Christian Warlord and Martial Artist, Feng Yuxiang

By William A. with translations by Mei C.

Feng Yuxiang (1882–1948)
Feng Yuxiang

One of the topics I find fascinating is the practice of Chinese martial arts in the early XX Century. Specifically the Big Knife Units for which we are in the process of preparing a paper to be released in the near future. The main sponsor of such fighting units was Feng Yuxiang nicknamed the Christian General a military figure whose involvement in the development of Chinese martial arts has not been given the recognition he deserves in the west. Before we start describing Feng’s life a quick commentary on the warlords is necessary. The emergence of the Warlords in China was a consequence of a long process that started as the Qing dynasty slowly lost its grip on power. The lack of means to bind the many provinces to the central government, cultural, linguistical differences throughout and almost nonexistent incentives to national patriotism serve to strengthen local loyalties (Sheridan, 1966).

The imperial examinations abolition in 1905, the beginning of modernization of the Chinese military and the educated elite’s change in attitude towards the army made a military career something worth trying. Combined with all of the above the foreign powers effort’s to increase their spheres of influence in China through the support of regional strongmen created the right mix from which the warlords emerged (Sheridan, 1966). We will not attempt to describe this process, suffice to say that the warlord period brought chaos to the nation. Joining the warlord armies; even though a dangerous proposition for those seeking to escape famine and poverty, it provided shelter, a meal and the promise of a reward. In fact the

“lack of disciplinary training tended to reinforce the mercenary mentality that had promoted so many soldiers to join the army in the first place. Soldiers went into battle in the hope of being rewarded by their commanders or allowed to loot” (Hsi-Sheng, 1976).

Early Life
Feng was born in 1882, in the province of Zhili.”Inthe 18th century the borders of Zhili province were redrawn and spread over what is today Beijing, Tianjin and the provinces of Hebei, Western Liaoning, Northern Henan, and the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region (Wikipedia, Zhili Province). Feng’s father, Feng Yumao (馮有茂), was a platoon commander of one of the local forces that made the Huai Army under General Liu Mingchuan (Wikipedia, Huai Army). Feng Yumao had seven sons of which Feng Yuxiang was the second. Only the first two children made it to become adults (Sheridan, 1966). The second child was named Feng Jishan (馮基善), shortly after Jishan was born the family moved to Baoding. Even though money was scarce Jishan’s parents were both opium addicts, which made the money struggles and the family’s hardships even worst.

When Jishan turned ten years old, he was enrolled in the army. At the time it was a common practice to list officers’ sons in the payroll even though they were too young to drill or perform any duties (Sheridan, 1966). It is here when Jishan would received another name by which he will be known and famous throughout China. Spots to list an officer’s child in the army were limited and highly competitive. When one of such positions became vacant in 1892, one of Feng Yumao’s friends quickly seized the opportunity and enlisted one of Feng’s sons. However, either the friend did not know the name or made a mistake when filling up the paper work and instead of Jishan wrote Yuxiang (玉祥) (Sheridan, 1966). Despite Feng Yuxiang’s military and political career started as a regular soldier, Feng’s sought any opportunity to further his basic education to suceed. He complemented the lectures he received in the army, with meetings with educated officers as well as self impose readings on classics and other works.

For a period of four years and on a daily basis Feng would get up early morning to practice drilling commands to imaginary soldiers, dreaming to become a drill leader. In 1901 Feng achieved his dream and started his climb to the military and political upper echelons of power. Feng would switch allegiances when he felt there were few opportunities to continue furthering his career. In 1902 he became a soldier in Yuan Shikai’s army. By 1912 he was given command of 500 volunteers and by 1918 he grew his force to over 100,000 men (Sheridan, 1966). From this point on Feng had secure an army loyal to him, with which he would be noticed and be a power to be reckon with if he so decided. At this point we will focus our attention to the less known details of his love for Chinese martial arts and his contribution to the development of these fighting skills.

