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The second half of the 19th century captures the imagination. Whether facing toward the West or the East from any directional perspective, this time period was one of great and rapid transition for most of the world. For those interested in the traditional Chinese martial arts, this is the period most recognized as being “traditional”. The Ming is the period of development and the Qing is the period of settlement; the setting of the imagination of the traditional martial arts from China. What we need to realize is that, for the people experiencing those times, this was a period of innovation which was urged into motion by the circumstances of uncertain times. These uncertain times were not without their luring promises of opportunity and survival; spurring the brave at heart to venture deep into territories far from their hearths and homes.

When standing in American history, there were two migrational movements to be seen expanding into the West. One was an internal expansion reaching westward from the east coast states, passing through states in the making, and reaching the shores of a budding California. The other expansion came from foreign migration, crossing first their own borders and arriving as strangers in a strange land; with often the arduous trek to the final destination still ahead. Both of these migrational movements were in contact with each other. This contact catalyzed processes of innovation and acculturation; all contributing to the development and settlement of America and its history.

The trek from east to west, south to west, and west to further west was mostly a home-grown movement of Americans; leading many to end their travels along the way. The federal government took a number of measures to encourage western migration during the 1800s: Louisiana Purchase, Native Americans removed to reservations, Homestead Acts, Land Rushes and the Civil War all contributed to new lands and mass-migrations. Other influences on migration were the California Gold Rush and the building of the Transcontinental Railroad and Telegraph System. Between 1800 and 1900, the American population grew from 5 million to 76 million. Opening lands brought prosperity and immigrants; until 1890 when changing times resulted in the announcement that Western Expansion was officially finished.

Wild West Knifes

To lay a groundwork of understanding for this period, I bring attention to the frontiersmen of America as they progress continually westward. They are the majority of the migrants who eventually come into contact with the Chinese immigrants arriving from Southern China in the second half of the 19th century. The frontiersmen develop a frontier-culture of an independent nature. There was very little law enforcement in the “wild west” and there were very few women. These two facts become important elements in the development of behavioral norms amongst these men. Changing behavioral norms led to changes in attitudes toward weapons, weapons use, and self-perception. These are all exemplarily illustrated through the story of the Bowie knife. The history of this knife is a commentary on the history of the frontiersmen. It presents a vivid setting of the imagination of the rough and ready “wild west”.

America is considered to have created and developed three classic weapons during its short history: the Kentucky Rifle, the Colt Revolver, and the Bowie Knife. The Bowie knife is the knife of knives in the collective imagination of Americans and around the world it has been associated with the American West since its creation in the 1820s. The name should be familiar to most people today; yet, the context and imagery may be a bit vague in the mind’s reconstruction. Many might ask what exactly a Bowie knife is. To answer such a question, and to explore the history and its implications, I refer heavily to an article by Phil Spangenberger which was written for an interesting site called True West Magazine. The article is aptly named, “Fighting Blades of the Frontier”.

Spangenberger informs the reader, “Some arms students feel that a bowie can be any sheath knife with a clipped point, regardless of size. Others deem it to be any large knife, regardless of blade shape. The rest feel that virtually all sheath knives produced from around 1830 through the end of the 19th century qualify as bowies.” These conceptions are understandable misunderstandings, which could be due to the great variety in Bowie knives made in that era. The original knife had been copied by local and foreign blacksmiths, resulting in different attributes. However, the original copies made were large knives with heavy blades: 22.9 – 38.1 cm in length with widths between 2.5 – 5.1 cm. The first knives were of a rugged construction. When they later became manufactured in large quantities, the knife was more refined. The guards were of a cross-type or a S-curved guillon; some having an iron or brass plate and/or a fighting notch to protect the hand. Grips were of wood, bone or stag. “One early feature of these American blacksmith-forged bowies was a hardened brass strip along the back of the blade designed to catch the adversary’s knife during a parry thus preventing his blade from sliding up past the guard and injuring the hand. While varying in subtle differences, such as blade shape and size, these knives were produced throughout the frontier until after the Civil War.”- Spangenberger

