Traditional Chinese Medicine and Qigong in the Wing Chun Community


Green bamboo among the fall leaves. Tenryuji Momiji, Japan.  Source: Wikimedia,

 

Martial Arts and Globalization in late 19th and early 20th century China.

In my previous post I proposed a framework for using globalization and the liberalization of China’s economy in the 1980s and 1990s to understand the progressive “medicalization” of the martial arts.  Traditionally fighting styles were viewed as a job skill for those who were interested in a military career, or possibly as a physical culture regime to strengthen and improve the health of the nation’s high school students.  Hand combat instructors were not held in high esteem and society was, in general, quite suspicious of those who espoused and promoted “martial virtue.”  This may have had something to do with their frequent association with youth delinquency and organized crime.  The Cultural Revolution did not help matters.

All of this changed after the rise of Bruce Lee in Hong Kong, and the release of the movie “The Shaolin Temple” in mainland China during the early 1980s.  These positive portrayals of the traditional martial arts on the silver screen (and the general retreat of the state after 1980) opened a space where the martial arts could once again flourish.

Nevertheless, it was not until the 1990s and Qigong’s explosion in popularity that we saw a general movement to “medicalize” the Chinese martial arts.  During the period of rapid economic modernization in the 1960s and 1970s hospitals had been built and a record numbers of people got access to at least some modern, western style, health care.  These treatments were expensive, and when the government decided to switch to a “fee-for-service” healthcare model as part of their economic reforms in the early 1990s the vast majority of the Chinese population found itself without healthcare for the first time in decades.

This combination of loosening rules on entrepreneurship and the denial of medical care to the working class (or anyone who suffered from a chronic condition) led to an explosion of interest in Qigong, a system of health promotion that focused on slightly hypnotic breathing and visualization exercises.  Modern Qigong is mostly the product of a brief period of state support and experimentation in the early 1950s, though it does draw on China’s ancient Taoist and shamanistic practices.

In the current post I would like to extend and enlarge this basic framework by looking at the evolving relationship between Wing Chun and traditional Chinese medicine.  It is well worth remembering that “globalization” is not a recent phenomenon.  It happens any time that there is a rapid increase in trade and social exchange between societies.  In fact, the first great era of globalization actually happened in the late 19th century, exactly the same time that Wing Chun was first coming together as a martial art.

While we often think of China as being isolated and exotic, the truth is that by the middle of the 19th century it was a major player in the increasingly complex trade network that sustained the economies of all of the world’s major economies.  Globalization had just as much of an impact on China in the late 19th and early 20th century as it is having today.  By looking at the evolution of civil society and voluntary associations (such as martial arts groups) social scientists and historians hope to gain a better understanding of how these fundamental economic forces have affected Chinese society in the past, and what they are likely to do in the future.

Why Wing Chun?  Southern China was more quickly integrated into the global economy than the remote northern or western areas of the country.  The commercial and cosmopolitan nature of cities like Shanghai and Guangdong make them a good test bed for theories on globalization.  Further, Wing Chun was deeply enmeshed in economic and social conflicts that accompanied the modernization of Guangdong province.  If we can see the effects of shifting economic fortunes anywhere in the martial arts, it should be here.

Sign for a Chinese Traditional Medicine clinic in the New Territories, Hong Kong.  Source: Russell Judkins.

A Typology of Traditional Chinese Medical Practices

In my previous post on this subject I concentrated almost exclusively on Qigong in the 1990s.  Further, when discussing Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) I treated the category monolithically and defined it in opposition to the western biology based model of medicine.  For the purposes of the current post it is necessary to provide a little additional nuance to our discussion.

There are a number of conventional ways to classify the various branches of TCM and what I am about to propose fits none of them.  Since I am proposing an economic model of TCM’s relationship with the martial arts I found it necessary to develop a typology of various treatments that focused primarily on their mode of social organization and cost to the patient.  This particular typology should help to illuminate a subtle shift in Wing Chun’s evolving relationship with TCM which might otherwise evade our detection.  Readers should note that while the association between TCM and Wing Chun starts strong, fades, and then returns, different treatments are favored in both the first and last periods of the following case study.  Why Wing Chun practitioners favor different types of TCM in the first and third time periods is the critical question that we are seeking to answer.

Briefly we can start by classifying different TCM strategies into two categories.  There are “external” treatments (cures that focus on an agent or remedy that is external to the patient) and “internal” practices (treatments that attempt to regulate some aspect of the patient’s health only through means that are embedded directly in the body or psyche.)

Figure 1: Traditional Chinese Medicine

“External” Treatments

“Internal” Treatments

Herbal Medicine Bone Setting Acupuncture Therapeutic Exercise Qigong (Breathing Exercises)         Neijia Martial Arts (Taijiquan)  Meditation and Visualization

Typical “external” treatments usually involve a visit to a doctor who prescribes an herbal or animal based medicine from China’s vast traditional cornucopia.  Often herbal remedies are prescribed preventatively in an attempt to maintain a favorable homeostasis within the patient’s body.

While probably the most commonly acknowledged branch of TCM, herbalism does have some significant drawbacks from a patient’s point of view.  Many of the ingredients used are very expensive.  Further, there is the general belief that the longer one continues treatment the higher the dose that must be prescribed to maintain the drug’s efficacy.  This is a problem for those with chronic conditions such as arthritis or cancer.  Additionally, there is a growing awareness that some traditional and popular herbal remedies can actually be harmful.

Anyone taking traditional herbal medicines should make sure that they know exactly what is in the preparations they ingest.  Multiple studies in America and Europe have shown that not all of the ingredients in Chinese herbal medicines are always listed or even legal.

The most common herbal preparation used in Wing Chun circles today is Dit Da Jow.  Applied as a topical anti-inflammatory to relieve bruising and swelling, Dit Da Jow can be quite helpful.  However, many traditional practitioners maintain “secret” recipes and the additional ingredients added to these brews are not always effective or even safe.  It is ultimately the patients responsibility verify the ingredients of any traditional medication that they use.

