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.

Attack of the Wooden Dummies!

Porcine style boxing has traditionally favored the use of really big stone dummies.

***This was one of the more popular posts I wrote during the first year of KFT (2012).  I still love talking about, and training with, wooden dummies. What better training companion can you have in the middle of cold weather and COVID-19?  Also, the above image of pigs at the Ming Tombs remains one of my favorite photos ever posted on the blog.***

One of the most iconic images in the annals of Kung Fu training is that of the lone student, lost in the zen-like practice of his wooden dummy routine.  Dummies of various sorts and sizes have a long history in Chinese boxing.  Kang, in his timeline of the development of the Chinese martial arts, notes that legends and references to their use in military training date back to the 12th century BCE (Spring and Autumn of the Chinese Martial Arts, 1995. pp. 22).

In their simplest form a dummy might consist of a single living tree or planted pole which a practitioner can walk around (practicing entry), kick and strike.  If one accepts trees or simple posts as dummies then they are ubiquitous throughout the Chinese martial landscape.

However, legend also speaks of more sophisticated, or even diabolical, wooden combat machines.  A common story (dating to the second half of the 19h century) states that the southern Shaolin temple had a hall of ingeniously designed wooden fighting machines.  Rather than being totally reactive these machines could also take the offensive.  One could not graduate (and leave) the temple’s training program without being able to make it across the training hall.  This image of a training hall full of automated and dangerous wooden dummies lives on in modern folklore as anyone who has seen the recent children’s film Kung Fu Panda is aware.

A modern adaptation of the legendary Shaolin “Hall of the Wooden Dummy Men.”

In modern times (from the middle of the 19th century on) the wooden dummy has been markedly more popular in southern, and to a lesser extent coastal eastern, China.  Nor will we be surprised to learn that this is also where the legend of the Shaolin hall of the wooden dummy men first emerged (before being popularized throughout the Chinese cultural sphere—See Hamm (2005), Paper Swordsmen, chapter 1).  Most of this post will focus on those areas where the greatest number and variety of dummies are found.

Before going on it might be useful to develop a typology of dummies.  For the most part training dummies break down into two categories.  There are those that focus on stepping and balance, and those that emphasize striking (either to improve technique or conditioning.)

Watch Your Step: Plum Blossom Poles

Stepping dummies are more wide spread than their striking cousins.  While not all styles use them, “plum blossom poles” are currently seen in all regions of China.  They are often employed by Plum Blossom Boxers (Meihua quan) in Shandong, Henan and in the north. Additionally, they are also an absolute fixture in a number of styles in Fujian and Taiwan, as well as commonly encountered in Guangdong and Hong Kong.  The wide spread adoption of this technology probably says something about its relatively ancient origins and the ease with which such training devices can be constructed.

Traditionally a field of plum blossom poles (I am using the approximate English translation to avoid confusion as the Chinese name varies between dialects, regions and styles) was comprised of a group of two meter long posts, approximately 10-14 cm in width, that were set firmly halfway into the ground.  The number and pattern in which these are laid out can vary quite a bit.  Often in modern southern martial arts only five poles will be used, replicating the five blossom of a plum flower, but more elaborate fields of a dozen poles or more are fairly common.  Additionally the height of the poles is sometimes kept even and sometimes staggered depending on the requirements of a given school.  If the posts are made high enough it is not uncommon to see students also using them as a striking target (for both hands and feet) while they are standing on the ground.  In fact, I have often wondered if this wasn’t the actual origin of the three posted kicking dummy seen in some Wing Chun schools today.

A martial artists using a field of plum blossom poles.

Different sorts of “portable poles” have been constructed over the years.  Esherick (Origins of the Boxer Uprising, 1985) reports that in the late 19th century Plum Blossom Boxing instructors would travel between temple festivals and marketplaces in Northern China after the wheat harvest to demonstrate their skills, meet old friends and recruit students (pp. 148-149).  Small benches, pots and other mundane objects were occasionally employed in these demonstrations of martial and acrobatic prowess.

Training on the plum blossom poles is still common today in a variety of schools.  It has a number of benefits but the most obvious are better balance and greater precision in stepping and turning.  Working on the poles can also build leg and core strength.

The Invincible Training Partner: Striking Dummies

Striking dummies are also seen in the north, but probably less frequently than the plum blossom poles.  Certain Bagua schools for instance will walk circles around a tree that might occasionally be struck.  Others have been seen using a single planted pole for similar purposes.  Some of these practices even resemble the Japanese use of the makiwara.  This simple but effective training device was used in Okinawan Karate and may be of Chinese origin.

Gichin Funakoshi, one of the founders of modern Karate, using the makiwara. Simple striking dummies such as this one are fairly common throughout the martial arts.

More rarely Bagua schools might employ a pole with four arms radiating out from the top in the form of a cross.  These objects are struck in a free flowing way, and in that sense they are fairly different from the more rigorous set dummy forms that are practiced by folk styles further to the south.  The emphasis here appears to be on both conditioning and the initial approach of the target.