Wild West Knifes

Sheffield, in the Yorkshire region of England, had been doing business with America since colonial times. They quickly realized how popular the Bowie knife was in America and began making them in the 1830s. These were much more refined versions of the Bowie than the knives being made on the frontier. “While many of these import blades carried the classic lines of the large-bladed, clip-point American bowies, other styles were introduced, such as the spear point, with blades ranging from six to 15 inches or more in length. Bowies later evolved from a false edge on the clipped point with a sharp cutting border, as found on the early American knives, to a vestigial beveled clip with a dulled edge – although some knives still included the sharpened clipped point.” Through the years, more and more variations were implemented into newer bowies: decorations with fine metals, changes in the grip pieces, exotic materials. At one point it became popular to decorate the blades themselves with motifs and/or slogans. Spangenberger gives a short list of interesting slogans found on bowies: “California Knife”, “Self Defender”, “I’m a Real Ripper”, “Hunter’s Companion, “I Can Dig Gold from Quartz”, and “Genuine Arkansas Toothpick”. But, these were all things to evolve after the Bowie had become famous.

“Long before the advent of the bowie, blades of all sizes and shapes were commonly carried and were variously called long knives, rifleman’s knives, scalping knives, belt or sheath knives, dirks or the all-purpose butcher knives. Knives were quite simply a part of one’s everyday experience.”- Spangenberger. In the early 1800s all frontiersmen had an edged weapon. The types of knives carried were many: folding pocket knives, mid-length hunting knives, full sized fighting weapons. The knives were essential for survival on the frontier. Firearms were also carried in abundance; but they were still very unreliable at that time, so multiple arms were needed to meet all needs reliably.

On September 19, 1827 two men met to duel along the Mississippi River. The duelers had their seconds at hand and friends stood by to watch. Things got out of hand and a bloody brawl ensued. The fight was dubbed the “Sandbar Fight” and news of James Bowie and his knife spread like wild fire. Bowie had killed one man and seriously wounded another while he himself was wounded in his: chest, thigh and head. Newspapers spread stories of Bowie’s heavy blade knife and it was not long before “Bowie” was a name in the collective consciousness of America, and even crossing the ocean to Europe. Historians are still unsure as to the details of the Bowie knife’s origin. They are in agreement that James carried a large, single-edged knife. It had a sharp, false edge at the back of the point. This characteristic gave the knife its advantageously effective backstroke. Whether it also had a clipped point is unknown. It is possible that this knife was given to James by his brother Rezin. Most sources list James Black as being the designer and maker of the knife. What is undoubtable is that James brought the knife to popularity.

Wild West Knifes

In the years to follow, knives continued to contribute to violent incidences. “From the Louisiana swamps to the “Bleeding Kansas” prairies and from the “Big Muddy” Mississippi River to the California gold fields, such blade-wielding affairs weren’t relegated just to backcountry campsites, bowdy saloons, gaming houses or riverboats. Knife fights even occurred in the state legislatures and the halls of Congress. Period accounts of those hardy souls who traveled the antebellum frontier offer evidence of the bowie’s popularity as a weapon of choice. For example, an 1836 issue of the “Red River Herald” of Natchitoches, Louisiana, published a couple of months after James’s death at the Battle of the Alamo, declared that, quickly following the Sandbar Duel, “all the steel in the country, it seemed, was immediately converted into bowie knives.” “- Spangenberger

