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Practitioners of the variant of Plum Blossom Boxing preserved in Zhuzhai village, Henan province, China, include in their repertoires, along with choreographed sequences designed to enhance martial prowess, a comic routine that parodies genuine fighting techniques while “combatants” exchange taunts and boasts. The article argues that this performance is a folk drama that symbolically recounts folk history, focuses group identity, and establishes prestige within the regional martial arts hierarchy. copyright
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"I Am the Greatest Boxer": Articulating Group Identity
through Chinese Folk Drama
Zhang Guodong, Thomas A. Green
Journal of American Folklore, Volume 131, Number 521, Summer 2018, pp.
250-271 (Article)
Published by American Folklore Society
For additional information about this article
Access provided at 24 Apr 2019 05:29 GMT from University of California @ Berkeley
Journal of American Folklore 131(521):250–271
Copyright © 2018 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
Z G
 T A. G
“I Am the Greatest Boxer”: Articulating Group
Identity through Chinese Folk Drama
Practitioners of the variant of Plum Blossom Boxing preserved in Zhuzhai village,
Henan province, China, include in their repertoires, along with choreographed
sequences designed to enhance martial prowess, a comic routine that parodies
genuine ghting techniques while “combatants” exchange taunts and boasts. e
article argues that this performance is a folk drama that symbolically recounts
folk history, focuses group identity, and establishes prestige within the regional
martial arts hierarchy.
  : Folk drama, martial arts, group
identity, folk history, social conict
  (朱寨)  ( , ), practitioners of the ver-
nacular martial art of Meihuaquan (梅花拳, “Plum Blossom Boxing” or Mei Boxing)
perform a unique folk drama that they call “Fighting While Talking.” is title aptly
describes the action in which a pair of combatants exchanges boasts and insults while
trading mock punches and kicks. Focusing on content and theme as distinct from
structure in our analysis, we adopt the working title “I Am the Greatest Boxer” for
this play in order to emphasize the contentious theme of the piece, a performance
that humorously plays out local tensions between two competing martial arts orga-
nizations. is article argues that this performance is a folk drama that symboli-
cally recounts folk history, focuses group identity, and establishes prestige within the
regional martial arts hierarchy.
An enduring question in the qualitative analysis of folk performance is “What does
the performance mean?” We contend that what a work of art means and perhaps even
how (i.e., a narrative or a lyric genre) it means changes with performance contexts.
As Roger Abrahams compellingly argues regarding folk drama in particular and
traditional art forms in general, “[a folk play] achieves [its] sense of relevance and
wholeness by its appropriateness to an occasion, and by the participation on the part
  is Associate Professor at the Institute of Sport Science, College of Physical Education,
Southwest University of China
 .  is Professor of Anthropology at Texas A&M University
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Zhang and Green, Articulating Group Identity through Chinese Folk Drama 251
of an audience prepared to enjoy, participate, react” (1970:257). In order to come to
an understanding of the play’s “wholeness and relevance,” we consider what and how
it means in the three conventional contexts in which it appears.
Martial arts historian Peter Lorge suggests that “many local styles [of Chinese
martial arts] subsumed themselves under the rubric of Plum Blossom Boxing when
it became famous [due to its association with the Boxer Rebellion] at the beginning
of the twentieth century” (2012:208; see also Zhang and Green 2010). As a result,
even the notion of what constitutes this school of martial arts regarding issues of
identity and authenticity may be controversial. Our eldwork focuses on the form of
Mei Boxing that coexists at the vernacular level with other strong martial arts tradi-
tions at the boundaries of Jiangsu, Anhui, Shandong, Henan, and Hebei provinces.
Traditional history claims that the late Ming dynasty (1465–1644) heralded the rise
of Plum Blossom Boxing on the borders of Jiangsu, Shandong, and Anhui provinces.
e genesis of the system, according to this narrative, coincided with devastating
overows of the Yellow River. ese natural disasters undoubtedly contributed to
the ourishing of civilian martial arts systems (Zhou 2005).
Cataclysmic oods have been a major factor in shaping the economic, social, and
martial arts cultures of this region for centuries. e historical record indicates that
the dikes along the river were breached roughly 1,500 times prior to the 1950s and that
there were 20 to 30 major rechannelings (course changes) of the river. e destruc-
tion of local means of livelihood by the ooding of the Yellow River created social
instability, leading to cycles of poverty, relocation, and desperation. ese economic,
social, and psychological pressures, along with the complicated geopolitics of this
area, created a habitat for bandits, vagabonds, and others who lived at the margins
of society and the law—the “declassed” elements of society, as Mao Zedong labeled
them (Hobsbawm 1985:91). General lawlessness coupled with ocial inability to
maintain order in those areas distant from central authorities (not to mention ocial
corruption) forced factions of the civilian population to develop their own means
for protecting their lives and property. reatened by such social turbulence, people
learned martial arts skills for self- protection. “is was,” as historian Joseph Esherick
writes, “a highly militarized society which had learned to fend for itself” (1988:20).
Inevitably, the rampant lawlessness that pervaded this region promoted highly
developed martial arts prowess on both sides of the law: among those who desired
to protect themselves against the brigands and among the lawbreakers themselves.
As a result, many martial arts were developed at the local level, doubtless using the
bricolage that characterizes vernacular martial arts (cf. Green 2011, 2012), draw-
ing on both civilian and military techniques. e resulting ghting methods spread
throughout the region, blended, and were handed down at the local level during the
Ming period. ese martial arts methods make up a lasting embodied legacy, an
inheritance that is preserved kinesically in the physical actions of practitioners and
celebrated artistically in drama and dance. Before large- scale urbanization in China,
the strategy employed for spreading martial arts in the countryside was for teachers to
travel widely in order to open new boxing spots (practice areas) in dierent villages.
To protect their lives and property, it was common for villages or large families who
possessed the means to do so to invite locally famous masters to teach martial arts
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252 Journal of American Folklore 131 (2018)
systems to their members. During the later Qing dynasty (1644–1912), Mei Boxing
gained popularity among the peasants in rural villages in the countryside of Shan-
dong, Hebei, and Henan provinces. According to traditional belief in the area, this
recognition was due not only to its blending of martial arts and vernacular religion,
but also for the nationalism and patriotism that were expressed most dramatically
by its association with the Boxer Uprising.
In addition to Mei Boxing, over 20 martial arts systems continue to be practiced in
the twenty- rst century, many of which have competed with each other for students
and status. A partial list includes Hong Boxing, Baguazhang, Taijiquan, Xingyiquan,
and “Shaolin” Boxing. Eventually, Mei Boxing spread north from Jiangsu, Shandong,
and Anhui provinces through Hebei and Henan provinces as far as Beijing, claiming
one of the largest martial arts memberships in China until the end of the Qing dynasty
(Zhang, Green, and Gutiérrez- García 2016:21).
Internationally, as noted above, Mei Boxing is best known because of its “association
with the Boxer Rebellion” (Lorge 2012:208), especially in the Shandong area where
disciples of Meihuaquan comprised the main force of the “Boxers” (Cohen 1997:21–2).
e Boxer Rebellion (1899–1901) was a response to social stress generated by multiple
forces: external (expansion by the empire- building nations of France, Japan, Russia,
and Germany; the economic manipulations of England and the United States; and
Christian evangelism), internal (the “Hundred Days Reform,” an imperial movement
to modernize China) (Zhang Zhan 2010), and ecological (severe droughts followed
by devastating oods that uprooted farmers in Shandong province and forced them
to abandon their homes). Traditional histories agree with historiographers that the
“Boxers,” or the Righteous Harmonious Society (Yihetuan) (Esherick 1988:154), was
made up primarily of Plum Blossom Boxers under the leadership of Zhao Sanduo
(1841–1902) (Cohen 1997:23).
