Posted by: B Gourley | July 11, 2008

Chinese Martial Arts in 20th Century Conflicts?: An Open Question

Last month I was in Beijing and visited the China People’s Revolution Military Museum. From the outset I should say that I have virtually no knowledge of Chinese Martial Arts, historical or otherwise. This, in fact, is the cause of this post which is intended as a question to any reader knowledgeable on the subject- rather than my usual pontification.
The heart of the museum is a series of chronological displays covering the fight against Japan during World War II, and, even more extensively, the Communist perspective on the Chinese Civil War that resulted in the rise of the Communist Party to power. As I walked through these halls, I saw extensive collections of hand weapons that I associate with Kung Fu (Wu Shu) such as halberds, spears, forked spears, steel multi-sectional “whips”, what in Japan / Okinawa would be called a “sai” (a truncheon with two diametrically opposed prongs), and swords. What I am wondering was the degree to which such close-range hand weapons actually played a part in the conflict? Furthermore, if they did, was it kung fu or just crude application of these kung fu weapons in a kind of impromptu “street-fighting”? My curiosity arises because this is so far into the era of dominance of firearms and warfare ruled by much longer range weapons (artillery, tanks, etc.). I have always had a deep fascination with people who choose to fight against opponents holding overwhelming advantages, be it the Melians of Thucydides’s “Peloponnesian War” or the Afghan Mujaheddin versus the Soviets. While I suspect people armed with such weapons would have had, at best, limited success, any success at all could present very interesting case studies in strategy.
At first I thought that they might have simply been sloppy in mixing weapons from different periods together, but very quickly the English signage and the thorough organization of the museum made it clear that this was not the case. My impression of the Communist Party’s views on the martial arts during that period was one of open hostility. (As opposed to the present day, during which they are paid hommage as a cash cow.) I know that the Cultural Revolution and its attempts to eliminate kung fu came much later, but even before that I had thought that Mao did not have a very friendly perspective on the martial arts because he believed students would have too great a loyalty to their teachers – to the potential detriment of their loyalty to the party and the nation.
Another possibility that arose in my mind had to do with the propagandistic nature of the museum. (A sign showing the typical level of propaganda displayed in this museum can be seen above.) It seemed as though the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) really wanted to create an image that the Communists defeated the Kuomintang against all odds so as to bolster the myth that they had all of the people on their side and thus were able to overwhelm the technological advantage of their opposition. There is a great deal of emphasis placed upon how the US supplied the Kuomintang with the latest weaponry, and there were a lot of these hand weapons to reinforce the image of peasants fighting against machine guns with what amounted to pitchforks and machetes, because such was the intense love for the Communist Party in the cockles of their heart.
I would be interested to hear the comments or views of anyone who knows something about this.
Those interested in China’s People’s Revolution Military Museum more generally can see a more detailed post on my other blog at:


  1. While an infantryman in the US Army, I often carried a non-issue tomahawk. An astoundingly useful tool, and a part of our American cultural heritage as well. Could some of these weapons have been used in the same context?

    I know that during the Boxer Rebellion, such kung-fu weapons were reportedly common. Could nearly a half-century of time make that much difference in what people were armed with? I was always under the impression that firearms were never very common in China. Even Fairburne and Sykes barely mention (one instance, IIRC) facing opponents armed with firearms in Shanghai in the 1920’s.

  2. I know that this is a very late response to an old post but hopefully you receive an email about new comments from wordpress. I am very interested in the use of swords and spears in early 20th century China and just wrote a post addressing this topic. You can find it here:

    If you are still interested in the topic this might be helpful.

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