be adopted to occidental uses.

Footnotes (hit your back button to return to the text)

FN1. Ma was Muslim, a point made because the Islamic (Sufistic?) influence on the Chinese martial arts requires further research and documentation. As early as 1700, Ma Hsueh-li, a Muslim hsingi practitioner from Honan Province, was described as having symptoms of boxer's encephalopathy, and as recently as the 1980s the champions of national-level wushu competitions were often Hui (ethnic Chinese Muslims). Ma's Christian contemporary Feng Yü-hsiang was another patron of the Chinese martial arts, and when not baptizing troops with fire hoses Feng liked to say, "When we fight, we first use bullets; when the bullets are gone, we use bayonets; when the bayonets are dull, we use the rifle barrel; when this is broken, we use our fists; when our fists are broken, we bite."

FN2. Known as Jinan in Pinyin, this city is an industrial and transportation center located near the Yellow River, and is the capital of Shandong Province.

FN3. From a technical standpoint, Robert W. Smith, who trained in both judo and Chinese jacketed wrestling, disagrees strongly with this interpretation. See Chinese Boxing: Masters and Methods (Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Press, 1990). But as a Chinese patriot, General Ma was hardly likely to say that judo represented an improvement.

JNC Dec 1999.