Zhuzhai: A Regional Center of the Vernacular Art
Zhuzhai village in Henan province maintains the reputation of being one of the
earliest sites noted for the practice of Mei Boxing. According to local oral tradition,
“Gao Qilong (高启龙) [was] a disciple of Meng Youde (孟有德)1 and the rst Mei
boxer of Zhuzhai” (Ma Shujing 2009). Using the time line espoused by members of
this lineage, Mei Boxing has been practiced in Zhuzhai from the early Qing dynasty
(1644–1912) to the present.
Zhuzhai is a subsidiary village of Puyang City and is located at the juncture of
Shandong, Henan, and Hebei provinces, west of the Yellow River about 6 kilometers
and southeast of Puyang City about 35 kilometers in the oodplain area, close to
Zhongyuan Oil Field (中原油田). West of Zhuzhai and about 1 kilometer away is a
Sinopec oil production plant that now provides employment for many Zhuzhai resi-
dents. e proximity of the Yellow River provides easy access to water, and historically
the most abundant crops here are rice and corn. Zhuzhai village was established by a
family surnamed Zhu () who immigrated from Hongtong (洪洞) county in Shanxi
(山西) province during the reign of the Hongwu (洪武, 1328–1398) Emperor Zhu
Yuanzhang (朱元璋), the founder of the Ming dynasty (1368–1644). Zhuzhai is a
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Zhang and Green, Articulating Group Identity through Chinese Folk Drama 253
middle- scale village with a population numbering about 1,300 that includes families
surnamed Ma, Ren, Gao, and Zhu. In addition to working in the nearby oil production
plant, residents support themselves by growing rice or working as migrant laborers.
Because they live in the vicinity of the oil eld, the proportion of residents employed
as migrant workers is relatively low, about 30 percent. Employment at the renery
allows many young people to return home aer work. is situation provides oppor-
tunities to practice Mei Boxing, thus keeping the tradition vital in Zhuzhai.
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Zhuzhai village was home to
two famous masters, 12th- generation master Ma Tingrui (马廷瑞, 1870–1940) and
13th- generation master Gao Yuting (高玉亭, alias Bitang 璧堂, 1879–1952). Both had
a local reputation not only because of their high levels of martial arts expertise, but
also due to their virtue and their contributions to the spread of Mei Boxing. Gao was
born a member of the landocracy2 in 1879. Because of his family’s status and wealth, he
received a thorough classical education. Rather than exclusively pursuing a scholarly
career, however, he devoted himself to the study of martial arts, rst studying from
Ma Tingrui and later taking as his master Wu Changyi (武常义, dates unavailable),
of the neighboring village Wuzhongling (武忠岭). Eventually, Gao became famous
for his accomplishments in literature and in martial arts on both sides of the Yellow
River. Locally, he was nicknamed the “Saint Player of Mei Boxing” (梅花圣手), that
is, the “Mei Boxing Saint.”
During the Republican period (1911–1949), Ma Tingrui and his disciple Wu Tipan
(吴体胖, 1891–1964) went to Heze in Shandong province to teach Mei Boxing. Before
he returned to Zhuzhai to retire, Master Ma suggested that his disciples in Heze
should invite Gao Yuting to continue teaching them. In the middle of the Republican
period, Master Gao went to Heze to spread Mei Boxing at the invitation of Wu Tipan.
While residing in Heze, he served as a martial arts teacher at No. 6 Middle School
of Shandong province. In addition, he established many “boxing spots” in villages in
the area. He died in 1952 while returning home to Zhuzhai.
Besides preserving the folk history of Mei Boxing and continuing to venerate the
spirits of Ma Tingrui, Gao Yuting, and other ancestors of Mei Boxing in Zhuzhai,
villagers are reputed to maintain the most profound knowledge of all facets of an
art that encompasses not only armed and unarmed martial arts techniques, but also
divination, shamanic arts, and vernacular religion.3 In an eort to preserve and per-
petuate the art, local boxers established the “Rui and Ting Mei Boxing Institute
(瑞亭梅花拳研究会) in 2010. In 2016, they had a martial arts team with more
than 100 members who shared a repertoire of 20 formal exercises (choreographed
sequences of martial arts techniques connected as individual routines and matched
pairs) of Mei Boxing. ey boasted a contingent of 12 masters, four of whom special-
ized in Wen (see endnote 3). e masters of the institute began to teach Mei Boxing
with no tuition charge to elementary school students of Zhuzhai village in 2010.
e courtyard of the village committee building (the structure that houses activities
related to local self- governance) provides the training and teaching area. e building
and grounds also serve as a repository for training weapons and musical percussion
instruments (large drums, gongs, and cymbals). Certicates awarded to the village
team and to individual members for participation in martial arts competitions cover
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254 Journal of American Folklore 131 (2018)
the interior walls. During a summer 2010 visit to Zhuzhai to interview Mei Boxing
masters, Ma Chaoshuan (马朝栓) told us: “We have participated in many large- scale
liangquan activities in Shandong, Henan, and Hebei provinces, and Beijing and were
praised by the audience. I am proud of the fact that I am a disciple of Mei Boxing
and a member of the Zhuzhai martial arts team. We preserved the traditions that our
ancestors bequeathed to us” (2010).
One of the most important of these traditions is the liangquan, translated by Esher-
ick as “showing o their boxing” (1988:150), a performance event mentioned by Ma
Chaoshuan. e rst printed mention of liangquan appeared in an 1898 document
about the Boxer Rebellion written by an ocer of the Qing dynasty, the governor of
Shandong province Zhang Rumei (张汝梅, dates unknown) (Xiang Lanxin 2003:107).
Quoting this document, Esherick directly links liangquan with Meihuaquan: “In
the countryside they [liangquan performances] are regarded as plum boxing meet-
ings” (1988:150). Governor Zhang’s document further corroborates that historically,
liangquan was performed at the spring temple fairs. is fact establishes that the
performance has been associated with Meihuaquan for over a century. Oral tradition
claims that liangquan has been held for deied ancestors of Mei Boxing such as Zou
Hongyi, mentioned in endnotes 1 and 4, since the Ming dynasty (Zhang and Green
Usually, liangquan is held as one of a number of temple fair activities. Miaohui
(庙会), commonly translated as “temple fair,” denotes a religious event intended to
celebrate deities, especially local divinities and Daoist immortals (Duan 1994). Among
the activities staged during temple fairs as tribute are rituals, processions carrying
images of the deities, and musical performances (Davis 2009:815; Zhao Shiyu 2002).
Martial arts demonstrations, resembling liangquan, have existed in the marketplace
and in association with temple fairs from the Song dynasty (960–1279). According
to Lorge, “performances in the entertainment quarters were entirely in the private
sphere. ey were much more akin to local wrestling or martial arts competitions
held on festival days, oen in the village market or at a temple” (2012:132). Liangquan,
sometimes called liang changzi (亮场子, “performing in a place”), during temple fairs
commonly entails boxers breaking a space among the crowd and performing on the
spot, to the delight of audiences (Zhang and Li Yun 2010). is scene remains a com-
mon phenomenon in the rural areas of North China during festival days. In addition
to being an element of liangquan performances, the drama “Greatest Boxer,” which is
unique to Zhuzhai village, is regarded by local Mei Boxers as recapitulating a pivotal
episode in the history of their martial arts heritage.