A simple striking dummy employed in some Bagua schools.

Not only do striking dummies become more common as one travels further south but, in the modern era at least, they also seem to become markedly more complex.  R. W. Smith, who studied various forms of Chinese boxing in Taiwan during his tenure there as a CIA officer in the 1960s, noted the use of dummies among some of his informants and provided helpful photographs.

His first photograph is of Tung Chin-tsan  (aka, the “Golden Dragon”) whom Smith first met on his tour of Southern Taiwan (Chiayi) in 1961.  Tung was a somewhat unreliable source.  He claimed a great martial heritage, having studied at Wudang, the Shaolin Temple in Henan (where he learned Plum Blossom Boxing) and the southern Shaolin Temple in Fujian.  Given that scholars are now agreed that this last school never actually existed one must also doubt his other credentials.

What Smith did know through his law enforcement contacts was that Tung had a number of followers in the Black Dragon organized crime society.  He had also been imprisoned because of his own membership in the group.  While Smith found his Judo and boxing average at best, Tung Chin-tsan truly excelled in the realm of dummy work and Smith came away quite impressed.  So much so that he commissioned a replica of Tung’s dummy to be built at his own residence.

A few days later in Tainan, Smith was introduced to someone who actually was trained in Fujian.  Wu Ku-Ts’ai studied in Yong Chun County (Wing Chun in Cantonese).  Smith states that his style was simply “Shaolin.”  Evidently Wu was a believer in the importance of physical conditioning.  His students (all family members) would practice strikes on the post pictured here.  He also used iron balls (for hand strength) and contact sparing to condition his students.  It does not appear that Wu had a dedicated dummy form, at least not that he shared with Smith.

As we travel further South we hit Guangdong Province.  Many of the schools here have adopted various sorts of dummies into their practice.  Further, the actual use of the dummy is more likely to be systematized into a complex, even theoretical form, rather than a simple conditioning exercise.

Some of the first references that we have to dummies in southern China actually date back to the Cantonese Opera tradition.  We know for instance that members of the various opera groups used wooden dummies in training their younger members in the martial arts.  The Foshan Opera museum has a planted dummy (bottom half buried in the ground) that they claim is representative of what was often used.  However, this dummy is so similar in both size and shape to the sort favored by modern Wing Chun and Hung Gar players that it is hard to tell how authentic it actually is.  Period photographs of opera singers in training appear to show a much larger dummy and greater variability in the types of dummies used.

Late 19th century performers with a large wooden dummy, apparently on the deck of a boat.

Throughout the late 19th and early 20th century Choy Li Fut was the numerically and socially dominant martial art throughout the Pearl River delta marketplace.  Like Tung they seemed to favor more “mechanical” dummies.  There is also a lot of diversity in the sorts of training equipment that is seen in Choy Li Fut schools and this applied to their dummies as well.  Very often dummies from this style will have one upper arm that is either weighted, or attached to a spring (a more recent addition) that can be manipulated by the student.

Master Ho Ngau working on a type of dummy still seen in Choy Li Fut schools.

Traditionally striking dummies in Guangdong were planted in the ground.  However, unlike the plum blossom poles, which were supposed to be firm and unmoving, a dummy that is intended to be hit should have a little movement and spring.  As such dummies were placed in a hole and then secured with gravel, reeds or small shoots of bamboo so that it would have some natural springiness when struck.

Other regional styles also employed dummies.  Mok Gar seems to have favored a relatively simple striking pole, similar to what we already saw in Northern China.  Hung Gar and Wing Chun seemed to take a middle position.  Their dummies were more complex than the simple striking pole, possessing arms (usually three) and often a leg (one or none), but they lacked the more complex mechanics and moving parts favored by other regional practitioners.  Rather than being strength training and conditioning devices, the dummies favored by these schools were meant to correct a student’s angles of attack and entry.  They were always more concerned with geometry, posture and proper technique than strength.

Traditional Mok Gar dummy training from Guangdong.  Note the emphasis on conditioning.

The Advent of the Modern “Wing Chun” Style Dummy.

In the 1950s, a number of martial artists fled the communists on the mainland and settled in Hong Kong.  Ip Man (a prominent Wing Chun instructor) was one of these.  In 1952 he wished to resume teaching the styles  wooden dummy form in his school.  Unfortunately he lived in a multistory apartment building and it was impossible to install a standard planted dummy.  After thinking the matter over he asked a friend, Fung Shek, who was a talented carpenter to create a system whereby a dummy could be mounted on a wall.  Fung devised a system whereby the dummy is held in place by thin wood slats that act as natural springs giving the dummy more life and movement when struck than was ever achieved with traditional “planted” dummies.
Unfortunately Fung was not able to supply the Wing Chun clan with many dummies.  After making less than a dozen dummies his son was killed in a tragic car accident.  Most respectable citizens of Hong Kong took a rather dim view of the martial arts in the 1950s.  These pursuits tended to be associated with criminal and youth delinquency.  Evidently Fung felt conflicted about his association with Ip Man and concluded that the death of his son was divine retribution for creating devices that would train unreliable young men to better hurt one another, and other members of the community.  While Fung stuck with his vow and never made another dummy, his basic design was adopted by others and is now produced on a massive scale (Ip Ching and Ron Heimberger.  Mook Yan Jong Sum Fat. Springville, Utah: King Dragon Press. pp. 47-50).  I mention this story not only as an interesting footnote in the modern history of the wooden dummy, but also because it nicely illustrates the ambiguous place that the martial arts occupy in modern Chinese society.  Even after all of the work of the reformers in the Jingwu and Guoshu movements, the martial arts still engender a level of suspicion that students in the west have a hard time fully comprehending.

