China’s Border Conflicts and Hand to Hand Combat

In the last couple weeks news about growing tensions between China and India in the Galwan Valley, an area disputed by both sides for decades have dominate the headlines. Tensions began to reach a critical point starting in early May 2020 escalating from push and shove, to an all out brawl using improvised weapons. According to Indian military officials, the Chinese forces used iron rods fitted with nails to attack the Indian side. The picture released by the BBC on June 18 2020, show some of these weapons still drenched in what appears to be blood. Troops stationed alongside the border had agreed as far as 1996 not to use explosives or firearms and instead to negotiate before resorting to conflict. However, this is not the first time both countries have been at odds with each other before, in 1962 their armies fought a bitter war along the Tibet, Kashmir, Xinjiang border. The war ended once the PLA reached the limits of the territory China claimed as its own.

This is not an unique event as China has fought to assert claims along its borders in the past, nor the first time hand to hand combat was used due to restrictions/agreements in place to avoid further escalation. The Sino – Russian border clashes that took place from 1968 to 1969 is another example. After the end of WW2, Sino – Russian relations were at all times high. Russian troops defeated the Japanese armies in the north east and return those territories back to China, provided economical, technological and political support during China’s reconstruction. The fact that Mao was also a staunch admirer of Stalin, it all help consolidate the alliance.

Experimental Chinese Hand Combat Manual, 1965. Author’s personal collection

When Stalin died in 1953, his successor Nikita Khrushchev denounced the former leader and made moves for peaceful coexistence with the west. These actions lead to an erosion of Sino – Russian relations in the years that followed, with hostilities along the border. The area of conflict was the Zhenbao/Damanskii Island, where hand to hand fighting took place on a regular basis after the 1960s ideological split and culminated in armed conflict by 1969. There is only one reference we have been able to find that describes in some detail what happened during this period. The narrative in question was written by Mizhou Hui M.D. who wrote two books on Chinese military hand to hand and an article published in 1996 based on the recollections from Hui’s combat teacher (a veteran of the border clashes of the 1960s).

The border agreement made during friendlier times clearly stated that the border would be defined by the main stream of the Ussuri River. However, in the summer of 1968, local flooding had changed the route of the main stream and cut a piece of land from the Chinese side which was later called Zhenbao Island. When winter arrived, frontier guards from both sides met occasionally on the disputed territory. At first, these confrontations were peaceful negotiations but later these oral arguments had escalated to violent confrontations. Most of these physical confrontations resulted in the larger and stronger Soviet soldiers beating their Chinese counterparts and kicking them back to their “border side”. Also, Chinese attempts to photograph these beatings (in order to document it for propaganda) were neutralized by the Soviets as they would have no hesitation beating these “journalists” and taking their film.

However, the Chinese soldiers, being eternally loyal to their “god” Chairman Mao and his revolutionary road, would always return to Zhenbao Island to be beaten again and even die happily for their great leader. This irritated the Soviet troops more but the beatings never did escalate beyond unarmed combat, as both sides feared the consequences of any use of weapons. Hence, these confrontations became known as “group street fights”.

To save face, the Chinese Red Army decided one day to send well trained special forces soldiers from the 49th field army regiment in place of the local frontier guards to deal with the larger Soviets. In addition, the “journalist” had been replaced by a top-ranking instructor of the Special Forces in order to finally document “Soviet aggression”. These Special Forces were taught unarmed combat according to the 1963 version of the unarmed combat handbook of the Chinese Red Army. They were able to easily defeat the Soviet frontier guards in these unarmed “street fights”. From intercepted messages on the Soviet side, it is known that the local Soviet commander reported to his superiors the replacement of the Chinese frontier guards with the formal field army special forces. Their judgment was based on the “new” Chinese troops’ fighting stance, speed, kickboxing, and arm and neck control against Soviet troops. It was apparent to the Soviets what had happened since they were involved in the training of the Chinese just 10 years prior.

In retaliation, the Soviet army decided to deploy their special forces for upcoming “street fights”. The leader of this unit was known as the “Limped Lieutenant” because of his distinguished gait. It was reported that he injured his ankle tendon in combat training during his professional career. Nevertheless, he was still an outstanding boxer and upon his arrival, many Chinese soldiers had their noses broken. It was a common joke among the Chinese troops that “if you should ever meet the Limped Lieutenant in a street fight, you should give up hopes in trying to find a future wife!” meaning that your face would be smashed up and therefore, be unattractive.