Because of the teaching eorts of Ma Tingrui and Gao Yuting, discussed above,
Zhuzhai and Heze established a close relationship. Disciples of Gao in Heze continue
to travel to Zhuzhai to venerate him during every year’s Spring Festival (commonly
called “Chinese New Year” or “Lunar New Year” outside of Asia). On such occasions,
Mei Boxers of Zhuzhai welcome their visiting Mei Boxer brothers by holding not only
the normal serious demonstrations expected to be held in liangquan events, but also
performing the mock combat drama “Greatest Boxer.
We found “Greatest Boxer” only in Zhuzhai village during our 8 years of eldwork
in Shandong, Henan, and Hebei provinces. Not surprisingly, the origin, “urform,” and
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Zhang and Green, Articulating Group Identity through Chinese Folk Drama 255
author of the folk drama are unknown. However, Ren Xianwei (任献伟), a middle-
aged master, asserted that the “script” has been unchanged since its initial perfor-
mance: “We did not change anything about the arts that ancestors taught us.” He
continued by further reporting that during a Spring Festival visit, eminent martial
arts researcher, coach, and Mei Boxing practitioner “Professor Han Jianzhong said
that this was his rst time to see it” (2013).
Research Methods
e bulk of our documentation was gathered through semi- structured interviews and
unstructured conversations with boxing masters and their disciples in Zhuzhai, as well
as by means of participant- observation. is eldwork was supplemented through
telephone conversations, email, and text messages (QQ chats) from 2009 to 2013.
Co- author Zhang Guodong was born in the rural countryside included in the
prefecture- level city of Heze (菏泽) and has practiced martial arts since childhood.
As an undergraduate at Heze University, he became a disciple of Heze University
professor and martial arts scholar Sang Quanxi (桑全喜), a 15th- generation master
of Meihuaquan. As a result, Zhang maintains close ties with Zhuzhai, the hometown
of Sang’s grandmaster, Gao Yuting. Master Sang annually takes his students to visit
Zhuzhai in order to pay homage to their martial ancestors during Spring Festival.
Because Zhang is a disciple who has accompanied Sang regularly on his visits, the co-
authors were able to dispense with many of the formalities necessary for establishing
rapport prior to initiating eld investigation. Co- author omas A. Green practices
martial arts also, but he does not have a Mei Boxing background. As a folklorist and
cultural anthropologist, his primary responsibility resided in the development of an
interview protocol and the application of theory relevant to the data that was collected
in the eld.
Figure 1. Plum
Blossom Boxers
in Zhuzhai, 2009.
courtesy of
Zhang Guodong.
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256 Journal of American Folklore 131 (2018)
In the summer of 2009, Zhang and Sang went to Zhuzhai to worship their boxing
ancestors, collect information from their boxing family, and visit their boxing brothers.
e boxers of Zhuzhai held a liangquan showing at the playground of the elementary
school to welcome them. e performances included “Greatest Boxer.” At this time,
Zhang and Sang made the rst video recording of the play.
In order to further document this drama, we went to Zhuzhai during the Spring
Festivals of 2010, 2011, 2012, and 2013, recording the play each time. By means of
participant interviews, we translated the dialogue from the local Henan dialect into
Mandarin and nally into the English version included below. ese interviews also
ventured into the oral history of Mei Boxing in Zhuzhai. In the course of these con-
versations, it became clear that the boxing community believes that the performance
goes beyond physical culture and entertainment to establish a link to the local history
of Mei Boxing, reinforce boxing community identity, and arm an elite status within
the Mei Boxing hierarchy and martial artists in general.
“I Am the Greatest Boxer” as Folk Drama
In Zhuzhai, the performance is called “Fighting [Sparring] While Talking,” rather
than simply “sparring” (unrehearsed but controlled ghting, i.e., a sport or drill). We
classify the action as a folk drama, proceeding from the denition of the “folk play”
previously proposed by Green: “a scripted performance which incorporates mimesis
and role- distribution among two or more players and which adheres to the traditional
aesthetic and communicative models of the performing community” (1981:428).
Moreover, in common with folk dramas cross- culturally, “Greatest Boxer” perfor-
mances are held on special occasions only, typically performed by and for audience
members from a tightly knit community, what Barre Toelken labels a “high context
group,” one in which “meaning and action are more directly related to context than
to the simple denotations of words” (1996:57). e occasions that provide the settings
for the performance under discussion are more relevant to interpreting the performed
actions than is the actual “plot” displayed before the audience. is presumes certain
relationships between performers and audiences, venues, styles of performance, shared
understandings, and semantic repertoires. As Abrahams writes, “drama is by its nature
essentially a public performance—it must be capable of being understood by the
audience with a minimum of reection.... Drama must deal in publicly understood
motives and symbols” (1972:353–4). Such is the case with “Greatest Boxer.
Ostensibly, the short comic piece presented below pits two boxers against each
other; they exchange verbal taunts along with punches, kicks, and grappling. Although
both are members of the Zhuzhai Mei Boxing brotherhood, one (boxer B in the script
below) plays the role of a Mei Boxer, while the other (boxer A) is cast in the role of
a Hong Boxer (红拳, “Red Boxing”). e “plot” of the drama entails a ght between
the two to determine not only their individual prowess, but ultimately the superiority
of their respective arts, as seen in the exchange.
A: Hong Boxing has graceful techniques.
B: Mei Boxing has solid stances.
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Zhang and Green, Articulating Group Identity through Chinese Folk Drama 257
e sentences of this dialogue tell us the character and presumed advantages of Hong
Boxing and Mei Boxing. ese statements, however, are intended to belittle the ecacy
of Hong Boxing. In traditional Chinese martial arts, “graceful techniques” (好势法)
means that the posture looks good, but it is impractical for ghting. In contrast, “solid
stances” (好底盘) refers to good balance in active combat, and this is an important
trait for ghters. “Graceful techniques” (好势法), therefore, focuses on the visual
dimension, the aesthetics of techniques, but “solid stances” (好底盘) emphasizes the
stability of postures. In terms of kinesics, Mei Boxing is distinguished from many
other styles of Chinese boxing by paying more attention to the cultivation of balance
and stressing practices that strengthen the framework of the body (comparable to the
chassis of a car). e curriculum includes specic routines and exercises intended
to develop these solid stances, for example “Lion Tricks” (狮子捶), “Ground Tricks”
(地躺捶), and “Black Dog Drilling Crotch” (黑狗钻裆).
“Greatest Boxer” contains no pauses between blocks of dialogue. For purposes of
this analysis, however, we have divided the script into two “acts.” We label Act I “Open-
ing Dialogue” and Act II “e Combat,” which ends with the defeat of the Hong Boxer.
Glosses of colloquialisms and proverbial allusions are enclosed in parentheses. e
physical actions of the Opening Dialogue are enclosed in brackets. e complexity
of the techniques in “e Combat” dees written description. However, all physical
actions share characteristics that mark them as comic parodies as distinct from the
serious routines and rehearsals of genuine attacks and counter- attacks that constitute
the norm in the Meihuaquan repertoire. For example, the names of techniques are
announced upon execution, techniques are applied at half- speed, and movements
are far wider and more exaggerated than would be the case in either a conventional
practice routine or a genuine ght.
“I Am the Greatest Boxer” Script
Act I 开场白 Opening Dialogue
甲:师兄今天莫非要打拳? A: Do you want practice boxing today, brother?
乙:打拳又何妨? B: Why not?
[e boxers charge each other, with each simultaneously executing a ying lotus kick5 that
misses, and they exchange places.]
甲:今天打拳不比往日。 A: Your techniques have not improved.
乙:何以见得? B: How come? How can you make that false
[e boxers charge each other, simultaneously execute a ying lotus kick that misses, and
exchange places.]
甲:今天打拳要细细报名。 A: You must introduce yourself and tell me your
name before we ght.
乙:报不出名来! B: I will not introduce myself!