TCM doctors may also prescribe a number of different “external” treatments. Acupuncture uses the insertion of small needles along meridian lines to aid or restore the flow of Qi (the body’s natural energy in TCM).  Alternatively, “cupping” involves vacuum sealing a bowl or cup to different areas of a patient’s body.  Both of these practices are fairly commonly encountered.  While they do not use exotic ingredients they are performed by trained professionals in specialized clinics.  Once again this tends to increase the costs of “external” medical interventions.

More popular in recent years have been “internal” (neijia) treatments.  These practices attempt to heal by focusing on elements embodied within the patient or her psyche.  Breathing exercises (Qigong) are probably the most commonly encountered internal practice.  By focusing intently on their own breath, practitioners hope to gain control over their emotional or physical state.  Breathing exercises have a long history in Chinese medicine.  When accompanied by certain landscape-based visualization exercises they form an important part of Taoist religious ritual and immortality exercises.

The mainland communist government briefly promoted Taiji Quan and other internal practices in the 1950s as they seemed to present an inexpensive and uniquely Chinese alternative to western medicine.  In fact, the term “Qigong” does not appear in the classical Chinese literature at all.  What is so often observed in public parks in China today is a neologism dating to no earlier than the middle of the 20th century.

While there was a brief period of florescence in the 1950s these practices quickly faded as western medical treatments became more widely available.  It wasn’t until the end of the Cultural Revolution in the late 1970s, followed by the privatization of medicine in the late 1980s and early 1990s pricing most consumers out of the market, that Qigong reemerged as a viable healthcare strategy.

This reemergence was aided by the creation of new institutions and traditions that helped these practices to thrive in a modern free-market economy.  In the past spiritual teachers or martial artists who taught Qi manipulation were referred to as “Laoshi” or “Shifu.”  In the public marketplace of the 1990s these figures tended to lose their spiritual and martial orientation and were usually referred to by the term “Daishi” (great teacher).

While some individuals spend a great deal of money on seminar tickets and books, Qigong training is fairly inexpensive.  Almost all approaches to the art emphasize “self-healing.”  Further, the study groups that form around the art can become important social networking and support structures.

Exotic medical ingredients at a market stall for herbalists in Xian. Source: Wikimedia.

Wing Chun and Traditional Chinese Medicine, 1900-1949.

For all of the popular mythology surrounding Ng Moy and the revolutionary opera singers of the Red Boats, it is critical to understand that the first three or four generations of verifiable Wing Chun practitioners were resolutely bourgeois.  Leung Jan was a successful medical practitioner and merchant.  This, much more than his martial arts, was what he was remembered for by the local community.  Likewise Chan Wah Shun took up a medical practice and managed to make a comfortable living between that and his occasional martial arts instruction.

The so called “three Heroes of Wing Chun” (Ip Man, Yuen Kay San and Yiu Choi) were all from wealthy families and did not personally feel the need to work for much of their early adult lives.  Lai Hip Chi fits into the same mold as well.  Other important early Wing Chun students, such as Jiu Chow and Jiu Wan, had coveted jobs with the local branch of the Nationalist Party (GMD) which afforded them time to research and teach the martial arts.

Through the 1930s Wing Chun was overwhelmingly aligned with the landlords of the “new gentry” class and the GMD.  It actively opposed the Hung Sing Association in its efforts to support the Communist party in the Hong Kong strike of the mid-1920s.  While a few working class individuals, such as Pan Nam, did take up the art, such individuals appear to be the exception rather than the rule.  They were also more common late in this period.

In fact, one of the things that makes the history of Wing Chun so interesting is that while most martial arts were popular only among the working poor during the early 20th century, here we have an institution that is consciously aligned with the most wealthy, conservative and even “reactionary” elements of Guangdong society.  Just look at the number of early Wing Chun practitioners who end up working for the police or military.  It is little wonder that the Communists took a dim view of the practice after 1949.

During this period western medicine was still being introduced and it was not yet widely available.  Most Wing Chun students had to rely on TCM.  Luckily Wing Chun was often taught in tandem with a sophisticated school of traditional medicine up through the outbreak of WWII.  After all, two of the art’s founding figures, Leung Jan and Chan Wah Shun, were respected medical professionals.

Given the relative wealth of the Wing Chun community in this period, we would expect them to be able to afford the best healthcare.  At the time the gold standard was herbalism.  This is exactly what Leung Jan, Chan Wah Shun, and later his son Chan Yiu Min, specialized in.  The medical practices of these men focused on the mixing and prescribing of drugs to prevent illness and re-balance the body’s natural homeostasis.  Only wealthy patients would be able to afford this sort of treatment, but that was not generally an issue as that was the social circle that these early Wing Chun masters moved in.  Likewise it was mostly wealthy individuals who could afford Wing Chun instruction between 1900 and 1939.

Clearly these early teachers were knowledgeable about other areas of TCM as well.  Wing Chun has an important Bone Setting tradition (a form of therapeutic massage or chiropractic healing) that dates to this period.  Given the prevalence of sports injuries in martial arts training, this skill has certainly served the Wing Chun clan well.  Further, there is some evidence of older breathing exercises going back to this time period.  The Yuen Kay San lineage has a number of Qi cultivation forms (kidney breathing) that may predate more recent trends in Qigong (more research is needed to confirm this).  Still, it is clear that the major medical emphasis within the Wing Chun clan during this early, and relatively privileged, period was the complex system of traditional herbal medicines.

Ip Man and an early group of students in the 1950s.

Wing Chun and the Fading of the Traditional Chinese Medicine, 1950-1990.

World War Two and the subsequent Japanese occupation did little to promote the fortunes of Wing Chun.  The art did recover somewhat between 1945 and 1949.  Unfortunately, this brief flowering was crushed by the ultimate Communist victory in China’s long running civil war.  The Communists had a lot of reasons to dislike Wing Chun.  This was a violent reactionary art closely tied to the reactionary land owners and rich merchants of Guangdong, their sworn enemies.  Further, a number of individuals in the Wing Chun community (including Ip Man) had served as police officers and detectives at the same time that the GMD was using law enforcement to investigate, interrogate, and even execute suspected Communists.  Not all Wing Chun teachers fled in 1949 (for instance Lai Hip Chi and Sum Num stayed), but Wing Chun was effectively crippled on the mainland.  It would not begin the process of recovery and rebuilding until the 1980s and 1990s.