Western boxing techniques, especially the front jab, impressed the Chinese. As mentioned earlier, the Chinese Special Forces were trained according to the 1963 manual which taught the use of the rear hand (which was kept low for protection of the groin) for offense and the front hand as a defensive shield. Therefore, the front jab was a totally new concept as was keeping the rear hand high. In addition, during the winter, it was found that kicks were difficult to execute safely because of the terrain and clothing worn. Therefore, the Chinese had lost any superiority with the introduction of Western boxing techniques. This later led the 49th field army to incorporate Western boxing into their unarmed combat skills. This was achieved with the help of a branch of Red Army Intelligence known as the Department of Enemy Studies. Another lesson learnt from these border confrontations was that given equal skills, size of the combatants DOES matter. Therefore, soldiers selected for the Special Forces tend to be larger in stature. In fact, this was how my instructor, Jian Zhou, was originally selected. Given his physical demeanor (ht.=182 cm, wt.=85 kg), having a martial arts/wrestling background, and coming from a military family in Mongolia, selection into the Special Forces was inevitable. In addition, it was discovered that wrestling skills and well-trained attacking skills from behind was very useful during “Group Street fights”. From these lessons, it was decided to develop a better training program for the Chinese soldiers based on application of scientific principles and direct observation in order to compensate for their overall smaller size and strength.

However, in the meantime, the Chinese Special Forces became frustrated with the defeat of their troops in these encounters. One of the junior officers nicknamed “Xiao Shang Dong” (translation “the Shang Dong Kid”) was famous for his martial arts and his skills in the broadsword. It should be noted that Shang Dong is one of the Chinese provinces that many consider the homeland of Chinese martial arts. Xiao Shang Dong had suggested a solution to these humiliating defeats would be to train their soldiers in broadsword techniques. However, in battle, they would use wooden sticks instead of swords so as it (the stick) would not be considered a weapon. His superiors approved of his suggestion. In the ensuing confrontation, Chinese soldiers, with their sticks hidden up their long sleeved jackets, easily chased away their Soviet counterparts who were taken by surprise by the speed and power of their stick techniques. Later on, the Soviets also tried to use sticks. However, their skills were not comparable to the Chinese. In one famous confrontation, an angry and desperate Limped Lieutenant, having just had his arm broken by Xiao Shang Dong, decided to open fire with his handgun in order to survive and protect his troops.

This caused a rapid escalation from both sides using heavy automatic weapons and a blood bath ensued. Oddly enough, the sole survivor of this confrontation was Xiao Shang Dong, despite having 7 shots entering his body from both sides. The Chinese government formally decorated him as “Red Army Hero” and every year on August 1st, he is invited to tell his story to the new soldiers of the 49th field army special forces.

The account while interesting and informative is hard to verify with other unbiased sources. A few points need further scrutiny:

  • The article alludes to the use of western boxing by the Russians surprised the Chinese troops, however boxing was practiced in China as far as 1959 when it was banned. I find interesting the know how was lost, perhaps the fear to be sent to a work camp was enough to swept it aside.
  • The mention of a 1963 manual for troop training, it is hard to validate what manual was used. From our research we have found a few combat manuals most of which are based on Russian material translated into Chinese as WW2 was ending. There is also anecdotal information about the development of hand combat systems like Bu Fu Quan developed in the 1950s being taught even today.
  • The experiences learnt by the Chinese during the Korean war (1950 to 1953) were also applied during the development of early Chinese combat methods afterwards, taking into account the size difference of the combatants. What changes were done after 1953 and the 1969 events when compared to early combat techniques needs further study.
Советско-китайский пограничный конфликт в 1969 году
Sino – Russian Border conflict 1968 – 1969. Chinese troops using their rifles as clubs attack Russian troops. Source: Russia Beyond

We have covered combat training within the PLA in previous posts giving an overview of past and present developments the reader might find interesting. As for the evolving situation between China and India, the latter has released a casualty count making Chinese citizens very upset about the CCP’s lack of information on their own casualties. It is very sad that soldiers of any country are used as political pawns to divert internal attention from government’s failings even if that leads to war. We can only hope this will not escalate to a point of no return where more lives will be lost.

Russian troops with sticks at the Sino – Russian border. Source Russia Beyond

Further Reading

Soviet newsreel

Chinese propaganda film

How China and India Came to Lethal Blows

Anguish slips through Chinese censors on PLA losses

Galwan Valley: Image appears to show nail-studded rods used in India-China brawl

When China and Russia were in conflict

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