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From the Archives: The Creation of Wing Chun’s “Opera Rebels.”

The home of Wing Chun as we like to imagine it.  The Cantonese Opera stage on the grounds of Foshan's Ancestral Temple.
The home of Wing Chun as we like to imagine it. The Cantonese Opera stage on the grounds of Foshan’s Ancestral Temple.

***This weekend my wife and I will be away celebrating our anniversary.  As such we will be delving into the archives for our normally scheduled Friday update.

The following was the first post in a three part series looking at Cantonese Opera in Chinese popular culture and its connections with the southern Chinese martial arts.  Obviously opera plays a major part in the Wing Chun creation mythos, but it has historically been connected to a number of styles in both Northern and Southern China.  Interested readers may also want to check out this more detailed discussion of life and violence on the Red Boats, as well as a period account of an actual martial opera performance.  Enjoy!***


In September of 1850 a Major in the Imperial Army stationed in Guangdong took his own life.  Records indicate that he was older and struggling with a chronic illness.  Given the state of medicine in the middle of the 19th century one can only guess that he was probably in substantial pain when he died. 

In the grand scheme of things this individual tragedy was of no historical consequence.  Yet when I first ran across records of it in the index to the old Guangdong Provencal Archives (seized by the British Navy during the Opium Wars and taken back to London) it had a profound impact on how I thought about the origins of Wing Chun.

A Major is an important figure in the provincial military, but they are far from irreplaceable.  The archives are full of notices regarding the promotions, retirements, punishments and training of various military officers.  Clearly these people came and went, and the replacement of a single Major was basically routine.  As such it was fascinating to read how much attention this unfortunate event generated.

On September 24th there was a flurry of activity at the Yamen.  The first item of business was a report filed by Hsu Kuang-chin (the archive index still uses the Wade-Giles Romanization system so I have kept it here) of the Major’s death.  Next a number of other recommendations for promotion were filled to fill the now vacant post.

The only thing outwardly odd about these reports was the identity of their author.  Hsu Kuang-chin was the Imperial Commissioner of Southern China.  One would not normally expect such an important civil official to be taking on questions of human resource management.  The reason for such high level involvement would become clear three months later. 

On December 19th of 1850 Hsu Kung-chin and Yeh Ming-chen (the Provencal Governor, and one of the most important individuals anywhere in the Chinese civil service) filed a joint report to the imperial household following up on the Major’s death.  It would seem that in the intervening months they (or their staffs) had been conducting a more detailed investigation into events surrounding the suicide.

This was a tense time in southern China.  Civil and international battles had already been fought, and more (including the Red Turban Revolt) were expected in the future.  The influence of rebel factions and organized crime were growing.  Apparently there had been some fear that the Major’s suicide had not been what it seemed.  What if he had been compromised?  What if he took his own life to prevent himself from being blackmailed or used against his will?

With notable relief the report concluded that no outside factors were implicated in these tragic events.  The suicide was what it had initially appeared to have been, the death of an old sick man.  One can almost imagine the relief in the final report.

Yet what do these events tell us about the state of governance in southern China?  There was certainly tension, and a number of imminent security threats.  Large scale international and civil war were on the horizon and both the Governor and the Imperial Commissioner knew this. 

Yet this was not an uncontrolled frontier.  When you skim over the notes in the archive, it becomes clear that the government and its security apparatus was immensely watchful.  Any major crime committed in an urban area was investigated immediately, and even seemingly mundane events, such as the death of an old sick man, could trigger a long and detailed investigation.

I find it useful to keep events such as this in mind when thinking about the folklore of the southern Chinese martial arts.  Many of these systems tell stories that describe an almost “wild west” situation.  We are told of mysterious masters who killed multiple opponents in market-place challenge matches, or wandering Shaolin rebels bent on the assassination of local officials.  But how plausible are any of these stories?  Not very. 

Killing someone in a challenge fight was very explicitly against the law.  There were no exceptions to this, and no contract could be signed that would actually relieved the other party of responsibility.  Such actions would lead inevitably to one’s own arrest and execution for murder.  In a few extraordinary cases the sentence might be commuted to years of imprisonment.  Kung Fu legends notwithstanding, this was the sort of behavior that the state did not tolerate. 

Likewise, if the suicide of a single military officer who suffered from a known chronic illness could touch off a three month counter-intelligence investigation led by the two highest ranking Imperial figures in the province, is it realistic to assume that there were packs of Shaolin trained revolutions prowling around the capital, carrying out assassinations, and no one noticed?



Cantonese Opera Performers in San Francisco, circa 1900.  Chinese Opera and Popular entertainment has been linked to the martial arts since at least the Song dynasty.  Even in the Han dynasty military performances were a central part of the "Hundred Events."
Cantonese Opera Performers in San Francisco, circa 1900. Chinese Opera and Popular entertainment has been linked to the martial arts since at least the Song dynasty. Even in the Han dynasty military performances were a central part of the “Hundred Events.”