Another descriptive source concerning this era offered by Spangenberger, “Further proof of the popularity of edged weapons in the untamed regions of America comes from Col. Edward Stiff, when he cited the lawless nature of the frontier and the prevalence of such weaponry in his 1840 guidebook THE TEXAS EMIGRANT. “Perhaps about 3,000 people are to be found at Houston generally, and among them are not exceeding 40 females. Here may be seen parties of traders arriving and departing, composed too, of every variety of color, “from snow,y white to sooty”, and dressed in every variety of fashion, excepting the savage Bowie-knife, which, as if by common consent, was a necessary appendage to all.” he wrote.” With these words, the stage is set in our minds to imagine the California gold rush which began in 1849. The area of Sacramento is where gold had been discovered. Towns in the Mother Lode were known to have been lawless; with the Bowie knife functioning as judge and jury. James Brown recalled in his memoir LIFE of a PIONEER the card games of 1850, “Sometimes thousands of dollars would change hands in a few moments… when the strong, with revolver and bowie knife, were law, when gamblers and blacklegs ran many of the towns in California.” As such, in the 1849 edition of the Democratic Telegraph and Texas Register, the following words of advice were given, “Every man should be provided with a good rifle, and, if convenient, with a pair of pistols, five pounds of powder and ten pounds of lead… [and] a hunter’s or bowie knife.”

Wild West Knifes

Before the time of the California gold rush the Bowie knife was already well-established as a necessity for surviving on the frontier. The men rushing to the Mother Lode took their Bowies with them and their knife skills had probably already been well-developed along the way. “Regardless of who actually made the first bowie knife, by the early 1830s, James’s “Iron Mistress” existed as a distinct blade type, with great numbers produced with and without the famed clipped point. Possibly, both James and brother Rezin were the foremost proponents of the blade. Early on, they gifted a number of their knives to friends and dignitaries while working on improvements and design changes.”- Spangenberger. So, when the first major wave of Chinese immigrants arrived in California in the late 1840s, they entered into the “wild west” where men carried guns and knives displayed for all to see, as a warning for violent expectations.

The first specific Gold Rush immigration wave from China occurred in 1851 when 2,716 Chinese arrived. The next year there was a crop failure in Southern China; which resulted in 20,026 Chinese immigrating to California in search of income. With the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad in the 1860s, Chinese workers arrived in groves to work on the Central Pacific line. By 1868, 80% of their workforce was Chinese. Another decade later, the times had changed. There was high unemployment, which led to racial tensions in California. People saw the Chinese as criminals and laws restricting Chinese immigration were put into effect. In the 1880s the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed; banning Chinese immigration for a period of 10 years. Chinese were denied the opportunity to become America citizens and it was illegal for them to marry outside of their race. By now, it must be clear how dismal the situation was which the Chinese immigrants had stepped into once they arrived in California. What has not been discussed yet is the situation they had departed from and what they brought with them.

Wild West Knifes

For the acquisition of this insight, I turn to Ben Judkins and his essay, “Tools of the Trade: The Use of Firearms and Traditional Weapons among Tongs of San Francisco, 1877-1878”. In the beginning of this essay, he introduces the relationship of firearms to traditional Chinese martial arts. He gives first the common (mis)conception, followed by his explanation of the actual historicity between the two. “It is frequently stated that the traditional schools of hand combat represent an ancient body of military knowledge, meant to be applied on the battlefield. With the advent of inexpensive, easily obtained firearms the martial arts lost their primacy. Now obsolete they were relegated to a secondary world of tradition, physical fitness and the preservation of cultural knowledge. Hence both their normative values and fighting skills are obsolete in the modern world.” Judkins then states that this a historically inaccurate description of reality. What the modern world considers to be “traditional” Chinese martial arts was created after the rise of firearms and not before it. Firearms have been a dominant battlefield strategy since the Ming Dynasty. It was only during the Ming Dynasty that the “traditional” Chinese martial arts were created. Both firearms and the traditional Chinese martial arts existed side by side even in the Qing Dynasty. “Further, they seem to be complementary goods rather than substitutes. Far from replacing the other, both seem to gain popularity under similar sets of circumstances.”

