At first individuals like Sun Lutang, Chan Wah Shun, Mok Kwai Lan, Li Pei Xian and Cheung Lai Chuen would not seem to have much in common aside from their love of the martial arts. Collectively they hail both northern and southern China. Some of them championed well known internal styles such a Taiji, while others taught smaller regional arts, or even created their own fighting systems. Some of these individuals were well known throughout the world of the Chinese martial arts during their own lifetimes, while the impact of the others was distinctly local in scope.One of the reasons why I started the “Lives of Chinese Martial Artists” series was to explore the wide range of variation in the careers of traditional hand combat teachers in the Republic of China period. Even when we restrict our field of study to a specific geographic area (such as the Pearl River Delta) it quickly becomes evident that there was not a single pathway to martial attainment or fame.Yet for all of the differences, there are also some important patterns that arise within the biographies of these masters. Some of these similarities reflect the influence of larger systemic forces within Chinese society. Identifying these structural factors is a critical exercise for students of martial studies.Not only will this help to reveal the environment within which these well-known masters lived, it will also clarify something about the forces that shaped the lives of China’s many lesser-known martial arts teachers and students. These systemic variables had a direct impact on the evolution of the traditional fighting systems during the 1920s and 1930s. In fact, much of what we now think of as the “traditional Chinese martial arts” was first codified during these years.Any investigation of these systemic factors requires us to look beyond the martial arts and turn our attention towards broader trends within Chinese society. Obviously the 1920s and 1930s were a time of great social change. Rapid industrialization, the growth of nationalism, changes in China’s global trade position, reforms in education and new ideas about social organization and gender were all prominent features of this era. Each of these factors impacted the development of the traditional Chinese martial arts in some way.The current post introduces an equally important, though less frequently discussed, variable to our equation. The Republic era was also one of rapid urbanization. As increased commerce and trade created new employment opportunities in the cities, farmers and landlords alike flocked to these rapidly growing urban centers.Other individuals were forced off the land and out of their villages as life in the countryside deteriorated. Frequent clashes between various warlord armies, the increased imposition of illegal taxes, social decay accompanying the spread of the opium economy and the breakdown of traditional clan structures (especially in Guangdong) all contributed to the growth of cities.While urban poverty and crime were real problems, life in the city offered many immigrants opportunities for both stability and material advancement. Education, entertainment, consumption and liberalized values were all things that defined urban life during the 1920s.Of course China’s vibrant urban economies also offer more room for economic specialization and the creation of small businesses. This was yet another critical factor drawing an entire generation of martial arts teachers to China’s growing cities. As the martial arts grew increasingly commercial it was necessary to go where the paying customers could be found.
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