The situation was different in other places like Hong Kong and Vietnam.  Ip Man managed to start a vibrant Wing Chun community after he fled into exile in 1949.  It is often said that he was the first individual to publically teach Wing Chun.  This commonly repeated assertion is mostly nonsense.  Many individuals had taught very publically before him, but the events of 1949 erased or helped to obscure their legacy.  Nor did they ever achieve the fantastic levels of recognition that Ip Man earned.  From Hong Kong he was in an ideal position to send students abroad at a time when the Chinese martial arts were just starting to trend in the global market.  While Ip Man was not Wing Chun’s first public teacher, he was certainly its most successful.  But what did he teach his students about medicine?

For the most part he seems to have ignored the subject.  The image of Wing Chun that emerged in the 1950s was that of angry young men fighting on rooftops and settling scores in secret challenges matches.  A less charitable reading of this period might instead characterize it as one in Wing Chun was closely linked to street violence and youth delinquency.  That is certainly how the Hong Kong police perceived the situation.

The sorts of students that came to Ip Man in the 1950s were, by in large, not very interested in traditional medicine.  Young people rarely are.  Further, Hong Kong had a relative abundance of high quality modern western medical care.  Certainly some students like Moy Yat and Ip Man’s children (to name just two examples, there were also others) expressed an interest in TCM and learned the old man’s art.  Most, however, did not.

It is remarkable how important health practices were to practitioners in the 1930s and how much they faded in the 1950s and 1960s.  Wing Chun was quickly and efficiently rebranded as a street fighting and self-defense art divorced from the world of traditional Chinese philosophy and cosmology.  It is often said that in Hong Kong Ip Man simplified the teaching system, removing the “five elements” and the “eight directions” as these were no longer helpful metaphors when coaching his modern, urbane, western educated students.  Yet without these metaphors it is impossible to master the complex world of Qi cultivation and traditional herbalism.

Nevertheless, there is one interesting development in this period.  Ip Man’s students and children report seeing him perform Siu Lim Tao very slowly (emphasizing the ‘Three Prayers to Buddha’ chapter) as a form of breathing exercise dedicated to building and (and presumably moving) his Qi.  This may have happened in his lineage in Foshan as well, but I have yet to find any direct reference to it.  It is suggestive to note that breathing exercises are observed in the Ip Man clan for the first time at about the same period that they are being promoted as a form of healthcare for the masses on the mainland.

Still, Qigong did not enter most Wing Chun schools.  To the extent that these practices were acknowledged they were generally treated as being esoteric (or private).  The primary emphasis of the art remained its fighting acumen and not techniques for self-cultivation.

The major exception to this trend was William Cheung’s 1986 book How to Develop Chi Power (Ohara).  The text starts with a basic introduction to Qi and the ideas behind Qigong.  Through a creative historical narrative Cheung managed to attribute the exercises in his book to both the ancient Chinese sages and Bodhidharma (an Indian Buddhist monk revered by some martial artists because of his legendary association with the Shaolin temple).  He then provides a set of simple exercises for building Qi with Wing Chun drills and the Siu Lim Tao form, much as Ip Man is reported to have done.

Cheung’s efforts on this front appear to have been slightly ahead of their time.  However, he was clearly responding to a perceived demand within the broader western Chinese martial arts community for a beginner’s introduction to Qigong training.  I think the most remarkable aspect of this work was how little engagement it received from the broader Wing Chun community.

A Falun Dafa group practicing standing meditation (second exercise) in a public space.

Wing Chun’s Careful Embrace of Qigong, 1990-Present.

The silence with which most Wing Chun instructors treated Qi started to crumble in the early 1990s.  This was just a decade after “Qigong fever” had gripped the newly liberalized mainland and seekers in the west were starting to be reintroduced to the possibilities of TCM through various “New Age” sources.  A survey of works from this period shows that some Wing Chun instructors enthusiastically embraced these trends and the general medicalization of the Chinese martial arts.  Other teachers comment on these events with some reservations.  Lastly, a large faction of Sifus rejected these practices altogether.

One of the more influential Wing Chun books to come out in the 1990s was Wing Chun Kung Fu: Traditional Chinese Kung Fu for Self Defense and Healing by Ip Chun and Michael Tse (New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 1998).  This short work ends with a chapter on Qigong practice in Wing Chun, advising students of the health benefits of regular and dedicated breathing practice.  They are instructed that this is best achieved by slowly working through Siu Lim Tao.

This opinion, however, does not seem to be shared equally by both authors.  Michael Tse, who wrote the English text of the book, is much more enamored with Qigong than his teacher and coauthor.  In fact, Tse founded a successful magazine in 1990 that ran for 20 years and actively promoted the mixing of a variety of martial arts (including Wing Chun) with the latest medical trends emerging out of China. The back issues of Qi Magazine (available for free online) are a wonderful resource for those interested in the growth of the market for TCM within the western martial arts community.

Ip Chun’s thoughts on these trends seem to be more faithfully flushed out in another work co-authored with Danny Connor, Wing Chun Martial Arts: Principles & Techniques (San Francisco: Weiser Books, 1993).  In an interview published in this text Ip Chun briefly explains the structure of Qigong and addresses its recent rise in popularity.  He advises his students that there are subtle pitfalls to the art including charlatans and he even alluded to “Qigong sickness,” a type of psychosis that became relatively common in Chinese mental hospitals after the massive movement towards TCM in the early 1990s.

This should not be interpreted to mean that Ip Chun thought that students should ignore the more subtle aspects of the art.  Instead, what he found most useful was the meditative elements of Chi Sau (sticking hands) and how this exercise encouraged students to develop not just their reflexes, but their mind.  Chi Sao requires absolute focus.  Ip Chun argued that it was this meditative focus and the light aerobic workout of Chi Sao that was the key to Wing Chun’s health benefits, not Qigong per se.