Ip Man working on his dummy. Note the thin slats that dummy hangs on. This mounting system was perfected by Fung.

Fung’s new mounting system has succeeded because it is ideal for urban environments.  It was portable and could be easily installed in apartment buildings. Students responded enthusiastically to then new training tool and for the chance to work with dummies in an urban environment.  As a result the standard Wing Chun dummy, modeled on the one commissioned by Ip Man and produced by Fung, has become the most common wooden dummy seen throughout southern China.  This is the type of striking dummy that most martial artists will picture in their minds unless you specifically specify a different variant.

Further, the rising visibility of Wing Chun (due to the media presence of Bruce Lee and his teacher Ip Man) has led students in all sorts of styles to begin to experiment with different sorts of dummy exercises.  I think we can safely say that there are vastly more wooden dummies in use in the Chinese martial arts now than there ever were in the 19th century.  Further, they are more standardized in their size, shape and function than ever before.

In an era increasingly dominated by modern, scientific, equipment and training regimes it is interesting to watch the rediscovery, and even the spread, of wooden dummies to new areas of the traditional Chinese martial arts.  No doubt this reflects the growing affluence and media exposure of modern martial artists in China (and the west).  Yet it also speaks of a need to reconnect with the past, even if it is the imaginary past of the southern Shaolin Temple and its room of diabolical dummies.  I think for a lot of Chinese practitioners there is an odd, almost self-orientalizing, aspect in this rush to rediscover the dummy.  Of course it goes without saying that to beginning students in the west, the wooden dummy is always the most exotic and intriguing piece of equipment in the training hall.  It appears to be the absolute acme of Chinese martial mysticism.  This is why the humble wooden dummy is elevated to such heights in martial arts entertainment, including films like “Ip Man” and “Kung Fu Panda.”

These tendencies make me slightly uncomfortable.  I would prefer for practitioners to remember the past as it was, as opposed to how they hoped it would have been.  Still, as a student of the martial arts myself I can attest that a good dummy is a very useful bit of equipment with a lot to offer.  Maybe their wider adoption will ultimately end up improving the quality of practice in a variety of styles.  While not a complete history of wooden dummies (a project of that scope would require a book) I am always interested to hear more about traditional practice methods.  Feel free to share any photos or stories that you might have below.

Did Ip Man Invent the Story of Yim Wing Chun?

Ip Man not only brought Wing Chun to Hong Kong, he also passed on a rich body of lore and legend surrounding his art.

***Here is one of the first substantive posts that I ever wrote on Wing Chun for the blog back in 2012, about three years before my book (with Jon Nielson) came out. Wing Chun mythology is always a hot topic. Enjoy!***

Many of the debates in the Wing Chun world today focus on the question of lineage.  People want to know which expression of Wing Chun best captures its essential essence?  Which is truly “authentic”?  Often it is assumed that authenticity must be expressed in terms of history.  Some individuals then conclude that the branch of Wing Chun which is the oldest must the most “true.”

Needless to say this entire exercise is problematic.  There are too many undefined terms and leaps of logic in the foregoing statement to count.  Yet this sort of reasoning is what is driving a lot of the public conversation on Wing Chun these days, lacuna and all.  Side stepping the issue of “authenticity” for a moment (a topic complex enough to deserve a post in its own right), I have real doubts that the pure expression of anything is really linked to its oldest form (or better yet, our best attempt to recreate it). 

The truth is that things change for a reason.  Historically speaking, all martial arts, almost without exception, have been forced to reinvent themselves in every generation in order to survive.  Every true Sifu or Sensei instructs his or her students not just to be a clone, but to rise to ever greater heights.  And occasionally this actually happens.  As a result our arts change, grow and evolve over time.  They adapt to new markets and new economic conditions almost continually.  What was done in the late 1700s or the mid-Ming dynasty can never truly be replicated today.  Deal with it, and consider some other ways of defining “authenticity.”

The Wing Chun Creation Myth

Of course one of the first things that we need to do when approaching the history of any martial arts is to actually separate fact from fiction.  For instance, how should we think about the oral folklore that gets passed down in almost every hand combat school?  Do we dismiss it out of hand?

