A Radical Lens for Asian Masculinity

Understanding the History of Asian Revolutions Through Jianghu Culture

Those of us who have chosen the Asian-American struggle should see should seek to understand where we fit into the long tradition of Asian heterodoxy.

What is heterodoxy? Merriam-Webster defines heterodox as “contrary to or different from an acknowledged standard, a traditional form, or an established religion”.

Too many Asian-American men, even when they choose to reject the mainstream of white supremacy, inadvertently reach accept a white notion of radicalism, which is damaging and limiting. Thus, I would like to humbly offer the analytical lens that I have used over the past few years, in hopes that it will be useful to you all.

When looking at a heterodox political culture there are two opposing poles: replacement and transformation. People operating on the replacement pole are seeking power within an established framework. They are a party out of power that wants to replace the current group in power, while retaining other social relationships. On the other hand, those on the transformation pole seek to change not just the party in power, but other social relationships within the structure of society. There is a lot of space between the two poles. Individuals and groups may express a mix of both.

There’s a Chinese phrase that is useful in looking at heterodoxy: jianghu, literally, the rivers and lakes. It’s the social space where kung fu and heroic bloodshed flicks are set. Jianghu is made up of “monks, nuns, beggars, outlaws, vagrants, rascals, gangsters, knight-errants and anyone you can name.”

In the last 30 years, the jianghu culture of China, propagated by the heroic bloodshed films, has been influential throughout Asian communities. Witness the Korean remake of A Better Tomorrow, as well as substantial fan bases in Japan, Vietnam, the Philippines, and the Asian diaspora communities in the US. (And in American hip hop culture too, which will be important later.) These films have been popular because they tap into the basic human need for group solidarity — everyone wants to know that there are people in this world who will have their back no matter what.

The Killer (1989)
The Killer (1989)

More broadly, the jianghu world is where power is openly contested — the space where gangsters, cops, soldiers, revolutionaries and iconoclasts fight for dominance, and the space where heterodox and orthodox political culture struggle to create something new.

Enough with the vague sociological meanderings and literary allusions. Let’s talk about historical events and use the lens of jianghu to make sense of them.

Meiji Revolutionaries as Jianghu

During the 19th century, China and Japan both ran up against the awesome power of western imperialism. Armed with the tools and organization of the industrial revolution, the western countries easily imposed their will on Qing dynasty China. The opium trade was the result of a British trade deficit with China— the British had to buy silver in order to trade it for tea, thus bidding up the price of silver. In an effort to balance this trade, the British introduced opium from their Indian provinces to the Chinese market. The Qing rulers of China attempted to stop this trade by a variety of means, up to and including seizure of opium shipments. Obviously, British merchants weren’t having it, and thus, they asked for and received support from the Royal Navy.

After China lost the two Opium Wars (1842 and 1860), western powers gained colonies on the borders (ex. Hong Kong), legalized opium imports and extracted several hundred tons of silver in “reparations.”

Around this time, certain Japanese elites recognized that their political/economic system was incapable of resisting Western incursion, after the Perry Expedition of 1853. Perry compelled the Japanese to open diplomatic and trade relations with the US, under threat of naval gunfire. Japanese delegations also toured China and witnessed the ease with which the western powers outmatched Chinese forces. Samurai clans from two peripheral provinces (Satsuma and Choshu) joined forces in an effort to industrialize Japan and train western-style armed forces. Ostensibly, this was the 1868 Meiji Restoration, which removed the shogun and restored “direct rule” by the emperor. In actuality, it was the creation of a new oligarchy made up of prominent men from Satsuma and Choshu provinces— Satsuma samurai formed the backbone of the Imperial Navy, and Choshu samurai, the Army. The two key players were Kido Takayoshi (Choshu) and Saigo Takamori (Satsuma).

Katsura Kogoro (aka
Katsura Kogoro (right), aka Kido Takayoshi, as depicted in Ruroni Kenshin: Tsuiokuhen. The Ruroni Kenshin series is known in China as Shen Jian Chuang Jianghu.

Kido is documented as having trained in Kendo. There is some evidence that the various sword schools produced not only competitive fighters but also “produced some of the late Tokugawa swordsmen statesmen who overthrew the bakufu and founded the Meiji regime…” Cameron Hurst goes on to write that “many of the men who overthrew the bakufu (shogunal government) in the nineteenth century practiced swordsmanship together in a handful of Edo’s most prominent dojo.” Engaging in competitive sports practice is well known to build in group solidarity; in the US the most prominent example of this is, of course, high school football. Training in combatives has similar implications; these are ties that bind. The Meiji rebels of the Edo sword dojo were typically  lower-ranking samurai – ambitious wanderers, outsiders from peripheral provinces – joined together in sworn brotherhoods tested by hard training.