These subtle warnings do not seem to have had much of an impact on the growth of Qigong in western Wing Chun circles.  As the 1990s slipped into the 2000s, (and the psychological stresses of late capitalism mounted) there has been growing interest in the “healing” aspect of the art.  While this healing-discourse is usually understood as applying to chronic conditions in mainland China, in the West there seems to be a strong tendency to psychologize or spiritualize the rejuvenation that is expected.

Of course this is not universal.  While traditional herbalism has mostly disappeared from the Wing Chun community, there are still a number of lineages within the Ip Man family that teach the Bone Setting techniques.  These were initially understood as offering immediate physical relief from muscular or skeletal problems.  However, when combined with Qi cultivation and the idea of a “master’s healing touch” this starts to resemble the sort of thing that Nancy Chen described in detail during the 1990s (Breathing Spaces: Qigong, Psychiatry and Healing in China.  Columbia University Press: 2003).

Samuel Kwok typifies some of the possibilities and dilemmas that the medicalization of the Chinese martial arts presents.  A student of both Ip Chun and Ip Ching, Kwok has promoted himself as a representative and guardian of the “orthodox” approach to Ip Man’s Kung Fu.  His personal webpage never mentions Qi or Qigong.  Likewise, his major publication never discusses Qigong (Kwok and Massengill.  Mastering Wing Chun. Los Angeles: Empire Books. 2007).

However, Samuel Kwok has gone out of his way to cultivate a following based on his skills in the medical arts, including both Qi transfer and Bone Setting.  His skills in this area are promoted through special seminars advertised by his martial arts students, separate webpages, word of mouth and worshipful testimonials.

Much of this material seems quite alien to the traditional Wing Chun discourse that developed from the 1950s-1970s.  However, Kwok’s image in the medical realm follows the pattern for other “Daishi” established by Chen in her study of the spread of medical Qigong.

It is my general impression that the presence of Qigong in the Wing Chun community is increasing.  It seems that western students are ever more interested in “original” or “authentic” forms of Wing Chun.  This obsession with identity formation is in many respects symptomatic of the subtle social and economic dislocations of globalization.  As traditional markers of identity slip away, individuals rationally seek something else as an anchor in an increasingly hostile world.  The same forces that create the demand for “historical authenticity” in the Wing Chun community also open it to the healing discourse of modern medical Qigong.

These trends can also be seen outside of the Ip Man lineage.  Eddy Chong learned a form of Qigong from Pan Nam during his visits to Foshan in the early 1990s (the highpoint of the Qi bubble).  He now teaches these in his own school.  Likewise the Yuen Kay San clan is justly proud of their older breathing exercises, each with its own unique form, which may predate the current Qigong trend.

Tall buildings in the fog, New Territories, Hong Kong. Source: Russell Judkins.

Conclusion: Wing Chun, Qigong and the Global Economy.

The theory presented above and in my previous post does a good job of explaining the trends seen in Wing Chun’s evolving relationship with Traditional Chinese Medicine.  In its earliest incarnation between 1900 and 1940, Wing Chun was an overwhelming bourgeois pursuit.  TCM was important to the community as there were few, if any, alternatives in Foshan.  These treatments usually took the form of expensive herbal treatments.

Later from 1950-1990 Wing Chun moved in a modernist and reformist direction.  Much of the traditional Chinese philosophy that had been in Wing Chun was stripped out, especially within the Ip Man lineage.  This made the transmission of TCM difficult.  The availability of Western medicine and the youth of the student body made Wing Chun’s medical heritage a much less valuable commodity.  While a few students took up the study, most appear to have had little interest in the subject.

Finally, from 1990 to the present there has been a steady increase in TCM and Qigong in the Wing Chun community.  Spurred on by the explosion of Qigong practices in China, and fueled by promises of physical and spiritual healing, western Wing Chun students have started to demand Qigong training of their own.  This desire has been met with caution by some teachers, but others have embraced the trends seen in China with greater enthusiasm.  While TCM once again plays an important role in the Wing Chun community, it now takes a different form than it did between 1900 and 1940.

None of these changes were primarily driven by variables within the Wing Chun community.  Instead this case is a good example of how martial arts movements evolve and react to economic and global pressures.  It is impossible to understand any fighting or medical tradition without looking at the social and economic systems it is embedded in.

“Wing Chun: A Documentary” directed by Jon Braeley

***Greeting readers, and thank you for your continued patience.  Today we are going to revisit a review of a Wing Chun documentary that I wrote back in the Fall of 2012. This turned out to be one of two break out posts that really put Kung Fu Tea on the map, so its fun to go back and revisit it now.  This is still a great documentary, check it out if you have not done so. Enjoy!***

Empty Mind Films has produced some of the highest quality and most engaging martial arts documentaries seen anywhere in the last few years.  They are a small organization, and as a result they are selective about the projects they take on.  Luckily we seem to be on the same wave length.

They have also devoted substantial time and effort to documenting the Chinese martial arts.  It has been my personal experience (from traveling in Asia) that it is relatively easy to find interesting martial arts in Japan and they have shot some good stuff there.  China presents an entirely different set of challenges, and this is where they really shine.  Their film on the Chen village and Chen style taiji is a classic.  It is mandatory viewing for anyone interested in Chinese martial studies or the state of Taiji today.  I would not hesitate to use that film in a university level classroom.

I think they may have come close to the same level of excellence with their most recent martial arts themed release Wing Chun: A Documentary.  While filmed exclusively in Hong Kong and Foshan this study of the modern hand combat system sought to explore the diversity of thought and practice arising from the teachings of Ip Man.  He was an active instructor in Hong Kong from the early 1950s until his death in 1972.  All of the individuals who were interviewed for this film were associated with the Ip Man Wing Chun clan, either as direct descendants, students or grand-students.

Many individuals in the broader Wing Chun world will find this editorial direction limiting, and possibly offensive.  There was no discussion of non-Ip Man lineages, let alone non-Leung Jan lineages of Wing Chun.  The story of the art’s origin was told in a simple and direct way that supports the supremacy of the Ip Man Wing Chun clan.  Viewers are told that the art resided with Leung Jan who had only one student, Chan Wah Shun.  While many people taught Wing Chun in Foshan in the 1930s, what they did was different from the art that Ip Man spread to the world from his schools in Hong Kong.  Wing Chun as the world knows it today is a result of Ip Man’s innovations in the 1950s.