That is probably not a good idea.  Folklore is passed on precisely because it is meaningful to the audience.  The folklore of Wing Chun, or pretty much any other kung fu school, reflects the actual lived experience of those who have dedicated their lives to this tradition.  This material has immense ethnographic value.

But that’s not really what most participants in the Wing Chun wars care about.  What they really want to know is, does it have any historical value?  Will it lead me to locate a Wong Wah Bo or Leung Yee Tai in the cemeteries of Guangdong if I just look hard enough?  Did these stories really happen?  Do they contain some essential grain of truth sufficient to justify my faith in the art?

The sad truth appears to be “no,” at least for the historical questions.  The orthodox Wing Chun creation story was first recorded by Ip Man sometime in the early or mid-1960s for a proposed organization called the “Ving Tsun Tong Fellowship.”  This project never panned out.  In fact, the process of creating a home organization for his brand of Wing Chun was a long drawn out ordeal with many bumps along the way.

A page from the historical account of Wing Chun’s origins. This document was written by Ip Man but was never officially used during his lifetime. The complete account can be seen on the VTAA’s webpage.

This document, found with Ip Man’s papers after his death and now displayed by the Hong Kong Ving Tsun Athletic Association (VTAA), contains the basic Wing Chun creation story that everyone is now familiar with.  It talks about the burning of the Shaolin Temple, the escape of the Five Elders and Ng Moy’s instruction of Yim Wing Chun to beat the marketplace bully.  It then lists the subsequent transmission of the art through the Red Boat opera company to Leung Jan, Chan Wah Shun and ultimately Ip Man himself.  Interestingly enough, this 1960s era document is the oldest recoded version of this story that exists.  There is no physical evidence (actual documents, not simply a different lineage’s folklore which claims to be older) that this story was ever told in the late 19th century.

Many historical investigations of Wing Chun take this document as their starting point.  However, even a passing familiarity with the folklore of the martial arts of Southern China indicates that this will be a problem.  The burning of the Shaolin temple (either north or south) is a myth, it never happened.  The escape of the Five Elders is a motif drawn from gangster folklore.  Yim Wing Chun bears a suspicious resemblance to female martial heroes in both Hung Gar and White Crane legends (in fact I have argued elsewhere that she is probably derived from the latter).  Lastly is the issue of Ng Moy herself.

Situating Ng Moy in the Historical Literature

The famous story about Ng Moy (related by the sons of Ip Man) watching a battle between a snake and crane is identical to the older and better established Taijiquan tradition.  Taiji was first introduced into Guangdong during the 1920s.  The appearance of this story in the Wing Chun canon appears to be a clear case of borrowing.  That is important to Ng Moy’s origins for another reason as well.  The 1920s-1930s are the first time that she appears in local literature and storytelling as a heroine rather than as a traitor and villain.

Ng Moy made her first appearance in the written record in the last few decades of the 19th century in Guangdong province.  Unfortunately for those seeking to trace a lineage back through her, this first appearance was actually in an anonymously published popular martial arts novel titled Shengchao ding shen wannian qing (The Sacred Dynasty’s Tripod Flourishes, Verdant for Ten Thousand Years.)  Given its somewhat unwieldy title the story is usually simply called Everlasting in the English language literature.

John Christopher Hamm, in his study on Jin Yong’s martial arts novels (Paper Swordsmen 2005), spends some time discussing Everlasting and its impact on the evolution of the “old” and “new” school martial arts stories in Guangdong and Hong Kong (pp. 32-48).  Everlasting is of great interest as it was directly copied (often plagiarized) by a variety of other novels and it ended up providing almost all of the local Shaolin “lore” that ends up in subsequent films and radio plays produced in the region. 

This is a very important point to emphasize.  There is no evidence that there was ever a large body of Shaolin folklore that southern martial artists or story tellers drew from.  With the partial exception of the Triad story on the burning of the southern temple, these were not simply “folk characters” indigenous to the region.  Rather, one novelist wrote a book expanding on the escapades of the various Shaolin monks and the Emperor’s attempts to destroy them.  That book was so successful that it spawned dozens of copies.  It literally created a genera of storytelling that is still with us today.

Working class patrons of a stall selling sequentially illustrated martial arts novels. This 1948 AP photo illustrates the importance of heroic martial arts tales in southern China, even for individuals with limited literacy.

Everlasting is very important to the question of Wing Chun’s origins as it is the very first time that Ng Moy is ever mentioned in print.  Unfortunately for us, this is not quite the same wise and loyal figure that Ip Man honors in his narrative.  The Ng Moy of the novel is crafty and prone to laying elaborate plans (a major point of continuity with her later figure), but she is also a traitor.  Along with Bakmei she betrays the Shaolin heroes to the state and ensures their destruction.  In fact, one of the underlying themes of this novel is the righteousness of Imperial authority against the lawlessness and chaos caused by the wandering, argument prone, monks of Shaolin.  Ny Moy is an agent of the order brought by the government.  She is quite literally the Emperor’s hand.  Clearly this is not the sort of character that a supposedly “revolutionary” art like Wing Chun would put at the head of its lineage.