When the South Chinese immigrants flooded into San Francisco, they brought their traditional culture and their norms of violence and conflict resolution with them. South China not only had famine, it had a high level of violence and criminality. The mind was already set to deal with these very real threats to survival. In China, people supported and protected their group. These groups were formed around relationships. In their homeland, the criminals also were organized around relationships and were a force to be dealt with. “As known figures of the “Rivers and Lakes” of the economic underworld, this is exactly the sort of environment that individuals like Huang Fei Hung [Hung Gar] or Leung Jan (Wing Chun) would have found themselves in. Further, it is clear that at least some Southern arts (such as Wing Chun) are a direct response to this level of social disruption and potential violence. In other cases gangsters and Triad members simply opened their own martial arts schools to train enforcers and to act as a cover for their more nefarious activities. Firearms were clearly part of this world. But so were knives, daggers, short swords and blunt objects. If one is not preparing their student to deal with this full range of weapons and violence, they are not really teaching a “traditional” southern Chinese martial art.”- Judkins

Wild West Knifes

As such, it is then no surprise that in the 1870s, when Chinese immigrants flooded to San Francisco, they sought their support and protection within their relational groups. Chinatown gave that support and protection against the world around it. But, the relational groups formed within Chinatown provided support and protection against the threats from other groups within Chinatown. Judkins states that, “In a very real sense, San Francisco represented an extreme western outpost of the traditional Chinese underworld of “Rivers and Lakes”.” This is understandable for two reasons: 1.) The Chinese immigrants formed the largest Chinese population in any city of the Western world, 2.) They brought their culture with them; in particular, they brought dense systems of patronage networks which were accustomed to using high levels of violence. They brought their use of traditional weapons and their skills to do so effectively. Between the 1870s and 1880s, Tong Wars raged in San Francisco. Whereas the Chinese composed only 9% of the total population in 1878; 47% of all recorded confiscated weapons that year were from Chinatown. These weapons consisted mostly of handguns, knives, specialized edge weapons, daggers, and swords. The Chinese Tong carried roughly as many handguns as the Caucasians in the rest of the city. “Yet while these individuals had access to very large numbers of modern handguns, various types of daggers, knives and short swords (including at least one explicit mention of hudiedao) continued to be carried in large numbers. It would appear that rather than chozing either “traditional” weapons or “modern” ones, gangsters and Tong members of San Francisco collectively decided on “both”. “- Judkins

Judkins breaks the statistics of the confiscated weapons into categories and gives first the total representations before breaking them further down to compare the two population groups. What Judkins stresses is the expense of firearms for every one. “Yet these economic constraints notwithstanding, it is truly remarkable how commonly they were found in the hands of criminals in San Francisco compared to much cheaper weapons like Bowie knives or daggers. Just under half of all of the weapons in the police evidence locker (43%) were firearms. Of these 100% were handguns.”- [Judkins]. Knives comprised 1/3 of all confiscated weapons; both single edged and fixed blade knives. “Of course the Bowie knife was still quite popular in the American West and South after the Civil War. These would have been a common personal weapon or even a fashion statement. Such knives also served other utilitarian functions and so one could probably make the argument they were “multipurpose blades”. The police occasionally confiscated “picket knives” as well, but classified them different from the main body of “knives”.” – Judkins

Wild West Knifes

Judkins had also created a separate category called, “Fighting Knives”. These represent 27% of all weapons cached. Examples of this category; long or short double edged daggers, hudiedao, and paired blades. With this last group of weapons categorized, the comparison begins.
Total: handguns 43%, knives 30%, fighting knives 27%
Tong: handguns 43%, knives 22%, fighting knives 35%
As noted earlier in this essay, the percentages of Tong weapons must be seen in relation to the Chinese population being a mere 9% of the total population of San Francisco. That this 9% would have as many handguns taken from them as the remaining 91% of the population gives an indication of the level of violence in Chinatown. The same consideration needs to be taken when interpreting both knife categories as well. What is remarkable is the category of fighting knives. Even though the Tong certainly had ready access to handguns, they far out weigh the rest of the population in the use of fighting knives. Fighting knives seem to be a category which many traditional Chinese knives would fall into. These weapons would have been very familiar to the Chinese and they were probably rather skilled in their use from their time in China as well as in California.