Wing Chun and the Red Boat Opera Rebels

If one is to believe the folklore that is popular in many Wing Chun schools the answer is a resounding yes.  Wing Chun (like all other Cantonese arts) claims to originate at the Southern Shaolin Temple.  The monks of the Temple were opposed to the Qing, especially after they burnt their sanctuary to the ground and scattered the few survivors.  Some of these individuals (in the case of Wing Chun the Abbot Jee Shim and the nun Ng Moy) are said to have passed on their fighting arts along with a solemn charge to “oppose the Qing and restore the Ming.”

The standard Foshan/Hong Kong Wing Chun lineage states that the teachings of both Ng Moy (via Yim Wing Chun) and Jee Shim ended up being transferred to (and united by) members of the “Red Boat Opera Companies” in Foshan.  These individual made a living by traveling from temple to temple, performing Cantonese language operas during village holidays.  These performances often required great martial skill.  Then as now Kung Fu stories were popular with audiences.  Nevertheless, the opera singers themselves were members of a low status caste and were often marginalized and ignored by the more powerful members of society (at least when they were not on stage).

According to Rene Ritchie (1998) their highly transient lifestyle, combined with extensive training in costuming and disguise, made the Red Boat Opera singers the perfect revolutionaries.  Robert Chu, Rene Ritche and Y. Wu (1998, here after Chu et al.) also noted that the compact boxing style of Wing Chun could well have evolved in the cramped quarters of a ship.  These nautical origins notwithstanding, it would have been the ideal system to carry out revolutionary activities in the only slightly more spacious alleys of Foshan and Guangzhou. (For a summary of much of this literature see Scott Buckler “The Origins of Wing Chun – An Alternative Perspective.” Journal of Chinese Martial Studies.  Winter 2012 Issue 6.  pp. 6-29)

Of course there is one big problem with all of this.  There is a total lack of evidence to support any of it.  There is no concrete evidence that anyone did Wing Chun prior to Leung Jan, and while he said that he studied with a couple of retired opera performer (during the ban following the Red Turban Revolt) he did not give us a detailed accounting of their prior activities or political involvements.  In fact, all of the more detailed accounts of the lives of the opera singers that we now have come from individuals who were active during the Republic era (1920s-1940s), at the earliest.  Other accounts date from the 1950s or even the 1990s.

This actually makes a lot of sense.  Other important elements of the Wing Chun mythos (such as the character Ng Moy) either emerged or underwent significant transformation in the Republic period.  The chaotic word of political intrigue and street assassinations which the opera rebels are said to have participated in actually sounds much more like the 1930s than it does the relatively stable  late 19th century (say 1870-1890).

Of course Wing Chun was never actually taught as a public art until the Republic era.  Almost by definition this is when most of the discussions of its origins and history would have been produced and packaged for public consumption.

Nor would this be the first time that we have discovered that some landmark of southern China’s martial arts culture may be more of a product of literary innovation than history.  There is a growing consensus among scholars that the Southern Shaolin Temple itself never existed, at least in the form that most Kung Fu legends claim.  The entire theme of the Red Boat Rebels is actually something of an appendix to the larger Shaolin myth complex. 

If there really had been packs of killer theatrical agents plying the waters of southern China, fomenting local revolts and assassinating Imperial officials, the government would have taken notice.  The proper reports would have been filed followed by extensive investigations and more reports.  That is simply the reality of how the Imperial government worked.  The fact that there is no mention of a campaign to foment revolution or conduct political killings in southern China during the relevant decades is pretty strong evidence that 1) such a thing never happened or 2) the Opera Rebels were stunningly ineffective.  While silence in the historical record can never really rule out any hypothesis, the first alternative seems to be the much more likely scenario.

Of course I do not mean to imply that martial artists were never involved with political violence.  They certainly were.  That is one of the reasons why I find their history to be so interesting.  And there were rebellions and targeted political killings throughout the 19th century.  But historians have a pretty good grasp on the forces behind most of these (the Taiping Rebellion, the Eight Trigram Rebellion, the Boxer Uprising) and their narratives have little in common with the myth of the Red Boat Rebels. 

Late Qing era silk opera costume.  Elaborate costumes were a stable of Cantonese Opera.  Source: Wikimedia.
Late Qing era silk opera costume. Elaborate costumes were a stable of Cantonese Opera. Source: Wikimedia.


Violence and Radical Politics in the Cantonese Opera Community, 1850-1911.