[e boxers charge each other, simultaneously execute a ying lotus kick that misses, and
exchange places.]
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258 Journal of American Folklore 131 (2018)
甲:学艺不精! A: Your skills are not good!
乙:投师不明! B: Your master is not skilled!
[e boxers charge each other, simultaneously execute a ying lotus kick that misses, and
exchange places.]
甲:人过留名。 A: ough you are gone, your name is unforget-
(Even when a person is gone, his name—i.e.,
reputation—remains aer him.)
乙:雁过留声。 B: Just like the geese le its songs even though it
ew away.
(ough geese y away, they leave their songs as
a record they were here.)
[e boxers charge each other, simultaneously execute a ying lotus kick that misses, and
exchange places.]
甲:人过不留名, A: If you did not let people remember your
(If a person does not give his name,)
乙:不知道张三李四。 B: You did not know just some guys.
(He is really no one important.)
[e boxers charge each other, simultaneously execute a ying lotus kick that misses, and
exchange places.]
甲:雁过不留声, A: If geese do not leave their songs,
(If you don’t have the courtesy to introduce
乙:不知道春秋四季。 B: ey really do not know the seasons.
(You do not know those things that are basic.
You have bad manners.)
[e boxers charge each other, simultaneously execute a ying lotus kick that misses, and
exchange places.]
甲:长拳打得好势法。 A: Hong Boxing has graceful techniques.
乙:梅花拳打得好底盘。 B: Mei Boxing has solid stances.
[e boxers charge each other, simultaneously execute a ying lotus kick that misses, and
exchange places.]
甲:赵匡胤打得好红拳。 A: Kuangyin6 was skilled at Hong Boxing.
乙:梅花老祖占了先。 B: e Founder of Mei Boxing was better.
[e boxers charge each other, simultaneously execute a ying lotus kick that misses, and
exchange places.]
甲:当场不让父。 A: I will ght you even if we were father and son.
乙:举手不留情。 B: When we practice boxing, friendship does not
keep us from ghting our best.
[e boxers charge each other, simultaneously execute a ying lotus kick that misses, and
exchange places.]
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Zhang and Green, Articulating Group Identity through Chinese Folk Drama 259
Act II 对打语法: e Combat
甲:师兄请交拳! A: Please attack me, brother!
乙:师兄今天打拳好不在行呀! B: You are not prepared to ght me today,
甲:何以见得? A: How can you say that?
乙:你好不该上拳打来下脚踢! B: Punching high while you kick low is an unfair
A: e punch was struck like a hero, and I kick
like a brave man!
(at is, these were not unfair tactics.)
乙:谁人教你? B: Who taught you?
甲:师父。 A: My master.
乙:在哪里? B: Where is he?
甲:在背后。 A: In the back [of this building].
乙:引我去见。 B: Let me see him.
甲:师兄这是哪一势啊? A: What is this technique called, brother?
乙:单手别膀。 B: With one hand capture the arm.
甲:可有破法? A: Is there a counter to this technique?
(Is there a way to break this hold/lock?)
乙:哪有破法给你! B: You cannot counter it!
甲:看我破来! A: Watch me defeat it!
乙:师兄这是哪一势啊? B: What technique is this, brother?
甲:五龙推须。 A: Five dragons push beard.
乙:可有破法? B: Is there a counter to this technique?
甲:哪有破法给你! A: You cannot counter it!
乙:看我破来。 B: Watch me counter it.
甲:师兄这是哪一势啊? A: What technique is this, brother?
乙:顺手牵羊。 B: Pull the sheep opportunistically.
甲:可有破法? A: Is there a counter to this technique?
乙:哪有破法给你! B: You cannot counter it!
甲:看我破来。 A: See me defeat it.
乙:师兄这是哪一势啊? B: What technique is this, brother?
甲:脑后摘金冠。 A: Picking gold crown from the back of head.
乙:可有破法? B: Is there a counter for this technique?
甲:哪有破法给你! A: You cannot defeat it!
乙:看我破来。 B: See me defeat it.
甲:师兄这是哪一势啊? A: Which technique is this, brother?
乙:孙膑倒骑牛。 B: Sun Bin7 riding backward on the bull.
甲:可有破法? A: Is there a counter for this technique?
乙:哪有破法给你! B: You cannot defeat it!
甲:看我破来。 A: See me defeat it.
乙:师兄这是哪一势啊? B: Which technique is this, brother?
甲:长虫吸扁担。 A: e snake swallows the shoulder pole.
乙:可有破法? B: Is there a counter for this technique?
甲:哪有破法给你! A: You cannot defeat it!
乙:看我破来。 B: See me defeat it.
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260 Journal of American Folklore 131 (2018)
甲:师兄这是哪一势啊? A: Which technique is this, brother?
乙:张飞蹁膀。 B: Zhang Fei8 limp arm.
甲:可有破法? A: Is there a counter for this technique?
乙:哪有破法给你! B: You cannot defeat it!
甲:看我破来。 A: See me defeat it.
乙:师兄这是哪一势啊? B: Which technique is this, brother?
甲:小二姐弹花。 A: Young lady spins cotton.
乙:可有破法? B: Is there a counter method?
甲:哪有破法给你! A: You cannot defeat it!
乙:看我破来。 B: See me defeat it.
甲:师兄这是哪一势啊? A: Which technique is this, brother?
B: When I capture you, I do not have a rope to
tie you, so I will kick you and knock you out!
抱拳礼 [Salute.]
As stated above, A represents Hong Boxing, and B defends the reputation of Mei
Boxing. e defeat of the Hong Boxer aer 26 exchanges argues for the superiority
of Mei Boxing over Hong Boxing and, by implication, its superiority to other martial
arts. is routine abounds with foolish, exaggerated, and insulting movements per-
formed with a mock serious attitude. For example, B twists As ear while striking him
on the head with the other hand, much as one might discipline an unruly schoolboy.
In another exchange, B spanked the sole of A’s shoe. Invariably, these antics provoke
peals of laughter from audiences.
Meaning and Context
e drama includes (along with slapstick byplay) elements of genuine ghting move-
ments, and the Meihuaquan practitioners of Zhuzhai consider the routine a compo-
nent of their boxing repertoire of equal importance with other routines. Unlike their
other forms, however, “Greatest Boxer” has some special functions. Normally, it is
performed in three situations: in connection with liangquan demonstrations, in a
teaching context, and as a means of welcoming visitors.
When performed during liangquan, “Greatest Boxer” always attracts large crowds
because of its comic elements and the uncharacteristic banter between two antagonis-
tic characters. is diers from the usual boxing displays of Meihuaquan (and “nor-
mal” martial arts forms) that are serious displays of ghting prowess, lack dramatic
development, and do not employ dialogue. Not only Mei Boxers but also audiences
composed of non- boxers delight in this drama because of its humorous and exagger-
ated movements. In addition, the play alludes to well- known historical and literary
gures (Sun Bin, Zhang Fei, and especially the Hong Boxing hero Zhao Kuangyin),
whose customary heroic status is upended by their association with the comic byplay
of this unique performance. is is consistent with the common festival practice of
rendering serious issues absurd by being pushed through the lter of ludic inversion.
e principle of inversion, according to folklorist Beverly Stoeltje, is among the most
common means of symbolic transformation in festival cross- culturally. By “creating
new frames and processes,” in this case, a comic iteration of identities and social
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Zhang and Green, Articulating Group Identity through Chinese Folk Drama 261
relationships threatened in the context of contemporary urbanization, performance
can contribute to the articulation of social issues and... conict” (1992:271).
Ren Xianwei told us that he believes “Greatest Boxer” is the most popular perfor-
mance in every liangquan, and he is very proud of the fact that he is frequently called
on to be one of the characters in the play (2013). He and ve of the other Mei Boxers
living in Zhuzhai regularly travel to Beijing, Shandong, and Hebei to perform the
drama during local liangquans.