Of course shifting assessments of “revolution” and its desirability run throughout any longitudinal discussion of martial arts folklore.  In the last few decades of the 19th century the Chinese Imperial government was actually pretty popular among most of the population.  Yes there were cases of corrupt officials and tax revolts, but for the most part the government was seen as standing up to landowners and hated foreign intrusions.  Neo-Confucianism was accepted as the official arbiter of public morality and order.  For instance the Boxer Uprising was not a rebellion against the government, but rather a massive popular uprising in support of it against foreign religious and commercial interests. 

Somehow in Kung Fu folklore “revolutions” is always a good thing.  Yet it is pretty clear that most people in China in the late 19th century didn’t actually think that way and had no plans to depose the Qing and restore the Ming.  Nor was aligning yourself with the hated Taipings or the criminal underground likely to improve your popularity around town.  That sort of rhetoric became markedly more popular and common around the time of the 1911 revolution.  It persisted through the 1940s due to the encouragement of both the Nationalist and Communist Party (both of which sought to use the social revolution to further their own political objectives).  Its ubiquity in martial arts folklore is really just one more piece of evidence that this is the oral culture of the 1920s-1950s that we are dealing with, not the 1820s-1850s.

While the stories of Everlasting were very popular, the end of the book (where Shaolin and the government simply could not be reconciled) seems to have troubled some readers.  Perhaps the destruction of the Shaolin Temple was too definitive.  It did not leave enough room for new stories or imaginative play in the here and now.  And that is what readers really wanted.  I suspect this is still what many martial artists actually want today, a chance to enter the story for themselves.  To experience what Mircea Eliade might have called “sacred time” in the guise of a Kung Fu story.

The novel was subsequently republished (or more accurately stolen) a number of times throughout the first few decades of the 20th century, occasionally without its bleak conclusion.  One of the most important of these rewrites was an undated novel published during the 1930s.  Jiang Diedie’s novel Shaolin xiao yingxiong (Young Heroes from Shaolin) put the foundations in place for the eventual creation of the Yim Wing Chun narrative. 

His work lacks originality.  Many sections of text are simply copied directly from the original book, published 40 years earlier.  However, in Young Heroes the story ends when Ng Moy is able to negotiate a truce between the various feuding factions of Shaolin monks.  Rather than destroying the temple and siding with the state (all of which happened much later in the original narrative arc), she is now left the savior of Shaolin.  More importantly, she comes to be associated with those values that the Shaolin monks of Everlasting stood for; independence, stubbornness, hubris, short temper, loyalty and a love of southern China.  In short, Ng Moy was for the first time transformed into a literary hero.  She became exactly the sort of figure who someone like Ip Man might have included in his narrative.  More than that, she became the sort of figure that martial arts students would have demanded in their pedigree.

The Story of Ng Moy and Yim Wing Chun continues to be popular today. It has even spread beyond the Wing Chun community. Yuen Woo Ping’s 1994 retelling of the story is considered a comedic masterpiece.

To recap, Ng Moy is not an old figure in the regions folklore.  In fact, she never appears in the folklore record at all.  Instead she is a fictional character that was invented for a written novel in the late 19th century.  Originally she was a problematic figure and was associated with the domination of the state over Shaolin (and by extension local society).  It was not until the 1930s that this perception of her changed as authors began to rewrite the classic novel in such a way that the stories would appear to be more open ended.  Now Ng Moy was free to use her plans for good and she joined the ranks of Shaolin’s heroes.

The Wing Chun narrative recorded by Ip Man shows no knowledge of the older, original view of Ng Moy.  In fact, it is conceptually dependent on versions of the Shaolin story that were circulating in the form of novels and radio programs in the 1930s-1950s.  The established literary record forces us to conclude that Ip Man’s story must have been composed in the 1930s or later.  QED.

If Ip Man didn’t Invent Yim Wing Chun, who did?  And why?

There is another aspect of this legend that must be considered.  Stories like this one were used to advertise a school.  While fictional they played an important social role in creating a group identity and conveying core values and experiences.  Ip Man was neither a professional writer nor was he a martial arts teacher in the 1930s.  He would have had no reason to compose this story at that time.  And by the time he was teaching in Hong Kong the narrative is already well enough established that it is repeated and echoed in the myth of other lineages.

Wing Chun students today tend to obsess over Ip Man, yet he and the “Three Heroes of Wing Chun” were actually rather marginal figures in the martial arts landscape of Foshan prior to WWII.  A number of other people, largely forgotten today, were responsible for actually teaching Wing Chun publicly.  Further, the 1930s saw a massive expansion of interest in the art as the local branch of the Nationalist party government started to support it.  I suspect that this is when there was a sudden increase in demand for a creation story and the myth of Yim Wing Chun was invented.  It was probably stitched together using material borrowed from White Crane and Hun Gar, the novel Young Heroes of Shaolin and an older genealogical name list.