In most cases I would be content to treat such accounts as examples of “local folklore” and move on.  Yet in this instance some caution is in required.  To begin with, the plays staged by various Cantonese Opera troops often focused on heroic feats that required their actors to be highly skilled martial artists.  Opera troops actually competed with one another to be the first to demonstrate a new style, or to stage the most spectacular battles.  As such they really were an important source of innovation in the southern Chinese martial arts.

While the mythology of Red Boat Rebels may be highly historically implausible, the earlier (and less embroidered) account of Leung Jan studying Wing Chun with two retired performers in the wake of the Red Turban Revolt is actually pretty plausible.  We may not be able to confirm the existence or life histories of Leung Yee Tai or Wong Wah Bo to the same degree as Leung Jan, but there is nothing about their involvement with the martial arts that challenges credulity.  While a little shadowy, it is entirely possible that such individuals did have something to do with the development of Wing Chun and, truth be told, quite a few other southern martial arts.

It is also hard to simply dismiss the tradition of the Red Boat Rebels out of hand.  Opera companies in the Pearl River Delta did occasionally involve themselves in local political controversies.  Some of these events even assumed a stridently anti-government and violent character.  While these actions never actually took the form of anything described in the Wing Chun legends, it is pretty clear that later story tellers and “historians” had a lot of good material to work with.

I propose that our current tradition linking Cantonese Opera singers to both the creation of Wing Chun and to the prosecution of a violent anti-Qing revolutionary campaign came about through the fusion of two separate half-remembered historical episodes.  These were brought together by later storytellers during the middle of the 20th century.  The older of these two traditions focused on the role of the Cantonese Opera companies in the siege of Guangzhou and conquest of Foshan during the Red Turban Revolt in 1854-1855.  I suspect that many of my readers will be at least somewhat familiar with these events.  They have been mentioned in the Wing Chun literature for years, though they are rarely treated in the depth that they deserve.

The best historical discussion of the Red Turban Revolt available can still be found in Frederic Wakeman’s classic text, Strangers at the Gate: Social Disorder in South China, 1839-1861 (California University Press, 1966).  It would not be hard to write a book on these events, but they are usually overshadowed by the larger, more destructive, Taiping Rebellion which was happening further to the north at the same time.  At some point I hope to do a series of posts focusing on the Red Turban Revolt, but I have yet to find the time get started on that project.

It is often assumed that the uprising in Guangdong was simply the local expression of the larger Taiping Rebellion which was gripping much of central China.  That is certainly what local officials in Guangzhou argued as they sent reports back to the throne.  But as Wakeman and others have demonstrated, this was not the case.  The Red Turban Revolt was for the most part an independent uprising that resulted from local mismanagement.  It actually started as a simple tax revolt which spiraled badly out of control.

One of the dozen or so main leaders of this group was an opera performer named Li Wenmao.  He managed to put together a large fighting force that had at its core a number of the region’s many traveling opera societies.  Li is remembered for entering the fight in full costume, something that B. J. ter Harr reports in a number of other uprisings in the middle of the 19th century.  As Holcombe has already pointed out, the moral and political rhetoric of the theater proved to be an effective means of rallying the masses in more than one late Qing uprising.

The image of costumed opera singers fighting the government evidently left a great impression on the local countryside.  It also made a real impression on the Governor who promptly banned the performance of public vernacular opera and ordered the rebel opera singers to be arrested and executed.  The survival of the local government seemed in doubt in 1854.  Yet following their eventual victory the political and economic elite of the province unleashed a white terror that saw the execution of nearly one million rebels, secret society members, bandits and opera singers.

It took decades for the Cantonese Opera community to recover from Li Wenmao’s disastrous and ill planned revolt.  Still, these events help to frame some of the fact that we do know.  Leung Yee Tai and Wong Wah Bo were living with Leung Jan and teaching him martial arts precisely because Cantonese Opera performances were illegal and it was dangerous for former performers to be out and about.  The very fact that they survived the revolt (and did not follow the retreating opera army to their new “Taiping kingdom” in the north) would also seem to be pretty strong circumstantial evidence that they had never really been swept up in the violence (the repeated assertions of modern folklore not withstanding).

Still, the Cantonese Opera community demonstrated that they were quite dangerous as a group and capable of impressive levels of violence.  In retrospect these individuals have been remembered with something like awe.  Yet at the time they were probably best remembered for the immense destruction and loss of life that they helped to foment.

One of the most important things about the Red Turban Revolt that modern Wing Chun students usually overlook is its spontaneous and almost apolitical nature.  In retrospect it is easy to see this event on the horizon.  The government’s revenue collection tactics (Guangdong’s taxes were the only funds available to finance the Qing’s war with the Taipings) along with other sociological forces had turned southern China into a veritable powder keg.  Still, it was impossible to know when the explosion would occur or the form that it would take.

