A popular scene staged by professional Chinese theater companies in San Francisco during the second half of the 1800’s was a male actor, portraying a woman giving birth. Was it comedy? drama? or socio-political commentary? It was probably all three. This I learned from reading Operatic China: Staging Chinese Identity across the Pacific (Palgrave Studies in Theatre and Performance History) by Daphne P. Lei. This work is a powerful contribution to our understanding of the culture of martial arts.
As an aside I also learned what coat check girls were for! See every man in the early days of San Francisco carried either a gun or a bowie knife--or both--and these were not allowed to be carried into a theater, restaurant or a hotel. Also someone skilled in the grit of fighting could also use a hat to great effect and a coat of course could conceal more weapons, and with muddy streets that were in total darkness at night, people generally carried canes. So all these things had to be left with the coat check girl. Coat check was the whole pre-1900 security apparatus.
This an excellent book which covers Opera as a function of identity and social organization in Southern China and California, and deserves a much more detailed review when I get a chance. But for our purposes, the most significant idea I got from the book is an explanation of why Southern martial artists almost universally claim northern origins. This has always been troubling to anyone who has a good eye for movement because there are big differences in the movement languages of North and South China suggesting a long period of distinct development.
In the 1860’s, just before the Tai Ping Rebellion which led to the deaths of 20 million, there was a smaller rebellion called the Opera Rebellion focused around Foshan on the Southern coast. It was an alliance of what we today call Triads, or Tiandihua (Heaven Earth Society), and Opera companies. The Opera companies actually led the rebellion in costume. They claim to have organized some 100,000 rebels. They had a lot of ships, it seems all the Opera ships have been destroyed but each of these boats slept about 100 people with the starboard side being for male roles and the port side being for female roles. About a 10th of the troop members were animal role experts, I don’t know where they slept. Elsewhere I read evidence that the wooden man used in Wingchun Shaolin was some sort of a upright taffrail for belaying pins, which developed into a training tool for Opera.
I really shouldn’t be using the word Opera, something like Traditional Chinese Theater Caste Professionals would be more accurate. But ‘Opera’ is convenient for the moment. A key point I have been reiterating is that the caste status of Opera people was below thieves and prostitutes, and that it was in perpetuity. One could not just quit and take up shoe making. Ben Judkins has added to my thinking on this that money wasn’t very widespread for most of the history of martial arts. It is a hard concept for modern people to comprehend. I have always lived in a world of money and fixed prices for nearly everything. Patronage societies took on much of the social organizing functions that stable currency later came to replace. By the early 1800’s money started to get much more reliable in the South which led to a huge increase in commerce and naturally a diminishing of societies of patronage. In the North and more interior regions, where currency was less reliable, patronage societies were probably stronger and lasted longer.
As Judkins has shown in his posts on martial arts manuals in the South, a commercial market for martial arts teachers was thriving as early as 1800. How much of an escape window out of Opera caste status this market provided the experts of martial theatrical roles is still an open question.
The Opera rebellion was a revolutionary struggle for power and perception which consolidated the ru (gentry scholars class), landowners, and wealthy merchants against everyone else. That alliance had already existed in the South far more than in the North because the commercial vibrancy of the Southern ports was an irresistible source of corruption for government officials and powerful families. When the Opera rebellion was finally put down it resulted in an outlawing of Opera for some 15 years, a period in which rebel and anyone associated with Opera was hunted down and executed. There is an estimate in the book (if I recall correctly) of some 1 million slaughtered during these ‘hunts.’
And this is the great insight that precipitates the foundation stories of all the “pure” martial arts of the South. They nearly all claim to have come from the North around 1870-1880. Some also claim origins in the somewhat mythical Southern Shaolin temple which was burned to the ground in the 1860’s. Of course there was a huge fire at this time, but it was the final battle of the Opera Rebellion in which the Gentry/Officials burned the fortifications of Foshan to the ground, not a temple. The lineages and the lineage stories were invented in order to completely disassociate themselves from the rebellion. It was a survival strategy.
Judkins has also suggested that the divisions and styles of Southern martial arts appear to have evolved as communities in alliance to various social divisions that become apparent in this era. Wingchun developed as a higher status art than the more popular Choilifut Shaolin. Interestingly and fittingly, a key founder of the Choilifut system is known as the Green Grass Monk, because he routinely covered his body with a medicinal paste made from green grasses, he had burns all over his body. Of course it could be true that he was truly a monk from the Southern Shaolin temple, but it seems much more likely that he was an Opera star skilled at playing ‘martial-monk’ roles who escaped the burning of Foshan.