In other words, they were jianghu.

And what of their heterodox politics? If anything, the Meiji Restoration tended towards the replacement pole. Certainly, there was an element of change in the social relationships of Japan. The new Meiji government denied samurai their previous right to carry two swords, took away the power of the traditional prefectural nobility, and centered power on the imperial court with a newly created nobility. Japan became a western-style constitutional monarchy and an industrial society where the ruling class, formerly the great landowners, shifted to family-owned conglomerates known as zaibatsu. Nonetheless, the position of normal working people remained tenuous — industrialization created a few great winners and many, many losers. Japan also embarked on a harsh colonization policy in Korea that foreshadowed the eventual brutality of the “Pan Asian” Empire of Japan.

Kuomintang as Jianghu

Across the water, the Qing state struggled to industrialize and protect itself. While Japan successfully industrialized, the Qing court and its bureaucracy faltered. There is extensive scholarship arguing about the particular reasons for the failure. Rather than re-litigate the case, instead I will use the Marble Boat as an example. This is the boat and palace that the Empress Dowager Cixi restored with funds originally appropriated to build warships. As the name implies, it is made of marble and wood, decidedly inferior materials for a warship of the late 19th century. Also, it had no engines and was permanently fixed to the pier, sort of a handicap when it comes time for naval combat. Unsurprisingly, the Beiyang force lost to the Empire of Japan when the two fought in the Sino Japanese War.

Given the lethargy and incompetence of the Qing, revolutionary movements surged in the 1890s. Eventually, the most prominent group coalesced around Sun Zhongshan, the man that the English speaking world came to know as Dr. Sun Yat-sen. Sun was born on the periphery of China, in Guangdong province, but attended high school in what was then the Kingdom of Hawaii, where he learned English and converted to Christianity under the influence of Anglican missionaries. In a certain anachronistic sense, then, we could almost consider Sun an Asian-American, given the strong American influence in Hawaii and his western education.

Sun Yat-sen plays a supporting role alongside Jet Li as Wong Fei-hong in Once Upon a Time in China II (1992)
Sun Yat-sen plays a supporting role alongside Jet Li as Wong Fei-hong in Once Upon a Time in China II (1992)

Sun eventually became convinced that only a revolutionary overthrow of the Qing government could save China from foreign imperialism. Sun and his followers sought the formation of an American-style constitutional republic and the end of imperial rule, placing him firmly on the transformative pole of the heterodox continuum. His followers and supporters were a group made up initially of his family (his older brother was a wealthy cattle rancher in Hawaii), schoolmates and intellectual fellow travelers.

Sun was very aggressive in leveraging sworn brotherhood relationships – both his own and those of his followers – to build out his network. In addition, Sun drew recruits and allies within the original triads, the Tiandihuai: a secret society in South China that began as a mutual aid organization during the 18th century and branched into illegal activities. Although for generations Sun and those who claimed his political legacy depicted the Tiandihui as originating among anti-Manchu revolutionaries, more recent archival research has contradicted this account and replaced it with the more prosaic story detailed above.

Sun also heavily recruited actual triad members to swell the ranks of his revolutionary organization. They made several abortive attempts at revolution, using triad gunmen as the foot soldiers. As he was a fugitive in China, Sun sought refuge in Japan, where he connected with a variety of Japanese political factions, including the Black Dragon Society (yes, these were the OG Black Dragons) led by Toyama Mitsuru, an enigmatic figure of the Japanese nationalist right. Japanese thinkers in this milieu advanced the concept of Pan-Asianism — Asia for the Asians, if you will. Sun also connected with Miyazaki Toten, a man of action who provided Sun with not only introductions, but hospitality. Miyazaki “was also not far removed from the ronin legacy…he figured himself a rebel and lived the life of a wanderer.” Miyazaki was, by all accounts, completely dedicated to supporting the cause of the Chinese Revolution, and Sun personally.

Yet, despite his loyalty, the Pan-Asian politics that he and other Japanese espoused were intensely problematic. Doubtlessly, Miyazaki and his fellow ronin believed whole heartedly in their cause. Still, Pan-Asianism in practice served as a cover for Japanese colonial expansion and exploitation in Asia. This is not unlike the way that very well meaning liberals supported the war in Iraq as an efforts to bring democracy to the Middle East: despite good intentions, the practical application of those intentions was incredible destruction. Toyama’s Black Dragon Society was a hub for Japanese imperialism, and his clandestine agents were the hidden point of the Japanese colonial spear. Korea bore the brunt of this at first, but over time, the Imperial Japanese Army would also attack and subjugate Manchuria, funding its expenditures by way of drug sales. The Japanese Pan-Asianists in the end sought to supplant Western imperialist powers with the rule of Imperial Japan.