The main concern of Judkins’ essay is with the relationship of firearms to traditional Chinese martial arts. By comparing and contrasting the Chinese immigrants in California with their counterparts, the American frontiersmen of the same period and region of western expansion, plausible statements may be made. These two groups had a number of things in common. Both groups were essentially composed of men who had traveled great distances from their homelands; landing in violent societal situations. Both groups were placed in circumstances of ineffectual law enforcement. Both groups developed their own cultural pattern for meeting threats to survival. And both groups paired firearms with knifes in their personal arsenals. Yet, both groups arrived on the scene from very different backgrounds and they experienced themselves as being quite different from the other. Both groups often lived side by side, while at the same time maintaining different structural communities which actually shared mutual problematic elements from within.

Wild West Knifes

Being isolated male communities, both brought illegal prostitution into their communities to appease rising testosterone levels; which was an indirect effort toward controlling violence and a direct effort to generate money. The members of both communities were hard working, had money in their pockets, and were in dire need of diversion and entertainment. Also, both groups were composed of individuals looking to get rich quick. These conditions are often breeding grounds for gambling. And, where there is gambling, there is crime and violence. Both groups had reputations as operating outside of the law, handling their own problems and exhibiting high levels of low morality and rampant violence. Whereas the frontiersmen were unsavory characters whom “decent” people avoided at all cost; there existed an element of pride in these rugged individuals, in the mind of the public. They survived by their individual wits, skills and intestinal fortitude. As long as the frontiersmen did not interfere with the daily lives of ordinary citizens, they could perhaps be tolerated. However, the Chinese immigrants had based their communities on a very different structure; that of group relations. Individuals looked to the groups to solve problems. Instead of individual against individual, it was a matter of group against group. This is not to imply that fighting was always a physical group participation. Being groups, there were members who were especially good at fighting and others less so. Instead of each individual relying on personal wits, skills and intestinal fortitude; each member could rely on the combined strengths of the group to deal with a myriad of situations.

The criminal activities of the Chinese did not go unnoticed by those same “decent” folk in the California homeland. However, their reaction to the Chinese unsavoriness was more condemning than their reaction toward the frontiersmen. We tend to attribute this difference to racism; and note that racism increases in times of economic distress. This fits with the ensuing xenophobia which led to laws restricting Chinese immigration in the late 1880s. Yet, it also needs to be noted that not all races fell victim to this particular example of xenophobia. I suspect that the difference in culture may have been far more influential than race in this matter. Americans valued “rugged individuality”, so much so that the friction caused by their life-style could be somewhat smoothed over. Perhaps this one shared-value was enough for people to consider their actions as being situational rather that intrinsic character flaws; making these individuals judged as “temporarily dangerous”. The cultural infrastructure of the Chinese communities may not have had any shared-values with which Americans could readily identify; leading to a depersonalized interpretation of the actions taken by these groups; judging them as having character flaws which were “permanently dangerous”. This discrepancy must surely have had a deep psychological effect upon the Chinese communities. And that effect may have strengthened the Chinese community’s commitment toward defending itself by whatever means available; within their cultural structure.

Wild West Knifes

This is an interesting point which I want to present. Both of these two groups were spending a large amount of their resources on weapons. One of the main points scholars make about the relationship between firearms and traditional weapons is that firearms were at first very expensive and technically unreliable; with later design and manufacturing improvements firearms becoming more affordable. These facts are often presented to explain why firearms and knifes were equal partners in the personal arsenals of the Wild West; as well as explaining the eventual reversion of the Bowie knife from a fighting weapon into a tool of utility. I would suggest that the “degree of perceived threat” was a more influential deciding factor. In the case of the frontiersmen of the westward expansion, the “degree of perceived threat” was extremely high, and these men were armed to the teeth with both firearms and knives. They used everything the could get their hands on. Evidently, the frontiersmen managed to find a way to finance their acquisitions. In the same period, the development of both firearms and the Bowie knife were in full force; indicating that increased production and use of these weapons were a reflection of an extremely high perception of threat. After the Civil War, the Bowie knife slowly retreated in its popularity; being valued more as a hunting knife than as a fighting knife. At the same time, firearms became more reliable and less expensive; yet, it is my “impression” that civilian men dropped the custom of carrying an entire array of weapons on their person; indicating that one handgun and one hunting rifle might have been enough to meet their needs. With inexpensive weapons available and less being used, may mean that the unique social conditions created by the western expansion had changed and the most salient factor was not economical by nature.