According to the active bearers of this traditional performance, there has been no
change in the “script” over the generations. e unvarying nature of the performance
across the generations of Zhuzhai’s Mei Boxing community is a recurrent theme in
interviews that calls for further consideration. Echoing Ren Xianwei, aer a Spring
Festival performance Gao Guoyin (高国印), a middle- aged master of Mei Boxing in
Zhuzhai, reported: “Every day, we practice it just like our master taught us and nobody
wants to change it because it is so funny. is was transmitted by the ancestors of Mei
Boxing from generation to generation, and we do not dare to forget or alter it in the
slightest way” (2013). Our eld research from 2009 through 2017 bore this out: all
of the Zhuzhai brotherhood’s performances of “Greatest Boxer” we observed were
identical in words and actions. All of our documented performances were staged by
the same boxers, which may contribute to the verbal and physical consistency of the
script.9 Ren Xianwei told us that the play performed at Zhuzhai was inherited from
Gao Yuting and Ma Ruiting, but the troupe did not know its origin.
While a positive reaction by audiences provides sucient ego gain for performers
to encourage continuity in both dialogue and action, other motivations are also likely
to be at work in the desire to establish an undeviating line of transmission from the
ancestors of Mei Boxing to contemporary Zhuzhai. In traditional martial arts, espe-
cially those built on the master- disciple model, continuity equates with authenticity. In
addition, according to the Houma historical narrative, the Mei Boxing liangquan in its
earliest iteration originated as a way for disciples to demonstrate to Patriarch Zou their
devotion to his instruction, and subsequent Spring Festival performances—including
“Greatest Boxer”—strive to precisely recreate this “mythic moment” as an act of ven-
eration in this context. By doing so, liangquan fuses two major festival occasions that
Robert J. Smith designates as moments of signicance for celebrating communities:
threshold festivals that mark points of transition in the annual cycle—in this case,
the transition from the sterile winter season to spring—and the commemoration of
a signicant event in the life of a deied ancestor (1972:161–4).
According to our informants, when performed in the teaching context, the play
serves to lighten the atmosphere that pervades the martial arts training spot by means
of its comic parody of genuine ghting techniques. Within the Mei Boxing tradition,
practice and instruction are regarded as serious enterprises. None of the students
dare to speak during the training, and only the master’s voice resonates through the
boxing spot. As a result, some of the younger trainees feel nervous in this situation
and are intimidated almost to the point of paralysis. In order to ease their tension and
encourage novices to continue their practice, the master arranges to have more expe-
rienced practitioners present “Greatest Boxer.” Obviously, the performance provides
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262 Journal of American Folklore 131 (2018)
an opportunity to relax from practice and a temporary change in tone and attitude. In
contrast to the somber attitude that had prevailed during practice, all of the people in
the boxing spot may, and are in fact encouraged to, laugh and applaud loudly during
the performance. Such occasional relaxation of the strict rules of decorum creates
more congenial learning conditions for young Mei Boxers, along with “humanizing”
masters and facilitating bonding within the boxing “family.” During a conversation
following a Spring Festival performance of “Greatest Boxer,” Ren Xianwei shared
the following recollection of training as a child with his grandfather Ren Yingchun
(任迎春, alias Zhenghao 正昊, 1916–1994): “Grandpa was very strict on us when he
taught us, and all of us were a little afraid of him. But the fear disappeared when we
practiced it [“Greatest Boxer”]. All of us broke down in laughter, and talked about who
the funniest guy [in the performance] was” (2013). Mei Boxers have also mentioned
that the performance at times had attracted potential students who stayed aer the
comic play to watch the serious practice resume.
Finally, we have encountered “Greatest Boxer” used as one of the vehicles to show-
case the art to visitors, including the authors, as in the following example. Zhang,
Green, and other members of the research team10 arrived at Zhuzhai on January
3, during Spring Festival 2012, 3 days before Lantern Festival, the day on which
liangquan events are traditionally staged. We were invited into the house of Gao
Guoyin (高国印), but it was made clear to us that our hosts were all of the Mei Boxing
brothers in Zhuzhai village who are regarded as belonging to the same ctive family
based on their discipleship within Meihuaquan. Every member of this Meihuaquan
family donates money to support the normal operation of the brotherhood. Having
visited Zhuzhai on numerous occasions with his master Sang Quanxi, Zhang was
greeted warmly, and we were oered refreshments by our hosts. Mei Boxing masters
and their disciples began to trickle into the main room of Gao Guoyin’s house. We
gathered there because the most important memorial tablet11 of the Zhuzhai Mei-
huaquan Brotherhood is located in Gaos residence in a room specically dedicated
to worshipping the ancestors of Meihuaquan. Twice daily—in the early morning and
before retiring—Gao pays homage to the ancestors in the consecrated room. As a
descendant of Gao Yuting, he has proudly inherited the art and dedicates himself to
performing rituals for the memorial tablet as well. Soon our hosts invited us to watch
a demonstration of the local version of Meihuaquan performed by adult men and
several of their younger disciples in the village committee building courtyard.
Prior to the exhibition, the four researchers (two male and two female), the boxers,
and the elder masters (who presided over the event) participated in a brief ritual that
was explained as “worshipping the Mei Boxing gods” (i.e., the deceased ancestors).
Master Ma Shujin (马书敬) presided over the ritual, which served as a rite of pas-
sage that changed our status from potential “outsiders” whose presence disrupts or
blocks performance to tolerated, if not genuinely assimilated, “bystanders” (Toelken
During the ritual, we were instructed to wash our hands and faces with a bowl of
warm water and to rinse out our mouths with warm water from another bowl. We
cleansed our eyes that would witness the proceedings, our hands that (in the case of
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Zhang and Green, Articulating Group Identity through Chinese Folk Drama 263
the boxers) would perform the Meihuaquan techniques, and our mouths that might
speak about what we were to witness. is purication transports all participants
into a liminal state (Turner 1969:95–6) in which they are prepared to worship local
deied ancestors. e central sacred act called for all participants to kowtow12 four
times in front of an altar dedicated to the village boxing patriarchs. We suggest that
participation in the ritual moves both newcomers and initiates from quotidian status
to a transformed status, although the roles played by the local boxers as distinct from
the inducted visitors dier profoundly.
Following the ritual, we adjourned to the boxing practice area where a crowd of
Zhuzhai villagers had gathered. e presence of these spectators, persons who had
not participated in the ritual described above, suggests its transformative qualities,
its power to confer a status beyond that of ordinary spectator.13 e boxers demon-
strated both armed and unarmed techniques with control, but with deadly serious
intent. erefore, the appearance of the comic buoonery of “Greatest Boxer” oered
a marked contrast to the other performances, but one that appeared as no surprise
to the local audience and to co- author Zhang.
e preceding brief descriptions of the three typical performance venues suggest
that the “same” folk play performs distinctly dierent functions (and, in a sense,
carries dierent meaning) determined by performance context. In the rst case, as
an episode of liangquan, the play provides the common festival inversion of serious
behaviors (Abrahams and Bauman 1978; Stoeltje 1992). Our second instance repre-
sents the use of the performance as an intermission from a grueling training regimen.
e nal scenario illustrates the use of “Greatest Boxer” as a way of entertaining and
honoring visitors. Worth noting is the possibility that in cases in which the festival
attendees or honorees are Mei Boxers but not members of the Zhuzhai brotherhood,
the play acts as a means for the performers to demonstrate by possession of a unique
routine their relatively higher status within the Mei Boxing community. As Abrahams
observes, on such occasions, “lore of an in- group (or esoteric) sort—lore which is
commonly performed within the connes of a group socially... set apart from
others, and which comments in some way on this separation—becomes a matter of
public record” (1981:305). Regardless of the function of the particular performance
and its context, in terms of content, this drama symbolically embodies elements of
the traditional history of Mei Boxing.