One can only assume that the makers of this film must have known they were bound to upset the Yuen Kay-San Wing Chun clan, among many others.  Nevertheless, I suspect that this editorial slant is largely correct.  While there are certainly lineages of Wing Chun being taught today that do not want to associate themselves with Ip Man, the truth is that he single handedly created the entire global demand for the art that we recognize today.  He did this by training hundreds of students, including Bruce Lee.

In a very real way Ip Man set the terms for the global discussion of Wing Chun that is still unfolding.  He codified the values, set the standards and decided which aspects of China’s complex martial heritage were best adapted to a modern, urban, middle class market.  Ip Man single handedly trained an entire generation of exceptionally talented martial artist that would bring his art to North America, Europe and even back to mainland China.  Without his innovations in Hong Kong in the 1950s, and the rise of Bruce Lee to superstardom in the 1970s, it is exceedingly unlikely that anyone would be interested in seeking out any of the non-Ip Man lineages that seem to be so valuable today.  In a very real sense they exist only because he existed first, and they define themselves in reference to the model he established.  So yes, the story of Wing Chun after 1949 really is the story of the social community that Ip Man gathered around himself in Hong Kong and its subsequent explosion on the world stage.

Overall the production values of the documentary are sound and the videography was always good, and occasionally great.  A few minor criticisms can be made.  I found the pacing to be a little slow in places.  The extra features were also quite brief and could have used more depth and development.  They appeared to be mostly an afterthought and contributed little to the overall presentation of the story.  I had hoped for more here.

On the other-hand, I quite liked how the documentary progressed and presented itself to the audience.  The director was not afraid to let the individual masters he interviewed tell their own stories on their own terms.  A majority of the screen time was dedicated to simply watching class room mechanics and instructions in a number of different schools throughout Hong Kong.  I am sure that this material will surprise a lot of martial artists used to more regimented and formal decorum of Korean or Japanese schools.

The exploration of modern Wing Chun starts off with a visit to the VTAA headquarters in Kowloon and includes interviews with both Ip Ching (the younger son of Ip Man) and James Jar (current Chair of the VTAA).  All of this information is very interesting.  Next they visited the school of Donald Mak (a student of Chow Tze Chuen) who discusses his own understanding of why Wing Chun is a principal based art.

Ip Ching, the younger son of Ip Man, discussing Chi Sao techniques with a teenage student at the VTAA headquarters in Hong Kong.

The narrative then turns to a branch of the Leung Sheung clan who have just opened a school in Mongkok.  Leung Sheung was one of Ip Man’s most skilled students.  He in turn taught Ng Wah Sum, who recently died.  Some of Ng’s senior students have opened a school in his honor and Sifu Leung Ngor Yin and Sifu Jason Fung put on a spirited Chi Sau and Chi Girk demonstration.

After that the film heads back across the ferry to the Central District where it drops in on a Wing Chun class being taught in an upscale health club run by Australian expatriates, Sifu Nima and co-owner Heather Hogan.  Nima is a student of Chu Shong Tin (the eldest remaining Hong Kong era student of Ip Man), and shares his master concern for the role of the mind and intentionality in Wing Chun.  While the class was mostly dedicated to beginners there was quite a bit of enthusiasm and even a classic “the time I got in a fight” story.  I have often thought about the role of this sort of personal narrative (one is tempted to compare it to religious witnessing or testimony) in creating identity and attachment with the art.

The next Sifu interviewed was Kong Chi Keung in the Wanchai neighborhood.  Kong’s teaching style included a lot of discussion and lecture.  His personal philosophy was somewhat eclectic and embraced borrowing and innovation, topics that were a matter of some concern to a number of other teachers (more on that later).  As if to reinforce this impression, his school displayed a number of Lion Dance heads.  While alive, Ip Man explicitly discouraged his students from becoming involved in Lion Dancing because of its association with criminality and the extortion of local shop keepers.  I know for a fact that Ip Ching still has the same attitude about Wing Chun schools and Lion Dancing today.

Perhaps the most interesting segment of the show was the visit to Master Sam Lau’s Wing Chun school and hostel on Nathan Road at the tip of Kowloon.  I was pretty impressed with what I saw here.  Most of the students were visitors, only staying for a month or so to take Master Lau’s “intensive” course.  That fact not withstanding he had them engaged in serious Chi Sao and everyone the camera turned to looked pretty solid.  Clearly they weren’t all experts, but they were working hard, their energy was good and you could just feel the intensity in the room.  I am definitely putting his school on my list of places to visit.  Of all of the classes that the show profiled his seemed to be closest to my own experience in Wing Chun.

Lastly the documentary heads back up the Pearl River to Foshan, the ancestral home of Wing Chun, Ip Man and Bruce Lee.  In fact, Wing Chun barely scratches the surface of this small city’s martial heritage.  A lot of my own recent research focuses on the economic and social development of Foshan as a handicraft center in the Qing dynasty in an attempt to better understand what made some market towns, but not others, incubators for the martial arts.

Rather than answer that question the film focused on the Ip Man Museum built on the grounds of the Foshan ancestral temple.  The segment was well shot and gave the feeling of actually being there.

This was followed by an interview with Lun Kai at the Sim Wing Martial Club in downtown Foshan.  Lun Kai was among Ip Man’s first students when he made his initial foray into teaching the martial arts at a friend’s cotton factory in 1941.  I thought that some of Lun Kai’s comments were quite interesting.  He seemed to indicate that already in 1941 Ip Man’s Wing Chun was different from what was being taught elsewhere in Foshan.  This really makes one wonder how early Ip Man began his reform process and what inspired him to do so.