Judkins, in his essay, admits to being amazed by the amount of expensive handguns which were used by the Tong during the late 1800s. He, too, does not seem to consider economics to be the prime element in that equation. I do not know if he shares my view concerning the salience of “degree of perceived threat”. He doesn’t really offer much of an explanation for this phenomenon. He merely makes the point that what we today recognize as traditional Chinese martial arts, was historically developed side by side with the use of firearms. Firearms did not cause the changes in Chinese martial arts which we see today. There are other historical explanations which are quite clear and reputable in their interpretations of those changes. One of the major difference between the frontiersmen and the Chinese immigrants is that, being individually oriented, the frontiersmen did not have an established martial art community. The best they could muster were the American fist-fighting-free-for-all-brawl and show-downs-at-high-noon. I find it difficult to imagine frontiersmen having created the connections between: bare hand, cold steel, and firearm fighting to create an organized system of martial arts. Whereas, the Chinese had begun developing those connections during the Ming Dynasty. It is only in our collective memories that this important difference has been forgotten. The Chinese trained hand combat and with weapons of all sorts. The China which these immigrants had left behind, was a dangerous place. They came to California with the expectation of a lower “degree of perceived threat” and were confronted with at least an equal degree of higher actual threat to their survival. When people feel threatened, their priorities change. Unlike Judkins, I am not surprised by the high use of both handguns and traditional weapons. The Chinese groups provided specialization of violence. Both bandits and escort services in China were specialized professions of violence. As such, weapons would have been a high priority. And, unlike the individualist frontiersmen, protection was financed by the group as a whole. This would have provided collective funds to be used for the acquisition of weapons of all categories.

Wild West Knifes

In the end, our perceptions of weapons in general and of knives in particular are influenced by the social situations in which we find ourselves. In the Stone Age there were, at first, no weapons made as weapons. Weapons were merely objects of utility used, when needed, for violence. Blunt tools were fashioned first and were followed by sharp edged tools. Both developed through the ages side by side. However, the perception of these tools and their main value and use were subject to the particular social situations of their communities at the time. In times of peace, the knife would be developed primarily for hunting, cooking and construction. In times of war, the knife would be developed with the aspects of battle in mind. The perception of these objects in all times were/are subject to what is happening in our societies at the moment.

The Bowie knife began primarily with the image of being a weapon of self-preservation, changed into an image of an outdoors-man’s tool, and emerged in the military as a soldier’s companion. Image and use go hand in hand; reenforcing each other and giving strong conceptions and misconceptions as well. The knife has most certainly been both a tool and a weapon in Chinese history. As such, it was a familiar object to all. During the early development of martial arts within the Chinese military, some type of knife training is most likely to have occurred. During the later, more diverse developments of Chinese martial arts, certainly the knife would not have been ignored. That the modern “traditional” Chinese martial arts has ignored or forgotten the knife is regrettable. Weapons of many types have once again been picked up for use in martial arts; of which Tai Chi is a notable example. Yet, the knife is rarely included in the practices of Tai Chi. I am not sure why this is so. I have noticed in many practitioners of weapons in Tai Chi a disassociation of the weapons they use from their perception of them as being weapons. I have also noticed a reticence toward weapons practice by a number of people who do have a perception of Tai Chi weapons as being weapons. It will be interesting to see where these perceptions will lead Tai Chi development in the future. And, I am also curious how our modern Tai Chi communities will receive the re-introduction of the knife into “traditional” Tai Chi.


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