According to this body of folk narrative, there was bitter competition for students
between Mei Boxing and other martial arts during the former’s development and
transmission throughout the northeastern provinces of China. e competition was
particularly heated between Hong Boxing and Meihuaquan. Currently, in the area
of Shandong, Henan, and Hebei provinces, local boxers judge Hong Boxing as sec-
ond in importance only to Mei Boxing. At least some of the art’s importance may be
due to Hong Boxings legendary pedigree. In this region, Hong Boxing is regarded
as synonymous with Taizu Changquan (太祖长拳, [Emperor] Taizu Long Boxing)
(Yang 2017). According to one etymology, Taizu Changquan was either invented by or
commissioned by Taizu (927–976), the personal name Zhao Kuangyin, the founding
emperor of the Song dynasty (960–1279) who is alluded to in the “Greatest Boxer.
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264 Journal of American Folklore 131 (2018)
Writing in the sixteenth century, Tang Shunzhi (唐顺之, 1507–1560) observes in e
Martial Choreography (武编) that “Zhao Taizu Long Boxing is practiced especially
in Shandong and oen in Jiangnan (江南)” (Ma 2005:3). Based on these historical
claims, Hong Boxing pre- dates Mei Boxing in the region. Moreover, Hong Boxing
had established a substantial membership base in the provinces enumerated above
prior to the arrival of Meihuaquan, an art that, according to the traditional history
current among Mei Boxers, emerged during the Ming dynasty, between one and three
centuries earlier (Yang 2012). e historical record documents tensions between the
two schools for centuries. For example, in 1898 the prefect Hong Yong- zhou sought
to exploit the enmity between Hong Boxers and Mei Boxers as a tool for fragment-
ing alliances within the Boxer Revolution (Esherick 1988:157).14 According to our
informants, the enmity continues.
e following informants attest to the continuation of the strained relationship
between the two styles into the twenty- rst century. Both their competition for
students and daily animosity emerge in an interview with Master Cao Guangchao
(曹广超) of Heze, Shandong: “Mei Boxing and Hong Boxing are rivals in Heze. ey
look down upon each other, refuse to communicate, and even enter into conicts
[ghts] with each other. I was a Hong Boxer when I was young and changed to a Mei
Boxer at the suggestion of my grandfather” (2009).
In addition to the competition for students, local territorial claims provide another
area of contention. For example, Ma Kai (马凯), an elderly Mei Boxing master
who resides in East Magai village in Heze, told us: “ere are two boxing spots in
our village. One belongs to Hong Boxing, and another is claimed by Mei Boxing.
I experienced two times conicts [physical ghts] between the groups because of
members slandering each other” (2009). Nonviolent confrontations occur more
frequently. ese are most common in the festival context, with antagonism chan-
neled into competitive performance, as the following comments attest. “Sometimes,
they [Hong Boxers and Mei Boxers] disrupt the liangquan showing [martial arts
demonstrations] of the other, but it is not really ghting,” said Yang Yuanzhi (杨元
), octogenarian master of Mei Boxing in Geng village in Heze. “You are defeated
if you could not break a ground [open up a performance space and draw the atten-
tion of spectators] by your weapon demonstration in the crowd of opponents” (Yang
e drama “Greatest Boxer” reects this contentious history of Mei Boxing. In
addition, narrative repertoires of the masters in Zhuzhai village preserve accounts of
the diculties that their ancestors met when they spread the art to other locations.
ese stories are handed down orally. Usually, the boxers will have a meal aer the
performance of “Greatest Boxer.” During the meal, older masters always become
storytellers and tell about the heroic exploits of their great masters to young Mei
Boxers. e “Greatest Boxer” alludes to the history of Meihuaquan in Zhuzhai that
is included in these historical narratives, including specic accounts of Mei Boxing
masters of Zhuzhai opening new boxing spots in other locations, teaching their dis-
ciples in the new locations how to compete with Hong Boxing. Because the boxers
of Zhuzhai knew that co- author Zhang’s home village was in Heze, masters such as
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Zhang and Green, Articulating Group Identity through Chinese Folk Drama 265
Ma Shujing, Ma Chaoshuan, and Ren Xianwei always told him stories about Master
Gao Yuting’s struggles to open new boxing spots in Heze and defend them against
the challenges of Hong Boxers. ey also oered these narratives in response to our
questions concerning the reasons why the antagonist in the drama is a Hong Boxer.
e plots of other tales focused on episodes in locales other than Heze in which
earlier generations of Mei Boxers from Zhuzhai defeated Hong Boxers and established
new boxing spots. Remote journeys, brutally harsh weather, and confrontations with
local Hong Boxing champions served as foils to the successes and heroism of the
ancestors whose exploits are vividly portrayed in these legends. e recurrent focus on
the pre- eminence of Mei Boxing and the accomplishments and contributions of their
ancestors intensies each group member’s pride in membership in this elite fraternity,
an elite group that in the text of “Greatest Boxer” alludes to eminent military strategist
Sun Bin (“Sun Bin riding backward on the bull”) and illustrious warrior Zhang Fei
(“Zhang Fei limp arm”). Nothing, however, in the surviving biographies of either of
these historical gures suggests physical techniques resembling those utilized by the
boxers, nor a connection to Meihuaquan.
Boxers in Zhuzhai village show this drama to Mei Boxer brothers from Heze every
time the latter visit in order to stress their common martial ancestry, the familial
ties created through their discipleship to specic living masters, and the superior-
ity of Mei Boxing and Mei Boxers to other martial arts and their practitioners. Gao
Guoyin articulates the pride that the boxers of Zhuzhai village feel in this tradition:
“Wherever and whenever we performed [“Greatest Boxer”], it was the most popular
program in liangquan. No other Mei Boxing community had it and we are the only
one” (2013).
Mei Boxing helps residents of Zhuzhai develop a group identity conducive to
village harmony as well. Although there are Ma, Gao, Zhu, and Ren surnamed
families in Zhuzhai village, unlike the underlying discord that oen accompanies
such situations in village China, the various lineages are integrated into one “family”
because of Mei Boxing, a family composed of contemporary martial descendants
of Ma Tingrui and Gao Yuting. ey practice martial arts together, stage liangquan
together, welcome visitors together, and collectively overcome daily diculties. ese
endeavors further strengthen the identity shared among the residents of Zhuzhai.
e fact that they uniquely possess “Greatest Boxer” leads them to value their com-
mon bonds even more intensely. To them, the play is more than comic entertain-
ment. Most of our informants among the members of the Mei Boxing community
of Zhuzhai village recognize it as a vehicle for expressing their history, tradition,
and uniqueness.
In this drama, the exaggerated behaviors, the ease with which the Mei Boxer coun-
ters his opponent’s techniques, and the verbal insults create a comic argument for
the Mei Boxer’s superiority over the Hong Boxer and, by association, of the former
over the latter martial art. Since this drama belittles and humiliates Hong Boxing,
performing it in the presence of Hong Boxers serves as a blatant challenge. erefore,
Mei Boxers of Zhuzhai avoid such situations. According to Ren Jinxiu (任金修), “we
just show it to our brothers, not in front of other boxers. It is too excessive and may
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266 Journal of American Folklore 131 (2018)
cause conict, and others will look down upon our Mei Boxing if we acted like that.