It also gives one pause for thought as almost nothing being taught in that school was actually identifiable as “Wing Chun” to me, given my “modern” post-Ip Man vantage point.  The angles and pressures looked tortured.  It wasn’t clear what the intentionality behind the movements were.  If this was a reflection of Ip Man’s Wing Chun from the 1940s, which had already diverged from what was generally taught in the 1930s, it makes one really wonder what “traditional” Wing Chun would have looked like?  Once again, the modern understanding of the Wing Chun really begins with the thinking and innovation of one individual.  Even earlier stages of his own teaching seem oddly distant.

The director and editor of the film went to some lengths not to impose too much narrative direction on all of this material.  Even the film’s narration shows a light touch, keeping explanation of what is seen on screen to the bare minimum.  Still, some themes did emerge.  As I stated earlier, it is clear that they see the story of the Wing Chun and the story of the community of practitioners built by Ip Man as one and the same.

They also seemed to be impressed with the variety of different approaches to the teaching of the same art.  This diversity was most obvious at the philosophical level, with some teachers embracing globalization and change, and others hanging back.  But it also came up at the commercial level.  It was clear that not everyone had the same business plan.  Teachers operated out of larger associations, collective partnerships, health clubs and small, hole in the wall, schools.  Master Sam Lau even seems to make as much money from running a hostel dedicated to Wing Chun pilgrims as he does actually teaching.

Even more interesting were the strains of thought and argument that seemed to arise, almost spontaneously, from the many interviews they conducted.  By the end of the documentary there was a real sense of dialogue within the Ip Man clan.  Much of this dialogue was concerned with thorny questions of authenticity, identity and change in the face of a rapidly growing global movement.

Only one of the Sifus interviewed in the movie was of western origin, but it did not seem lost on any of the masters that the vast majority of teachers and students today live outside Hong Kong and are not Chinese.  Most of them are in Europe and North America where being in the third generation of local instruction is now pretty common.  While most of these individuals have no primary connection to Hong Kong or the Chinese ethnicity, they remain very dedicated to Wing Chun.  Increasingly it is their buying power and tourism dollars that are driving the development of the global Wing Chun movement.

Truth be told, many of these western practitioners are extremely good at what they do.  It was certainly neat to see all of the different schools in Hong Kong.  But I wasn’t really awed by anything I saw.  I have seen instruction, understanding and chi Sao that was just as good, if not better, right here in the United States.

Nor is the US even the epicenter for Wing Chun in the west.  There is clearly a lot more interest in Wing Chun in the UK and some parts of Europe than there is anywhere else in the world.  If the beating heart of Wing Chun is anywhere, it is certainly not located in Foshan or even Hong Kong.  Instead it’s metaphorical soul can probably best be found in the cold industrial cities of the UK, or maybe Germany.

This is both a blessing and a problem.  On the one hand it means that Wing Chun is unlikely to ever be threatened with extinction again the way it was during the dark years of the Boxer Rebellion (when all Chinese martial arts became deeply unfashionable) and then again after 1949 (when the Chinese Communist Party noticed the unique relationship that existed between Wing Chun and membership in the “new gentry” class).  The survival of the art finally seems assured.

On the other hand this is quite a problem.  So many martial arts have left their traditional homeland and entered the global market place only to be changed beyond the point of recognition.  How does Wing Chun spread itself around the world without losing its soul?

Specifically, how do we insure that this will remain Ip Man’s community, built on and promoting his insights and understanding of the Chinese martial arts?  Almost every speaker addressed this question, and some did so at length.

For Sifu Donald Mak, Wing Chun must always remain a Chinese art because it was built on a conceptual foundation that westerners simply cannot easily understand or accept.  If they wish to really understand the art it is necessary was for them to “come to china” in their thought, adapting themselves to Wing Chun’s mother culture.   His comments seemed to anchor the conservative side of the spectrum.

Sifu Nima and Sifu Kong Chi Keung were the least bound to tradition.  Both have a firm grounding in traditional Ip Man Wing Chun, yet both feel that the art must be open to adaptation to survive.  For Sifu Nima that means going further even that Chu Shong Tin in conceptualizing and teaching Wing Chun as an “internal” martial art (something I have argued against here).  Whatever the historical and philosophical problems with this move, it certainly seems to be popular among a certain group of western students.

Kong Chi Keung goes in exactly the opposite direction.  He has thought deeply about Jeet Kune Do, Thai Kick Boxing and Brazilian Jujitsu, all arts that are popular in the west.  He notes quite correctly that the martial arts landscape is changing quite rapidly right now and believes that Wing Chun must learn from these other arts and adapt in order to survive.

But how do you set the boundaries?  When have you adapted yourself out of your art and your community?  This is not an easy question to answer.  Ip Ching and Sam Lau address this paradox the most explicitly.   Both argue that Ip Man’s Kung Fu was genuine, and adherence to his principals remains the litmus test for “authentic” Wing Chun.  And yet both freely admit that what he did was also original.  It bore little resemblance to what was taught in Foshan and was a product of his life, experience and thought.  Authenticity is a difficult concept for all of these masters.  They all want to talk about it, to wrestle with it.  Still, there is a universal acknowledgement that it is not enough of a foundation to justify any given approach to the art.

“Adaptation” itself is not a problem.  Learning from your own experience and adapting your fighting style accordingly is not only a good idea, it’s a foundation concept for all of Wing Chun.  In a real sense it is where Wing Chun came from.  But clearly not all change is desirable or positive.

For Ip Ching the red-line appears to be intentionally lying about, or misrepresenting what Ip Man taught. This was a real problem in the early stages of Wing Chun’s globalization. During this phase the main body of students in Hong Kong were unaware of the claims that some of their brothers were making in the west.  Lack of English skills and no universally read publications allowed Leung Ting to claim to be the heir to Ip Man when clearly he was not.  More damaging to the reputation and growth of the art were individuals like Duncan Leung and William Cheung who made exaggerated and highly dubious claims about their “special status” and the “secret teachings” that only they were given, in an attempt to undercut the legitimacy of other Ip Man students.

Ip Ching and others roundly and forcefully rebutted this entire category of claims at multiple points in the documentary.  They pointed out that those who made such claims are not only wrong, but they totally misrepresent the most basic and fundamental aspects of Ip Man’s life, personality and teaching philosophy.  So clearly attempts to re-write Ip Man’s story in one’s own image are beyond the pale of what the community will accept.