This was, perhaps, the ultimate in replacement heterodoxy.

All this aside, Sun and the fledgling Kuomintang (KMT) received critical support from the Japanese Pan-Asianists, and many would-be Chinese revolutionaries received technical training at Japanese military schools — among them, Sun’s future successor, Chiang Kai-shek.

Kuomintang political efforts can be characterized as transformational, given that the previous Qing state was a monarchy. Unlike the Meiji Restoration, there was no one occupying the imperial throne. Despite the Kuomintang’s aspirations to rule a transformed China, the reality was that for years after 1911 they were sidelined by former Qing generals turned warlords in North China.

Sun attempted to build a synthesis of capitalism and socialism, and increasingly turned to the left. By 1924, he accepted Soviet aid to build a military academy and reconstitute the Kuomintang on Leninist lines. As part of the deal, the Kuomintang accepted Communists within its ranks, and a Communist organizer in his mid twenties (!) became the head of the Political Department. That organizer was Zhou Enlai, later Premier of the People’s Republic.

Jianghu and Origins of the CCP

Let the Bullets Fly (2013) is an action-comedy about a bandit who leads a populist uprising against a local nobleman in 1920's China
Let the Bullets Fly (2013) is an action-comedy about a bandit who leads a populist uprising against a local nobleman in 1920’s China

For many years, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) portrayed its origins as an assembly of workers, peasants and intellectuals, originally formed from a study group at Beijing University. The official line was that they had nothing to do with the feudal reactionaries of the secret society world. This, it turns out not, is not case.

There is an excellent book by Elizabeth Perry detailing the Communist organizing campaign at the Anyuan coal mine in the early 1920s. Perry’s close investigation (from archival records) of the campaign is a window into the early years of the Communist Party in China. Perry writes:

Today, appalled by later events, we are hard pressed to look charitably upon any part of Chinese revolutionary history. It is easy to see why a book like Jung Chang and Jon Halliday’s Mao: The Unknown Story, which depicts the revolution as a cynical and sadistic enterprise from start to finish, would strike a chord among contemporary readers (Chang and Halliday 2005). In light of the current climate, a favorable account of the Chinese revolutionary experience appears naïve and even apologetic. But eye-witness observers at the time, representing a wide range of ideological persuasions, uniformly credited the Communist experiment at Anyuan with impressive achievements, especially in the realm of mass education and organization.

The coal mine workers of Anyuan suffered from difficult, if not lethal, working conditions and great poverty. As a large employer, the mine drew people from different regions of China who spoke different dialects. The lead organizer, 22 year-old Li Lisan, was highly skilled at connecting to the jianghu tradition. Perry writes:

One of Li’s new recruits to the workers’ club, a highly adept performer by the name of You Congnai, was persuaded to take the lead. You was a low-level chieftain in the Red Gang whose martial arts skills were second to none.” After a rousing series of Lantern Festival performance all over town, You gathered a crowd of people interested in becoming his disciples. He surprised them by announcing that “Teacher Li of the night school has instructed us that, starting tonight, we should no longer study martial arts. Instead, we should all study diligently at the night school. Anyone interested in studying, come with us.

The free night school organized by Li, which combined basic literacy instruction with revolutionary messages, proved immensely popular. Most workers were illiterate, and gaining literacy in Chinese was extremely costly under most circumstances. Thus, a free literacy school was a major contribution to local life.

From the initial group of students, Li identified several who became core organizer/activists and formed a party cell in Anyuan. After some time, the school became a “springboard for other modes of labor organization” — namely, a union. Li drew on secret society conventions when he formed the union, and the qualifications for party membership were in fact quite similar to those for gang membership. When joining the Communist Party, Anyuan workers were not expected to demonstrate any particular knowledge of or commitment to Marxist theory. Instead, as one of them later reported when asked about the criteria for membership, “the requirements were to keep secrets, promote mass interests, and sacrifice oneself.”