Morality is of primary importance in martial arts” (2013). Given this, the drama serves
the joint functions of reinforcing Mei Boxers’ pride in their chosen art, marking local
inter- group boundaries, and recounting the historical enmity of competing schools.
In fact, this drama has become a “collective memory” and a cultural symbol for the
Mei Boxers of Zhuzhai.
“Greatest Boxer” creates a dramatic microcosm that symbolically incorporates
and reects a major theme in the traditional history of Mei Boxing: the struggle to
establish and maintain a presence in provinces of eastern China. Similarly, the nar-
rative folk history of Mei Boxing relates the competition for status (and disciples)
between Meihuaquan and other styles of boxing. Folk narrative and folk drama in
this case support and reinforce each other. Because the drama symbolically re- enacts
a pivotal period in the life of the group through a representative ctional event, the
physical actions of the performers cause the past to become “sedimented in the body”
(Connerton 1989:72). is performance links the cognitive (historical knowledge)
and the aective (emotional response) dimensions embodied in the acting out of the
group’s shared history. Writing about the channels of festival communication, Smith
contends: “e traditional forms of festival behavior [for example, dance, custom,
drama] can be seen as aective symbols, which function to express and generate not
concepts but desired emotions” (1972:170). is notion explains the perpetuation of
“Greatest Boxer” as a vehicle for group identity that goes beyond the encapsulation of
folk history. More generally, Nancy Bonvillain argues: “Art objects and art styles can
serve as carriers of cultural identity” (2013:411). e reiteration of history in “Great-
est Boxer” provides a means by which collective memory may motivate feelings of
cultural identity. Especially in cases in which tension exists between communities,
the value of art for creating identity is obvious.
In the twenty- rst century, “I Am the Greatest Boxer” has provided a vehicle for the
Mei Boxers of Zhuzhai to maintain their status in their local area and in the Mei
Boxing community at large. Currently in China, under the leadership of Xi Jinping
(习近平), many folk arts, including martial arts, nd increasing support under the
aegis of Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH). As a result, “Greatest Boxer” poten-
tially provides cultural capital for the Mei Boxing community of Zhuzhai village.
is dramatic performance incorporates local history, ghting arts, group identity,
entertainment, and physical culture in a range of settings as a way of reinforcing the
collective memory and intensifying the solidarity of Mei Boxers in Zhuzhai village.
eoretically, all Mei Boxing lineages regardless of their villages of residence should
maintain a sense of solidarity and brotherhood. As discussed regarding the spread
of the art from Zhuzhai to Heze by Ma Tingrui and Wu Tipan in the early twentieth
century, there are, in fact, many examples of close “family ties” between specic vil-
lages that continue into the twenty- rst century.16 However, comments oered by
several of our informants provide evidence of tensions between the Zhuzhai boxers
and other Meihuaquan factions, even at the local level.
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Zhang and Green, Articulating Group Identity through Chinese Folk Drama 267
Not only Zhuzhai but all villages in the Puyang area maintain their respective
vernacular versions of Mei Boxing. In 2013, a neighboring village obtained the sup-
port of the Henan provincial government that funded eorts to preserve their own
system of Meihuaquan and similar living traditions in order to enfranchise them
as ocially classied examples of ICH arts. According to our Zhuzhai informants,
this recognition was due not to the quality or perceived authenticity of the art in the
neighboring village, but rather resulted from the neighboring village’s network of
political inuence.
During our 2012 Spring Festival visit, aer sharing the information that our nal
destination was Houma village in Hebei province (depicted in folk history as the
epicenter of Mei Boxing, as noted above), members of the Zhuzhai Mei Boxing com-
munity conded that the liangquan at Houma would be small this year because the
local government would not be involved in the event. is did not prove to be the
case. In terms of both performing groups and spectators, the Houma liangquan was
quite large, with estimates as high as 30,000 people, counting both boxers and audi-
ence members, and in excess of 100,000 attended the 23- day Spring Festival (Tian
e lack of ocial recognition as ICH notwithstanding, Zhuzhai has maintained
prestige within the Mei Boxing community by uniquely possessing “Greatest Boxer.
While not as potentially lucrative perhaps as ocial recognition,17 this fact has engen-
dered local pride and status outside Zhuzhai. is status has resulted in the Zhuzhai
Mei Boxers regularly receiving invitations to perform at large- scale liangquan activities
at other localities in Henan, as well as in Shandong and Hebei provinces and even in
Beijing (see comments by Ren Xianwei above).
erefore, “I Am the Greatest Boxer” is more than a choreographed martial arts
routine. Its scripted nature and incorporation of a pivotal conict between antago-
nistic characters satisfy the criteria for classifying the performance as a folk drama.
In a region where traditional drama remains popular, especially in contexts such as
Spring Festival, these features establish the play as a multivocal (Turner 1967:103) site
for maintaining the exclusive character of Zhuzhai Mei Boxing, socially constructing
an elite historical image of the Mei Boxing community at large, and connecting with
the performance of liangquan and with the larger temple fair and festival traditions
of China.
“Greatest Boxer” may now be in peril. Ren Xianwei reported in August 2017 that
the Zhuzhai Meihuaquan Team was preparing for a performance organized by the
government during the coming September. When co- author Zhang suggested the
inclusion of “Greatest Boxer” in the program, Ren declined the suggestion on the
grounds that his team had not practiced the routine regularly since he had accepted
employment as manager of a furniture store, a position that allows him minimal
leisure time to practice martial arts. In addition, three of the other boxers who are
regarded as among the better performers of “Greatest Boxer” moved from the village
to urban centers, seeking employment, and are now too far from Zhuzhai to actively
JAF 131_3 text.indd 267 6/6/18 12:05 PM
268 Journal of American Folklore 131 (2018)
maintain their martial arts practice. e opportunities and temptation to better one’s
standard of living away from the village contexts that nurture vernacular martial arts
have imposed additional hardships on the transmission, not only on “Greatest Boxer”
but on Mei Boxing and similar vernacular arts. However, Ren’s plan to open a boxing
spot in his place of employment reects the desire to keep the tradition alive in spite
of these obstacles (Ren 2017).
We wish to extend our sincere gratitude to Carlos Gutiérrez- García, Li Yun, and particularly Sang Quanxi
for years of comments on our research on Meihuaquan in general and on “Greatest Boxer” in particular.
On the latter, the anonymous JAF reviewers oered valuable advice regarding the nal version of this
article. Our research on Plum Blossom Boxing and related vernacular martial arts practices has benetted
both individually and collectively from the support of many institutions over the years. Zhang Guodongs
participation has been supported by grants from the Humanities and Social Science Research Projects of
the Ministry of Education in China (14YJA890017). omas A. Green is grateful for support provided
by the Confucius Institute at Texas A&M University, the Glasscock Center for Humanities Research at
Texas A&M University, and a 2017 faculty development leave.
1. Meng Youde was one of the rst disciples of Zou Hongyi (邹宏义, 1624–1715), who is reputed to be
the rst master to openly teach Mei Boxing. In Houma village, Hebei province traditional history dates
Plum Blossom Boxing to the seventeenth century and the arrival of Zou Hongyi, who was invited by Cai
Guangrui to teach the villagers to defend themselves against marauders. In the late twentieth century,
a book entitled e Origin of Meihuaquan, which supports the traditional oral history, was unearthed
in rural Hebei. In it is recorded the legend of “e ree Apprentices Named De Sent on a Mission by
eir Master” that chronicles Zou’s journey to Houma. A Chinese- language documentary devoted to
this may be found at 关于独轮车及梅花拳兵器的介绍,请参考惊世梅花拳,
2. “Landocracy” refers to that class of people who owe their power and social prominence to the
ownership of land, the “landlords.