Feng Yuxiang’s Early Martial Arts Practice
In 1927 Feng gave a speech attacking the May Fourth Movement while pointing out its discrepancies:

I don’t oppose playing ball in the least, but I do oppose this feverish consumption of foreigners’ goods. This is exercise of the gents and ladies of the leisured classes. If you want to exercise your body, is a blade not enough? Is a sword routine not enough? Are wrestling or boxing not enough? Of China’s eighteen types of martial arts, not one is capable of drenching our entire bodies in sweat, stimulating all the body’s blood, tendons and bones. You say those activities are old- fashioned, but you don’t even know that the Western sports of track and field is all left over from the Greek and Romans eras… Now it is all just about blindly following the West, … and when you think about it this is really our greatest national shame (Morris, 2004)

In this speech Feng speaks of martial arts not from the point of view of someone who has casually witnessed these practices, but rather from a man who spent years training and departing with others with the same passion. In 1893 Feng Yuxiang’s father started teaching the sons of a wealthy gentleman archery, rifle shooting, swordsmanship and wrestling; Feng Yuxiang also joined the lessons. In one entry of his memoirs Feng wrote:

Feng Weights
Feng practicing traditional weight training

I love martial arts, I have study hard since childhood. I’ll always remember my lessons of wrestling, boxing and Ju Shi Tou (weight training); I used to spend a lot of time training them…Every winter afternoon in Baoding and many other villages people of all ages join and practice wrestling. They learn how to use the hands and footwork, how to use their bodies. Regarding boxing (Quan), the northerners and its army love this practice. Our own training does not focus on routines, but rather on application. In our army we train with the Dao (knife), Qiang (spear), Jian (sword) and other traditional weapons; we train them day and night“. (Ma, Shuojiang Conggao, 2007)

Feng’s move to Baoding gave him the opportunity to practice wrestling in an area known by it. In fact Baoding style wrestling was the main style practiced by renown wrestler Chang Dong Shen (1905-1986 ). (Chang Dong Sheng: Wrestler Extraordinary )
Feng was a physically imposing man, which helped with his martial prowess; his army nick name was Feng Da Ger (Big Feng). Martial arts practise was also popular in other armies of the time e.g. Cao Kun’s Miao Dao Camp, Ma Liang’s Technical Team etc. (Ma, Shuojiang Conggao, 2007). What set apart Feng Yuxiang’s army was the implementation of strict military regulations and training regimes for his men, from the regular soldier to his officers and even those whose duties were not military e.g. cooks, clerical, animal tenders etc. Feng’s policy was to make every available man able to jump off a horse and write [a report or dispatch], or jump on a horse and kill an enemy. (Sheridan, 1966)

Troops Training
Feng’s personal experiences were the basis for the policies he set up when he was given command of his own troops. One of Feng’s activities that brought the attention of western observes was his conversion to Christianity around 1919. Feng’s conversion might have been in part for practical reasons. By converting his soldiers, they would be less likely to defect as well as to refrain from vices that could erode military disciple e.g. opium use, gambling and prostitution. Moreover the belief on an afterlife helped create a dare to die attitude. It is the above that made Feng’s troops welcome by western missionaries and the general population that knew Feng’s troops will not loot or get involved in disorderly conduct as it was the norm with warlord armies. Feng did his best to provide academic and vocational education to his men. In these programs soldiers learnt to read and write as well as weaving, bookbinding, printing etc. The programs also extended to the soldiers’ children. (Sheridan, 1966)

Regarding military training, his own martial arts experienced gave him a starting point as Feng understood that a top notch physical condition was essential. Feng’s men practiced weight lifting, vaulting wooden horses, obstacle courses, boxing, swimming, gymnastics etc. In the winter he organized trench digging contests, other activities included the rapid march wearing packs weighting 65 pounds. In one occasion Feng’s Big Knife Unit ran approximately 80 miles in 24 hours. Officers were required to share the same conditions as the regular soldiers in order to create loyalty towards the line of command. One of the most interesting units in Feng’s army was the Big Knife Unit (Da Dao Dui), it was established around 1917. Whether it was started by personal or one of his instructors initiative or inspired by the Big Knife Society (Da Dao Hui) is not very well understood. In any case the men that made part of such units were feared and respected not only during the battles against other warlord armies but also during the Second Sino Japanese War. (Sheridan, 1966)

One of the reasons Feng made use of a traditional weapon such as the Da Dao was the lack of modern weaponry available to the Chinese soldiers. An interesting recollection by He Huan son of officer He Ji Feng who served with the 29th corps (made out of Feng Yuxiang’s original troops); recalls:

The weapons they had jammed frequently when fired. Also the rifles were very old and long which cause the soldiers to trip very often. Sometimes the soldiers would discard their rifles because they were useless and rather had a stick to fight“.

