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First News of Kung Fu Arrives in America, 1830

January 13, 2016
Sword dancer in the old city of Shanghai

Sword dancer in the old city of Shanghai

During the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the history of martial arts in the United States was purely western, encompassing European-style pugilism, wrestling, fencing, as well as a diverse assortment of indigenous Native martial arts.

That changed on July 2, 1830, when the New York Evening Post printed a vivid report entitled “Pugilism in China.” This article appears to be the first account published in America regarding the existence of Kung Fu, and is reprinted here:

The art of self defence is regularly taught in China…The first lesson for a Chinese boxer consists in winding his long tail tight around his head, stripping himself to the buff, then placing his right foot foremost, and with all his might giving a heavy thrust with his right fist against a bag suspended for that purpose. He is directed to change hands and feet alternately, restraining his breath, and boxing the bag of sand right and left for hours together. This exercise the fancy call ‘throwing down walls and overturning parapets.’ In the second lesson the pugilist grasps in each hand a heavy mass of stone, and having stripped, and arranged his tail as before, he practices thrusting out at arms’ lengths these weights, right and left, till he is tired. This lesson is called ‘the golden dragon thrusting out his claws.’ Next comes ‘a crow stretching out his wings—a dragon issuing forth from his door—a drunken China-man knocking at your door—a hungry tiger seizing a lamb—a hawk clawing a sparrow—a crane and muscle reciprocally embarrassed,’ and other specimens of fanciful nomenclature, for divers feats of pugilism.”

The article in the Evening Post  indicated that the original text had appeared in the Canton Register

Sword dancer in San Francisco's Chinatown, by Arthur Genthe, 1896-1906

Sword dancer in San Francisco’s Chinatown, by Arthur Genthe, 1896-1906

Although it is possible that the first arrivals from China may have brought such martial practices with them to America at about this time (the 1820s and 1830s), for the next fifty years, the media remained silent as to their existence. It would be nearly 60 years–not until February 27, 1890–that the first exhibition of Kung Fu in the United States would be unveiled to the American public.

KungFuMagNOTE: A greatly expanded version of this article, covering other Kung Fu contests and practitioners of the same period, and accompanied by photographs, appears in the 2015 March/April issue of Kung Fu Magazine, under the title Kung Fu in Early America.

If you liked this article, you may also be interested in the following, also about the early history of Chinese martial arts in America:

The First Exhibition of Kung Fu and Chinese Martial Arts in America: Brooklyn, 1890

First Report of a Bare-Knuckle Kung Fu Contest in New York City’s Chinatown, 1891

An American reports from China on Kung Fu eye-gouging contests, 1891

Vivid Report of Chinese “Gladiators” Reaches New York in 1891

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