3. e Mei Boxing curriculum comprises two branches: Wen () and Wu (). Disciples of Wen
specialize in the study and teaching of classical culture, divination, and traditional Chinese medicine by
utilizing the methods of Chinese shamanism. ey perpetuate the rituals dedicated to worshipping the
ancestors of Mei Boxing; preserve and research the theories of martial arts; inherit and transmit classical
documents, which are derived from Daoism, Confucianism, Buddhism, and the I Ching; and cultivate their
bodies and spirits through the practice of qigong (气功, “life energy cultivation”). Disciples specializing
in Wu focus primarily on the physical techniques of martial arts; their knowledge of Wen is relatively
supercial. Although Wen is regarded as the most profound level of Meihuaquan, Wu is the foundation
of the system and must be learned prior to pursuing the Wen branch of the curriculum.
4. e narrative perpetuated in Houma village, Hebei, asserts that liangquan is “a tradition of Mei
Boxing [performed by Mei Boxers] to memorialize their ancestor Zou Hongyi (邹宏义; 1624–1715),
the founder of Mei Boxing,” Tian Jianwen (田建文) told us during Spring Festival 2012. “Zou made
an appointment with his disciples to get together and perform [Meihuaquan routines] on the 16th day
of every year’s rst lunar month [the day aer Lantern Festival marking the last day of Spring Festival/
New Year celebrations]. His disciples began this commemoration for him and his family members by
demonstrating martial arts during [the] festival aer his death” (Tian 2012).
5. A ying lotus kick is an aerial kick during which one jumps into the air and spins 180 degrees with
an extended leg.
JAF 131_3 text.indd 268 6/6/18 12:05 PM
Zhang and Green, Articulating Group Identity through Chinese Folk Drama 269
6. 赵匡胤 Zhao Kuangyin (927–976), the founder of the Song dynasty (960–1279). A branch of Red
Boxing is called Taejo Red Boxing, based on a story of the relationship of Kuangyin with Red Boxing (Tàizǔ
Chángquán [太祖長拳], literally “Emperor Taizu [alternative name for Zhao Kuangyin] Long Fist”; “e
Longst Style of Emperor Taizu”). See–11/22/
content_9276212.htm (accessed May 6, 2017). See also Lorge (2012:115).
7. 孙膑 Sun Bin (d. 316 BCE), Chinese military strategist of the Warring States Period (475–221 BCE)
who authored a military treatise entitled Sun Bin’s Art of War (孫臏兵法).
8. 张飞 Zhang Fei (d. 221), a famous general of the Kingdom of Shu during the ree Kingdoms Period
(220–280). He was a major character in the fourteenth- century novel Romance of the ree Kingdoms.
9. Ren Xianwei reports that his grandfather Ren Yingchun (任迎春) and his partner for “Greatest
Boxer,” another master named Ma Xicang (马希仓, alias Wangliang 望良, 1918–1994), took Meihuaquan,
including “Greatest Boxer,” to Hua County (滑县), Puyang, during the 1980s and 1990s. On February 3,
2017, during the liangquan performance in Wangfang (王坊) village of Heze (菏泽) in Shandong province,
Ren Xianwei saw Mei Boxers from Hua County perform “Greatest Boxer.” “ey missed or omitted the
Part of Opening Dialogue with words and actions, although the Part of Combat with words and actions
is the same with Zhuzhai’s” (Ren 2017). Also, Ma Shujing told co- author Zhang that he recently saw some
young men from a neighboring village who recited some of the dialogue but none of the actions of the
“Greatest Boxer” at the same liangquan (2017).
10. None of the audience types are “airtight” categories. For example, as a Mei Boxer, Zhang is an
outsider only in the sense that he is not a member of the Zhuzhai brotherhood (which also includes
women). is is quite dierent from Green’s bystander classication, which is granted on the basis of his
relationship with Zhang and lacks the “high context” status of his co- author.
11. A plaque that is dedicated to and embodies the spiritual essence of a deied ancestor. See Graham
12. e act of kneeling and touching one’s forehead to the ground as an act of veneration.
13. e full meaning and signicance of this ritual remains the exclusive domain of masters of the
Wen branch of Meihuaquan. See endnote 2.
14. Ironically, during the period leading up to the Boxer Rebellion, resistance to Western inuence
in the Liyuantun (梨园屯) area of Shandong was led by a peasant group known as the Eighteen Chiefs.
eir leader, Yan Shuqin (阎书勤), was expert in Hongquan. In about 1892, Yan invited the support of
the Plum Boxers under Zhao Sanduo from Shaliuzhai (沙柳寨) village (Cohen 1997:23–5).
15. It is tempting to compare these performances to the “dance battles” of the urban United States
that gained popularity in the 1970s and 1980s as sublimated gang warfare. Je Chang writes that in these
uprocking performances, “Rivals... went head to head—making as if they were jigging, stabbing, and
battering each other” (2005:116).
16. e annual visits of Sang Quanxi and his students from Heze to Zhuzhai (a distance of 150 kilo-
meters) bear witness to the continued ties.
17. Recognition brings not only direct economic support from government entities, but also, in most
cases, indirect support through tourism and invitations to perform outside of local contexts.
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... As the literary scholar Vladimir Propp (1984) considers, folklore actively shapes attitudes, beliefs and social values into narrative forms that are usually transmitted orally. In this regard, folklore has the characteristic of being flexible enough to be carried across generations and transformed following the requirements of new social situations and audiences (Correll, 2014;Guodong & Green, 2018;Noyes, 2018;Opie & Opie, 1959Schanoes, 2019;Zipes, 2019). In this case, the students from both schools draw upon local legendsor leyendasthat have existed since colonial times. ...
In this thesis, I analyse how young audiences engage with nostalgic media texts. In recent years, from remakes or reboots to media texts set in previous decades, nostalgia has become a key ingredient of recent media production. Hence, I address two specific research questions: 1) how do young audiences interpret the past represented in nostalgic media texts; and 2) how do the national context and social identities of young audiences mediate their engagement with nostalgic media texts? For this, I conducted a media consumption habits survey, 13 focus group discussions, and 35 paired interviews in one private and one public secondary education school in Costa Rica. My intention is to explore the reception of nostalgic media texts in a nation of the Global South in which the past has recently generated political and social tensions. Thus, I first argue that these young audiences interpret the past represented in nostalgic media texts through an aestheticisation of the past and by employing a particular nostalgic social imaginary. Following textual cues and national discourses, these young people idealise the styles of the past but exhibit a critical awareness in terms of some social tensions of previous decades. Then, I argue that nostalgia is a structure of feeling which emerges from an unsatisfying present. By exploring the social identities of the participants, I discuss how nostalgia is differently articulated depending on the social position of these young people. I identify how the students from the private school experience an aesthetic nostalgia, based on the romanticisation of the styles of the past but characterised by an optimistic appraisal of the future, and how the students from the public school experience a material nostalgia, an idealisation of the past derived from daily experiences of economic deprivation and the expectation of a precarious future.
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In the global world of the twenty-first century, martial arts are practiced for self-defense and sporting purposes only. However, for thousands of years, they were a central feature of military practice in China and essential for the smooth functioning of society. Individuals who were adept in using weapons were highly regarded, not simply as warriors but also as tacticians and performers. This book, which opens with an intriguing account of the very first female martial artist, charts the history of combat and fighting techniques in China from the Bronze Age to the present. This broad panorama affords fascinating glimpses into the transformation of martial skills, techniques, and weaponry against the background of Chinese history, the rise and fall of empires, their governments, and their armies. Quotations from literature and poetry, and the stories of individual warriors, infuse the narrative, offering personal reflections on prowess in the battlefield and techniques of engagement. This is an engaging and readable introduction to the authentic history of Chinese martial arts.
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