More than education and solidarity, the workers club also provided cheap, low cost consumer goods to the miners via a consumer cooperative. After several years of organizing, in 1922 the workers of Anyuan mobilized for a general strike, to press for better working conditions and higher wages. Li and his cadre were concerned that the secret society called the Red Gang would oppose the strike, because they often served as the hidden violent hand of the mine management. Li resolved to meet with the leader of the Red Gang. He recounts his experience in a scene that could take place in any heroic bloodshed film:

[The Red Gang] used concepts such as “honor,” “protecting the poor,” “seeking happiness for the poor,” and so on to trick the workers. Thanks to our efforts, several of the lower-level Red Gang chieftains joined the party. Before the strike, our biggest fear was that the Red Gang would break the strike. So Liu Shaoqi instructed me to have a couple of gang chieftains under our influence take me to see the Red Gang leader. I bought some presents and went there. The head of the Red Gang was very pleased that I had come. He called me Director Li (as workers’ club director), and after we had drunk the rooster blood (I had brought along a rooster), I told him we were planning to go on strike. I also explained that the strike was intended to help our impoverished brothers “seek happiness,” “protect the poor,” and so forth. I asked that he do the “honorable” thing by helping out. He slapped his chest and said, “I will definitely help.” I immediately raised three demands for the period of the strike: 1) close the opium dens, 2) suspend street gambling, 3) prevent looting. He slapped his chest three times in a row: “The first point, I guarantee, the second point I guarantee, and the third point I also guarantee.” He even wrote the first and second points into a public notice. The implementation of these three provisions had a dramatic effect on [Anyuan] society. Even some capitalists and intellectuals thought the workers’ club was pretty amazing (because for so many years these problems could not be solved, but the strike completely resolved them).

The fledgling CCP used its Anyuan experiences as a guidepost for organizing within the massive factories of Shanghai. Several years later, during a General Strike in Shanghai, Chiang Kai-shek decided to purge the Communists from the KMT. His main instrument? Shanghai’s leading purveyors of opium, the Green Gang. Chiang himself had once run in Shanghai drug dealing circles, swearing personal allegiance to Huang Jingrong, a leading drug dealer and police detective. In the post-’49 era the CCP and its allies often heavily criticized Chiang for his secret society ties, characterizing them as “feudal,” a term of some approbation for Marxists. It is especially ironic, given that the CCP also drew from the jianghu world as well, with a younger Mao Zedong praising the Older Brother Association.

Strategic Questions

This post has examined three groups — the Meiji restorationists, the Kuomintang and the Chinese Communist Party – through the jianghu lens. Each of these groups attempted to answer the strategic question of how to best achieve national self-determination, and each started in opposition (heterodoxy) to existing power structures. The Japanese approach was to industrialize along European lines, with Japan adopting western style colonialism as well. It was an attempt to replace the western powers in Asia. In this they succeeded. Well, at least, until the second world war.

In China, both the Kuomintang and the Communists began in heterodoxy, as they sought to transform the social relations in China from a monarchy to a republic, while building a western style industrial base and military. The KMT failed on the mainland— under the leadership of Chiang Kai-shek, the KMT regime fled a CCP victory in 1949, establishing itself on Taiwan. Rapid industrialization followed. In the 1980s, Chiang Kai-shek’s son, Chiang Ching-guo began the process of democratizing Taiwan. The younger Chiang was an interesting figure in his own right — as a young man he embraced Marxism and was trained in the Soviet Union, where he married a Belarusian woman. Later, he ran his father’s secret police before assuming the presidency in the mid 1970s.

The CCP succeeded at founding a republic and developing the mainland into an industrial power, free of foreign colonialism— at great human cost. Market reforms in the 1980s have raised the standard of living but have not been accompanied by democratization. Indeed, in recent years the rich-poor gap has accelerated, alongside environmental degradation. And when I say environmental degradation, I’m talking about this. By all reports, the plight of coal miners in Anyuan is still a difficult one.

Closing Thoughts

One of the reasons that I wrote this post is that I actually find a lot of the

China rules111!! Asians taking over with our meritocratic skills!11!! We’ll show those white women and Asian slut sellouts!!11

discussion to be extremely foolish. I well understand the impulse though — I definitely went through a time in my life where I felt that way. Given the historical record, though (Japanese Pan Asianism), I think the urge to become the new dominant power at the top of the existing pyramid is a dangerous and destructive one.

Asian people have a unique opportunity in the United States, even though we’re playing on difficult mode. The suburban consumer culture of America in 2015 encourages people to be disconnected from each other, and to only pursue their narrow individual goals. In contrast, the jianghu culture of solidarity is a powerful counterexample. It is one that has great resonance to people of all ethnicities who are struggling against oppression— it’s no mistake that black hip hop culture picked up on kung fu and heroic bloodshed films.

The jianghu culture is a powerful one because it brings people together to achieve collective goals. What those goals are matters — are people coming together to rob the helpless, or for something more than that? Do we see ourselves as just random groups of people fighting to do the best we can for our immediate families/friends? Or are we people engaged in a collective struggle for a common good, what some might call solidarity?


This post was originally to the AsianMasculinity subreddit. It has been reposted here with minor edits and additional images. 

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