For this reason the Chinese soldiers were armed with simple weapons like hand grenades, pistols and Da Dao. (Jun Shi Ji Shi, Ji Nian Chang Cheng Kang Zhan Qi Shi Wu Zhou Nian, 2008). While the Japanese infantry that was armed and trained in the use of the bayonet and had access to modern weapons and supplies, Feng’s army had to made do with whatever was available; Feng made sure that every soldier was well versed in the skills of bayonet and Big Knife fighting. One of Feng’s commanders was Zhang Zhijiang, who would later create the Central National Arts Academy (Zhongyang Guoshu Guan). In 1925 by order of Zhang Zhijiang, renown scholar and martial artist Ma Fengtu founded a hand to hand fighting tactics laboratory, a standard curriculum for bayonet fighting and recruited other instructors to teach The Northwest Army such as Ma Yingtu, Wang Ziping and others. (Ma, Ma Fengtu An Exemplary Martial Arts Scholar, 2010)

Feng Yuxian Demostrating the use of Da Dao to his troops, 1920s

A Russian observer who visited Feng’s camp in 1925 wrote:

The plaza was filled with many soldiers wearing white outfits and performing with their swords, it was a great spectacle to watch. About six hundred strong and young men moved in a very fast pace with their blades. Sometimes retrieving, sometimes attacking. Even though the training ground was hard and solid, the steps of six hundred soldiers made the ground shake (Ma, Shuojiang Conggao, 2007).

Feng not only looked at native fighting skills for his army, he also encouraged the study of Japanese methods and hired two Japanese instructors to teach them. Later these two men were also hired by Zhang Zhijiang for the Zhongyang Guoshu Guan (Ma, Shuojiang Conggao, 2007). When the Central National Arts Academy opened its doors in 1928 in the city of Nanjing, Feng was at least on paper, appointed as its director (Acevedo, Cheung, & Hood, 2009)

Personal Practice
Despite his many duties Feng never shied away from joining his men’s training whenever he had the chance. Some examples of Feng’s dedication to Chinese martial arts practice are found in his diary.

On November 27, 1926:

I saw a rifle team practicing boxing. I told them the true meaning of boxing practice is its practical application and not focusing only on set patterns. I also corrected some of their moves

On December 21, 1929:

Six o’clock, practiced boxing with others

On February 11, 1930:

Eight o’clock, observed some people boxing. I explained our boxing style and how to improve it based on scientific points of view, always looking for its practical application

On September 24, 1935::

from 6:00 to 7:00 AM Da Quan (boxing) practice“(Ma, Shuojiang Conggao, 2007)

It is clear that for Feng martial arts had two very important components, that is a top notch physical condition, followed by real application for combat. A very different approach to modern competition Wushu and self realization/New Age practices we see today. Feng’s life ended away from his homeland after leaving it at the end of the Second World War. He died (some say he was murdered) while on route to the Soviet Union, in a ship boat fire on 1 September 1948.

Acevedo, W. R., Cheung, M., & Hood, B. (2009). The History of the Central National Arts Academy. Classical Fighting Arts, 42-50.
Chang Dong Sheng: Wrestler Extraordinary . (n.d.). Retrieved from Plumb Publications:
Hsi-Sheng, C. (1976). Warlord Politics in China 1916-1928. Standford: Stanford University Press.
Jun Shi Ji Shi, Ji Nian Chang Cheng Kang Zhan Qi Shi Wu Zhou Nian (2008). [Motion Picture].
Ma, M. (2007). Shuojiang Conggao. Beijing: Zhonghua shu ju.
Ma, M. (2010). Ma Fengtu An Exemplary Martial Arts Scholar. Jounal of Martial Arts Studies, 6-19.
Morris, A. D. (2004). Marrow of the Nation. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Sheridan, J. E. (1966). Chinese Warlord The Career of Feng Yu-hsiang. Standford: Standford University Press.
Wikipedia. (n.d.). Huai Army. Retrieved from
Wikipedia. (n.d.). Zhili Province. Retrieved from


  1. Interesting account of a most eccentric character in modern Chinese history. He baptized the troops with a firehose and pinned a chinese character on the back of every soldier, each day. You were required to memorize the character as you marched and had to write it before getting fed. Nice also to see Chang Deng sheng mentioned as he and my teacher were very close friends throughout their lives.

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