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Singlestick and Kung Fu: The U.S. Navy Encounters “Chinese Kicking” in 1881

January 30, 2015

“On the Chinese station the Chinese servants belong to this division, and a very energetic and zealous lot they are…”

Singlestick practice on the U.S.S. New York

Singlestick practice on the U.S.S. New York

The following is an excerpt from a short treatise on the singlestick as practiced by the U.S. Navy, authored by an “expert,” and published in the February 24, 1895, issue of the New York Press. The piece is notable for its mention of Chinese “kicking,” and represents possibly the earliest reference to the United States military encountering Kung Fu.

Warning: The following contains ethnic references, typical of the period, which some may find offensive.

One can hardly realize the gawkiness of the human species until one has seen a squad of raw recruits in the position of guard. They apparently either have no joints whatever, or else are all joints, but whether jointed or jointless they unfailingly convey but one impression, viz., that if you said “boo” to them they’d all promptly tumble down.

SinglestickNavy

SIMPLEST REQUIREMENTS.

The simplest and most necessary requirements of single stick exercise seem to be the hardest to instill. These are free movements, a loose but firm grip of the sword, and rapid execution. The necessity of the latter is evident, and can only come with practice. The two first essentials seem to come naturally to some, by practice to others, and to the rest never at all. A loose grip or too tight a grip means an ignominious loss of your sword, which a first class swordsman will soon send flying into the air. This disarming trick is difficult to explain, and more difficult to accomplish. There is no better way of describing it than as a winding of the sword around the opponent’s, as though it were wire, and then a sudden jerk after it has taken hold. It is very humbling to one’s pride to be disarmed. I never knew any one that did not suffer a loss of self-respect in such circumstances except a Chinaman. This is partly because he is too arrogant, but particularly because he can use his legs so successfully, and not to run with, either. I should hate to fence with an unarmed Chinaman unless I could cut his legs off or “bar” them.

A DIGRESSION.

Chinese1

The Navy Ordinance Instructions require all persons aboard ship, with a few specified exceptions, to be encouraged in the use of “single sticks.” In obedience to this suggestion, single stick exercises are frequent, and even the members of the “Powder division” are not exempted. This division comprises the “odds and ends,” so to speak, that is, all people unassigned to the regular “Gun divisions.” On the Chinese station the Chinese servants belong to this division, and a very energetic and zealous lot they are. In 1881, when China and Russia were on the verge of war, I aroused and encouraged my Chinese “odds and ends” by facing them in two ranks for “single sticks.” I would then give the order, “Fronk rank. Chinaman;” “Rear rank, Russia man.” I never yet have found an opportunity to carry my scheme of encouragement further. The command seemed to take all the starch out of the “rear rank.” As I look back at those drills, I am afraid they were not quite according to the manual, and a trifle irregular; also, I believe that kicking played quite a part, and if I remember right, I spent the remainder of the drill hour trying to round in my rear rank “odds and ends.” But I can honestly say, I carried out the “Ordinance Instruction.” I encouraged the use of “single sticks.”

“As I look back at those drills, I am afraid they were not quite according to the manual, and a trifle irregular; also, I believe that kicking played quite a part…”

 Not long after this the Russian Admiral on the station, hearing that Chinamen were being drilled aboard United States vessels, entered a protest, and orders were issued to our squadron to discontinue the drills as far as Chinese servants were concerned. This may be a digression, but I wish to endorse The Presas warning to Japan not to wait too long. There are lots of possibilities in the Chinaman. I wouldn’t nag him too much.

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