Yet as Sam Lau reminds us, most of the problems that emerge in a global martial arts movement are more subtle.  They are expressed in slipping standards, eccentric personal philosophies or creeping adoption of outside material to meet the demands of a local market.  His solution to all of this is as simple as it is sweeping.  In his view there should be an international regulatory body that can determine what Wing Chun is, and should set clear standards for practice, advancement and licensing.

It is an interesting idea.  Lots of Japanese and Korean arts do exactly this.  Interestingly Chinese ones tend not to.  Why?  I suspect it has something to do with the social structure of the traditional Chinese arts.  They don’t facilitate a lot of trust or mutual reliance across party lines.

Every Wing Chun school already operates as a cell and is basically self-sufficient.  Given that the art has never been more popular, I doubt many individuals will be all that keen to pay the immense start-up costs, and surrender the personal freedom to run their own schools, that such a solution would entail.  And then there is the small issue of trust.  No one would ever trust someone from outside their own lineage and clan to run such an organization.  Regulatory bodies like this just make too convenient a club to beat your enemies with.  His proposed body is just never going to happen, even though other arts do quite well in this sort of institutional setting.

By the end of this documentary I was proud of the community that Ip Man had created.  He started a conversation about the nature of the Chinese martial arts in the modern world that is still going on today.  But the future seems cloudy.  While something called “Wing Chun” will continue to exist, I was less clear as to what it will look like.

Still, I do not foresee any immediate crisis.  Ip Man was successful because he asked his students a compelling question.  When we dedicate our minds and bodies to the practice of Wing Chun we are formulating our own answer, becoming part of the conversation that he started.  It doesn’t look like we are in any danger of running out of things to say just yet.  I suspect that Wing Chun will survive as a unified social community for as long people find Ip Man’s innovations relevant and his conversation gripping.

Wing Chun is one of the most popular martial arts to emerge from China.  It is surpassed only by Taiji in terms of total students in the global community.  Given the size of this potential market I have always been shocked that there is so little good media for Wing Chun practitioners.  I highly recommend this film.  It is topical and makes a valuable contribution to the conversation about Ip Man’s stature and place in the art today.  Wing Chun: A Documentary should be on your viewing list.  This film was directed by Jon Braeley and Betty Yuan.  It is 75 minutes in length and is distributed by Empty Mind Films.  You can order your copy here.

“Wing Chun: A Documentary” is produced and distributed by Empty Mind Films. It was directed by Jon Braeley and runs 75 minutes.

Chinese Martial Arts in the News: September 21, 2020: Mulan Struggles, Return of the Guandao, and the Future of Kung Fu Tea

Introduction

It has been over a months since our last news update. For new readers, this is a semi-regular feature here at Kung Fu Tea in which we review media stories that mention the traditional fighting arts. In addition to discussing important events, this column also considers how the Asian hand combat systems are portrayed in the mainstream media.

While we try to summarize the major stories over the last month, there is always a chance that we may have missed something. If you are aware of an important news event relating to the TCMA, drop a link in the comments section below.

Lastly, this month’s news update ends with an important announcement about the blog.  Thanks for your patience.

Mulan

It is surprising how often a single event dominates the monthly news cycle for Chinese martial arts. This time the clear leading story was the release, and subsequent struggles, of Disney’s long awaited live action Mulan project. As most theaters in the US are still closed, or operating on a very limited basis, the studio decided to release the project on their Disney+ streaming service for an additional $30 fee.  Needless to say, that decision generated all sorts of controversy, and more followed quickly including renewed calls to boycott the film after consumers began to question the ethics of filming in a region of China where Uighurs Muslims are being detained in large numbers.

Mulan received an even more hostile reception in China (an increasingly important market for American films) where audiences felt that it suffered from wooden performances and cringeworthy cultural tropes, despite its obvious efforts to pander to Chinese audiences. The general consensus seems to be that the new project is a step backward from the beloved animated classic.  All of this is terrible news for Disney in a year when they badly needed a financial win. But it did generate a fair amount of discussion on topics related to the Chinese martial arts!

One of the more positive treatments of the film can be found in this piece on its co-star Donnie Yen who is “proud of the richness of Chinese culture, and celebration of family” in Mulan.

Action star Donnie Yen gets the chance to dazzle us on the big screen with his martial arts skills in Disney’s “Mulan.” But he had a very personal reason for wanting to be part of this movie. The veteran actor said he is completely familiar with the story; first, as part of Chinese lore. Secondly… because his daughter loved the 1998 animated movie!

“She grew up watching with me, ‘Mulan,’” said Yen. “We sang the songs over 100 times!”

More typical of the ensuring frustration was this conversation in South China Morning Post, which noted that Disney is just one US company to be called out for missteps regarding human rights in Xinjiang.  Alternatively, a reviewer in the Observer called Mulan “A mess of hollow representation and real-world controversy.”

More interesting than the reviews of the film itself were some of the stories that it inspired.  We might call these “Mulan adjacent” essays.  The first of these, published on the National Geographic webpage, provides a surprisingly indepth overview of Chinese martial arts history.  With the assistance of Dr. Johnathan Clements, who has been a talking head on a number of National Geographic projects, it touches on everything from General Qi Jiguang, the Maiden of Yue, Shaolin, the Shaw Brothers and (of course) Bruce Lee. At this this point my main question is, how does one get on the interview list for these sorts of things?

Equally interesting is this piece in the South China Morning Post modestly titled “Forget Mulan: meet Khutulun, Mongolia’s undefeated wrestling princess, Genghis Khan’s great-great-granddaughter and Turandot inspiration.” So far as a summery goes, the title pretty much says it all.

Rather than folk fable, the Mongolian warrior princess Khutulun was quite real and had the body count and fearsome reputation to prove it. She was the daughter of Kaidu Khan and great-great-granddaughter of Genghis, a cousin of Kublai Khan who would found China’s Yuan dynasty.