It still isn’t clear which of the local other teachers (or newspaper writers) composed the Yim Wing Chun story.  I would like to introduce their individual biographies in separate posts so that readers might get a much better feeling of what the social history of Wing Chun actually looked like.  Further, these biographies might give us some clue as to who the mystery author really was. 

Still, we can be relatively certain that the Yim Wing Chun narrative cannot have emerged before the 1930s.  This is likely when Ip Man first became aware of it.  In fact, he may have known enough local folklore to be suspicious of it.  I think the most overlooked aspect of this discussion is that while Ip Man may have written the story down, he never passed it on (at least not in its written form).  Remember, this manuscript was found only after his death.  He may have contemplated giving this to an earlier association, but he never gave any official history to the VTAA.

Some of Ip Man’s students are deeply steeped in the Yim Wing Chun tradition.  But for others it doesn’t appear to be central to their understanding of Wing Chun.  Consider for example Bruce Lee’s book The Tao of Gung Fu.  While it was never published during his lifetime its still an great source for students that are interested in his development from Wing Chun to Jeet Kune Do.

Ip Man and his young student Bruce Lee. As a truly global superstar, Lee is responsible for much of Wing Chun’s early popularity outside of China.

At the end of this book Lee provides his American readers with as much information as he probably can on the origins and histories of a number of different Chinese styles and master.  He also discusses his own teacher, Ip Man, in glowing terms.  What I have always found interesting is that Lee never relates the Wing Chun creation story.  Perhaps he simply dismissed it (like so much else) as “non-essential.”  Of course another possibility might be that the story was just not as meaningful and widely discussed by the young students of the mid 1950s-1960s Hong Kong based Wing Chun revival.

Uncovering the literary origins of this myth is not entirely a bad for Wing Chun history buffs.  In exposing its recent origins I think we create as many questions as we resolve.  For instance, was this story composed all at once, or is it modular in its construction?  I personally suspect that the genealogy of names at the end of Ip Man’s account is actually the oldest part of the story and the bits about Shaolin and Yim Wing Chun were added on later.   What did Chan Wah Shun tell his students about the history of his art, as it clearly wasn’t the story that Ip Man wrote down?   Finally, what about Leung Jan?  Would even the name “Wing Chun” have meant anything to him at all?  When did the art taught by Leung Jan come to be known as Wing Chun? Clearly we are in no danger of running out of research questions.

[If you are Interested in learning more about Yim Wing Chun and her place in modern Kung Fu mythology, be sure to check out this post as well.  Just click the link.]

A rare shot of Ip Man enjoying a cup of Kung Fu Tea. Few individuals in the west know that the venerable master was a big fan of cafe culture and often spent hours with his students in local restaurants after class.

Earliest Published Photograph and References to Wing Chun

The Problem with Being “First”

I am distrustful of attempts to locate the “first” instance of anything popular or famous. Generally speaking, these quests misunderstand the way that the social world works. We all stand on the shoulders of giants, and when you really start to dig into claims of absolute originality you invariably find many other sources of inspiration. Within the Chinese martial arts these sorts of claims are doubly problematic as they tend to have more to do with marketing, or reinforcing the authenticity of some lineage, than actually understanding the past.

Still, when properly framed discussions of the earliest appearances of things can be helpful. This is particularly true when they shed light on how some obscure practice or community was initially understood by the rest of society. Such is our goal as we discuss three of the earliest printed appearances of the term “Wing Chun,” as well as an important photograph of early practice.

Readers will note that none of these passages were authored by Wing Chun students. All of our earliest published mentions of the art were provided by outsiders. This fact grants contemporary researchers valuable clues as to what was generally known about the style and how it was understood by other TCMA practitioners in the early and middle years of the 20th century.

It should also be noted that I am restricting this discussion to appearances of the name “Wing Chun” in commercially published and distributed works. This essay does not attempt to comment on hand copied documents or singular artifacts. The reasons for this are two-fold.  As Douglas Wile noted in his important discussion of “newly discovered” Taijiquan texts, it is typically difficult to establish the provenance and age of these documents. Often this requires a specific type of scholarly expertise and direct physical access to the manuscript in question. Dating is also difficult because martial arts students continued to make hand copied versions of texts up through the 1960s. As such, not all hand copied manuscripts are really all that old. Martial arts are also one area of popular culture in which forgeries are not unheard of. As such, the academic bar for accepting new document discoveries, especially on controversial topics, is high.

Yet beyond those specific difficulties, discussions that occurred among very small groups of people (perhaps only a single master and student in the case of certain fightbook traditions) are not as interesting as those that shed light on what the martial arts community as a whole believed. Establishing what “everyone” knew (or aspired to know), gives us a clearer glimpse into the world that gave rise to Wing Chun as a social movement, rather than the internal history of a single lineage or school. As a student of social history, these are the sorts of discussions that I find the most compelling. It is the main reason why I keep coming back to newspapers, magazines, novels and other sorts of ephemera when trying to understand the social origins of these fighting systems.

Xiong family with Wen Weiqin on the far right of the back row. Source and Translation: Brennan Translation Blog.

Wen Shengcai – Wing Chun’s Revolutionary Martyr

Our first reference to Wing Chun occurs in 1919, which fits with what we know about the development of the art. After declining in popularity locally during the 1910s, Wing Chun’s public profile really began to take off throughout the Pearl River Delta during the 1920s. This was the decade when the once small style became a fixture in the regional martial arts landscape.

More surprising is the venue in which its name appeared.  In 1919 the Shanghai based Jingwu Association published their tenth anniversary commemorative yearbook. Equal parts family album, ideological statement, and marketing tool, this work is a critical source for anyone seeking to understand the martial arts of the early Republic period.  It was extensively discussed by Kennedy and Gou, and Paul Brennan has done the field a great service by releasing a complete translation. Still, I don’t think anyone would accuse the sprawling work of being overly organized. One must read closely to spot the gems.  One of these occurs in Part VIII in a collection of short observations titled “Some Ink Spillings” by Chen Tiesheng, the group’s main mouthpiece and writer.  In a collection of snippets, many of which focused on social criticism or political topics, he noted:

“Wen Shengcai, the martyr who assassinated Fu Qi, was from Mei County, Guangdong. He was skilled in the Wing Chun boxing art. His son Weiqin is now a martial arts instructor in Wuyangcheng [another name for Guangzhou, Translation by Paul Brennan].”

I have previously pulled together a short biography of Wen Shengcai, and a discussion of his career as a political terrorist. At the time I argued that this passage is important as it reminds us that the first Wing Chun student to be widely known on the national stage was not Bruce Lee or Ip Man, rather it was Wen Shengcai, one of the celebrated “Four Martyrs of Guangzhou.” While he has been basically forgotten in modern discussions of the art, and almost nothing specific is known about his training, his story is a fascinating one.

This passage is also critical as it is the very first published instance of the name Wing Chun that has so far been identified in the Chinese language literature. And its interesting to note that Wing Chun’s reputation building efforts were starting out right at the top. Anything that the Jingwu Association published in this period was sure to reach a large national audience.

Still, it must be remembered that Jingwu didn’t teach or promote the martial arts of Guangdong.  Their curriculum looked to the North for inspiration. The opening of chapters in Guangzhou and Foshan was even the source of friction with regional martial arts instructors as the two sides saw each other as both economic and cultural competitors. Still, Jingwu was not above invoking Wen’s exploits in their own attempts to polish the revolutionary credentials of the Chinese martial arts. Nor was it apparently necessary to explain to audiences what Wing Chun was, or from where it hailed. This is the oldest published reference that we are aware of, yet it suggests that at least some basic knowledge about Wing Chun was already in national circulation by the opening of the 1920s.

While this was the only direct reference to the name “Wing Chun” within the 1919 yearbook, the volume did contain a few additional hints about the art’s community. Wen Weiqin, son of Shengcai, reappears at a particularly important moment in the history of the Southern Chinese Martial Arts.  Specifically, his employer was a Director and special guest of the Guangzhou Jingwu Association when they opened their branch.

The 10 Year Anniversary Book commemorated this occasion by reprinting some of the press coverage of the event.  In an article from the China News we read the following description of the opening ceremonies:

Then it was time to begin the performances (which are already listed above and thus are only briefly discussed here). Among the guests were Xiong Changqing’s sons and daughters, who performed various staff sets. Xiong family instructors Wen Weiqin (son of Wen Shengcai) and Li Zhenchang performed boxing and staff sets, which they are each experts in.

Xiong Changqing was a wealthy local businessman and martial arts enthusiast who helped to raise the funds necessary to open the Guangzhou branch. He hired Wen Weiqin as a private martial arts tutor for the family, and in that capacity he and Li Zhenchang were given an opportunity to demonstrate their skills on opening night. Sadly, the names of the sets they performed were not recorded previously in the article as this paragraph seems to suggest.  Still, for one evening Wen Weiqing shared the stage with the likes of Wong Fei Hung, who made his now legendary final public appearance at the same demonstration.

Given the questions that remain about Wen Shengcai’s training, one might have legitimate concerns as to whether his son was teaching something that readers today would recognize as Wing Chun. Luckily Xiong’s family reappears latter in the same volume in a collection of photographs taken in Guangdong during April of 1919.

Here we find two group portraits.  The first includes Wen Weiqing himself on the far right, along with his employer, Xiong’s family, and members the local Jingwu group.  In the second we see a number of Wen’s young students engaged in two-person exercises that will be immediately familiar to any modern Wing Chun student.  Thus the 1919 Jingwu yearbook unexpectedly leaves us with both the earliest published reference to the name Wing Chun, and possibly the oldest photographic documentation of its practice. It also provides us with clear evidence that Wing Chun was practiced by female student from at least the early Republic period.

The earliest published photograph of Wing Chun, courtesy the Jingwu Ten Year Anniversary Book. Translation by Paul Brennan.