Chinese Martial Arts in the News

Earlier in the year we saw accounts of deadly skirmishes along the China-India boarder between groups of soldiers using improvised weapons and spiked clubs in an area where the use of firearms was prohibited by a treaty between the two countries.  Apparently tensions in the region have flared up once again, and Chinese soldiers have now augmented their arsenal with quickly made guangdao and spears. This story has been getting a lot of coverage both globally and in India.  For instance, Forbes magazine notes that “China May Be Arming Its Soldiers With Medieval Halberds To Fight India.”

Forget tanks and jet fighters. Chinese soldiers may have found a new weapon to battle the Indian army: medieval-style halberds.

Photos have surfaced that purportedly show Chinese troops in Tibet carrying polearms. Chinese soldiers in modern battle gear – including body armor and helmets – are seen holding long sticks topped with curved blades that resemble machetes. Presumably the weapons are meant to be used against Indian soldiers, with whom China has fought recent border clashes.

Not all of the news has been so grim.  Asian One ran a story on the growing popularity of Shuai Jiao, or traditional jacketed wrestling, in the Beijing area.

Chinese wrestling is making a return thanks to a veteran of the fighting sport.

At an indoor facility in downtown Beijing, a group of young enthusiasts was recently training and practicing the traditional martial art of shuai jiao, which is little known outside China.

As usual, there have been a fair number of “public diplomacy” stories in which the promotion of fighting arts is used as a way of strengthening, or celebrate, cultural ties between countries. The government run China Daily reported that “Martial arts supplies from China delight Romanians.” I thought that this story was interesting as one of the beneficiaries of this diplomatic largess was a Wing Chun school.  Generally speaking, these sorts of efforts favor official Wushu programs and sometimes community Taijiquan classes.  I don’t think I can recall seeing a Wing Chun school discussed in this context before.

Despite the prevailing pandemic, Romanian people’s passion for Chinese martial arts hasn’t faded. Recently, about 200 pieces of equipment for the sport were sent to many clubs in Romania, in large packages with “Friendship Lasts Forever” printed on the side.

-Interesting to see that in addition to the expected Wushu organizations a Wing Chun club was also the recipient of some of this gear.  We don’t as often see these sorts of folk styles being included in these programs.

Likewise, the Shanghai Daily news enthusiastically reported that a “Sword-wielding 17-year-old cuts a new path in martial arts world.” A fair amount of this report was actually on Wushu’s continued attempts to enter the Olympic arena, with some biography towards the end.

In January this year, the International Olympic Committee confirmed that wushu would make its debut as an official sport at the 2022 Dakar Youth Olympic Games.

“It’s exciting news for martial arts lovers, because it’s a good chance to make more people aware of this wonderful sport, and we hope it features at the summer Olympic Games one day,” said Wang Liang, chief range officer of the Ningxia championship. “More teenagers are engaged in martial arts competitions nowadays, and their competitiveness is improving daily.”

Who are the “Seven Best Taiwanese Martial Artists Masters of all Time?”  Click the link to find out!  Unfortunately this is more a list than an actual collection of biographies.  Still, it could be a great jumping off point for future exploration.  And yes, Cheng Man-Ch’ing does make the list.

Every once and a while, you run a cross an article that is a lot more detailed than you were expecting.  Such is the case with this breakdown of the various unarmed fighting styles practiced and implied throughout the Karate Kid saga at the Den of Geeks. If you are a fan of the franchise be sure to check this out!

More disappointing was this reprint of stories on martial arts in Hong Kong in the South China Morning Post.  While this is one of my favorite topics, I am not entirely thrilled to see a somewhat deceptive discussion of how Hong Kong (and Bruce Lee) is the true origin point for modern MMA. The city’s martial arts history is fascinating on its own without trying to pander in this way. But I have already critiqued a couple of these articles elsewhere so there is no need to repeat myself here.

Next up in the pop culture category, we have a new video game out of China staring the Monkey King.  On a technical level the gameplay in this looks great, but the project may also have added significance for students of Martial Arts Studies. Over the last decade video-games have become as an increasingly important vector for introducing all sorts of people to martial arts imagery, essentially supplanting the role of television as a pop-culture incubator. With increased competition between China and America in all sorts of cultural and tech spaces, this may be a potentially important story to watch.

Still shot of Bruce Lee in the opening scene of “Enter the Dragon.”

Next we have a couple of feature on the Little Dragon. What is better than a discussion of Bruce Lee in ForbesA Discussion of Bruce Lee and James Bond!  Second, the exhibition “Bruce Lee: Kung Fu, Art, Life” at the Hong Kong Heritage Museum has been extended to 2026.  The exhibit is also going to be restaged and expanded in 2021, and will continue to feature more that 600 Lee-related items, including 400 on loan from the Bruce Lee Foundation in the United States. I was planning on heading to Hong Kong this summer (thanks COVID-19!), but I guess I will now have plenty of time to check it out in the next couple of years.

Its facebook time!

News About the Kung Fu Tea

I recently accepted a job working with one of the federal government’s COVID-19 relief programs.  Needless to say, this isn’t what I anticipated I would be doing at the start of the year, but given that it has become difficult to travel for my research, or even visit library collections, this seems like a good use of the next six months or so. As a professional political economist I am really looking forward to getting a granular view of what is happening in the economy and society.

All of that is great news. The downside is that I am about to become very busy as I immerse myself in this new, 60+ hours a week, venture. Sadly, this means that I will have less time for blogging.

I am hesitant to declare the blog on hiatus as I hope to work on the occasional post once things settle down and I can establish a new schedule.  I also have a few guest posts and reviews lined up. Still, I expect that regular readers will note a marked decrease in the frequency of my posts over the next few months. WordPress tells me that I have published well over 800 posts (or 3.2 million words) at Kung Fu Tea since 2012, and I am guessing that no one has actually read more than a fraction of that material. As such, I will also be republishing some of my favorite pieces from the archives during this time just to keep things fresh.

I would like to thanks all of you for your support over the last eight years, without which this never would have been possible. A special note of thanks also goes to my wife Tara for her long  suffering and editing much of this material. It is amazing to see how much the field of Martial Arts Studies has grown in that time. I look forward to a return to regular blogging and research soon.