More Light on Leung Bik

Wing Chun reemerged in print in 1926 and once again we have the Jingwu Association to thank. Rather than a national publication, this occurrence was published in the local newsletter published by the Association’s Foshan branch. In 2016 the Foshan Wushu Association began a project looking into the various lineages present in the city. One of their researchers, Zhang Xuelian, came across a 1926 issue of the Foshan Jingwu Monthly containing a series of biographies. One of these was published at the request of a then current member named Feng Chengjian. It recorded the story of their father, Feng Xiaoli, who had learned Wing Chun from Leung Jan’s son Leung Bik. By estimating the ages of the various individuals who were mentioned, Zhang concluded that this training probably began around 1883. This newsletter was the earliest local publication that the Foshan research team located using the term Wing Chun.

This piece is also important for another reason. When researching my book on the social history of Wing Chun I ran across a couple of individuals who hypothesized that Leung Bik either never existed, or that he never taught Wing Chun. The thought seemed to be the Ip Man fabricated his existence as a justification for either changing his techniques or attempting to shore up his lineage status (though it should be noted that Ip Man, being a good Confucian, never claimed any Sifu other than Chan Wah Shun). The appearance of Leung Bik in this 1926 article confirms that he was indeed active in the Wing Chun world and had taken on students prior to Ip Man.

Nima King Wing Chun School. Source: SCMP

Wing Chun as a Soft Style

Our third occurrence of the term “Wing Chun” is a bit later than the first two but in some respects it is even more interesting. In 1946 Huang Hanxun (Wong Honfan) from Shunde published Secrets of the Mantis Style Boxing Art in Hong Kong. In keeping with the theme of this essay, Huang was also a former Jingwu instructor and student of the Northern branch of Mantis.

The introduction to his manual reads like something from the 1930s and suggests that he had been working on it (or at least thinking about it) for some time. It repeats once popular arguments about using the martial arts to “strengthen the nation” in the face of foreign threats, but reframes them as an attack on the notion that the more popular internal styles were up to this challenge. Unsurprisingly, he concludes that what is needed is the unique blend of hard and soft found in Mantis Boxing.

“Our nation in recent years has not resigned itself to the slander of being the “sick men of Asia” and we have instead endeavored to use martial arts as a remedy for the fragile physiques of our citizens. Our boxing arts are numerous and varied. I have heard many among the older generation say that southern boxing arts emphasize hardness, whereas styles such as Wing Chun and Taiji emphasize softness. It is true that hardness has the stubbornness of hardness and that softness has the subtlety of softness. However, the passive and active aspects are paired together, for it is through their interactions that the universe was made, and thus qualities of hardness and softness are actually equals. Just think of the way that teeth and tongue protect each other. Therefore, boxing arts that use hardness and softness equally, such as Mantis Boxing, should not be casually dismissed.” [Translation by Paul Brennan, emphasis added].

This is the only occurrence of Wing Chun in Huang’s text. Nor is it much of a mystery how he would have come contact with the art. As a resident of the South and savvy martial arts professional, he would have enjoyed some exposure to the region’s styles.  Further, when the Jingwu Association in Foshan fell on hard times in the aftermath of WWII, at least one Wing Chun instructor rented space in its halls to teach his classes. Yet what is critical here is Huang’s assumption that a Hong Kong readership would also be familiar with the style. Further, he accepts a stereotyped vision of the art, classifying it as an exclusively soft style similar to Taijiquan.

It would be pointless to debate Huang’s assertions about Wing Chun’s essential nature. Still, it is fascinating to realize that by 1946 the style was well enough known that it could be referenced as a means of explaining other, more exotic, martial arts. Further, the art’s public reputation for softness was already fully formed by the end of WWII. Within lineage accounts it is not uncommon to hear the assertion that prior to Ip Man’s 1949 arrival in Hong Kong Wing Chun was unknown outside of Foshan. This is clearly not the case. While Ip Man’s young students in the Restaurant Workers Union many have been unfamiliar with his style, many readers had both heard of Wing Chun and formulated definite ideas as to how it related to other arts, both locally and nationally.

Conclusion

The fascinating thing about the sources which we have just reviewed is that they simultaneously reflected and informed the public imagination. In a few cases documents such as these can yield tantalizing clues about the development of the Wing Chun community itself.  For instance, we now know that Leung Bik took students in the final years of the 19th century. And it is incredible to have discovered what is perhaps the earliest datable photograph of Wing Chun techniques, and its practice by women.

Yet more commonly these types of documents teach us something about the society that shaped Wing Chun’s early years. In 1919 this was a community that was at least aware of the existence of the art. By the end of WWII it was one that had developed preconceptions about the system. This discussion was shaped by individuals with no actual experience in the system and little sympathy towards it, yet there does seem to have been a general curiosity about the style. All of this provides us with a more accurate understanding of the environment that Ip Man entered when he become a professional instructor in Hong Kong in 1950.

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If you enjoyed this post you might also want to read: Spreading the Gospel of Kung Fu: Print Media and the Popularization of Wing Chun (Part I)

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