Unsurprisingly mounting taxes turned out to be the spark that ignited the bomb.  The violence started by pitting secret society members involved in the gambling trade against the government.  It quickly spread through a series of bloody reprisals and counter-strikes to include more or less every secret society chapter and bandit group in the country.  These groups coalesced into loose armies intent of sacking various towns and cities, and in the process they recruited tens of thousands of desperate peasant “soldiers” who were looking for economic relief and a change in management.

Kim (“The Heaven and Earth Society and the Red Turban Rebellion in Late Qing China.” Journal of Humanities & Social Sciences.  Vol. 3, Issue 1.  2009) provides a good overview of the various major “chiefs” of the movement.  However the one thing that really stands out about the revolt is their relative lack of coordination, or even a common purpose.  Some elements of the rebellion were driven by a familiar brand of peasant utopianism, while others seem to have been in it mainly for the money.  While the secret society chant “Oppose the Qing, Restore the Ming” was heard throughout the uprising, no one appears to have had any plan for actually fulfilling the second half of the couplet.

While we see Cantonese Opera performers resorting to violence and lashing out against the government in the Red Turban Revolt, they are not the politically motivated, highly dedicated, undercover organization described in the Wing Chun creation story.  This was an outbreak of community violence more in the mold of Robin Hood than James Bond.

This would not be the last time that the Pearl River Delta would see opera performers taking an interest in radical politics and the promotion of revolution.  Opera companies were commercial undertakings and they succeeded by telling the sorts of stories that people were willing to pay to hear.  Most of these scripts focused either on martial heroics or love stories with happy endings.  For reasons that I cannot fathom popular sentiment seems to have demanded that love stories in novels end in tragedy but those on the stage must resolve into a haze of bliss.

Nevertheless, opera companies would occasionally find some success by running a politically motivated play that tapped into an important public conversation.  The anti-opium and anti-gambling crusades of the late 19th and early 20th century found expression in new Cantonese plays that went on to enjoy some popularity.

In the last decade of the Qing dynasty a group of young revolutionaries and students took note of this phenomenon and decided to use it to their advantage.  With the backing of the Tongmenhui, Sun Yat Sen’s revolutionary group, about two dozen new “political” opera companies were formed to spread the gospel of nationalism and revolution throughout southern China. 

Historians from both the nationalist and communist parties have tended to valorize the efforts and success of these groups.  They certainly did help to raise the consciousness of the masses in southern China.  While very few of their techniques were totally unique they did help to popularize certain innovations, such as singing librettos in modern vernacular Cantonese and they experimented with the staging of western style spoken plays.  The best short discussion of this movement can be found in Virgil K. Y. Ho’s volume Understanding Canton: Rethinking Popular Culture in the Republican Period (Oxford University Press, 2006).

Like other sorts of opera companies these “revolutionary troops” traveled from place to place.  Often this happened in Red Boats.  While traditionally associated with Cantonese Opera in the popular imagination, the iconic Red Boats were actually something of a late innovation. B. E. Ward (“Red Boats of the Canton Delta: A Chapter in the Historical Sociology of the Chinese Opera.” Proceedings of the International Conference on SinologyAcademia Sinica: Taipei, 1981.) notes that the first reports of specially constructed Red Boats do not occur until the 1850s. 

Given the decades long prohibition of Cantonese Opera in the middle of the 1850s, they cannot have become common until the more peaceful late 19th century.  Ho indicates that the boats actually reached the peak of their popularity in the 1920s, and then rapidly declined in the middle of the 20th century.  On those grounds alone it is clear that the strong association between Wing Chun and the Red Boat Opera singers is more likely a product of the 1920s-1930s than the 1820s-1830s as it does not appear that this symbolic complex would have meant anything to individuals from the earlier period.

The revolutionary opera companies of the early 20th century were a very short lived, if memorable, phenomenon.  Most of these companies seem to have appeared around 1905, and few survived much past the actual 1911 revolution.  Going to the opera was a popular form of diversion, and audiences (quite reasonably) expected to be entertained in the fashion to which they were accustomed.  This meant loud music, vulgar lyrics, predictable plots and impressive costumes.  What they did not want was to pay good money to listen a political lecture.

The revolutionary troupes had another problem.  The Cantonese Opera Guild in Guangzhou refused to accept them as members.  This appears to have mostly been a reflection of their chronic inability to attract large audiences or sell tickets.  As a result they were actually prohibited from playing on any stage associated with the Opera guild.  Of course this included most of the venues that could raise a decent crowd.

Lastly, while these individuals were “revolutionary” in their politics and ideological orientation (many of the companies explicitly backed Sun Yat Sen) they were much more conservative in their methods.  These troops were dedicated to the pen rather than the sword.  They sought to spread the revolution by educating peasants, not by assassinating local officials.  They were drawn to the stage because of its propaganda value, not its association with costumes, disguises, gangsters or ducking out of town under the cover of darkness.

Again, this is not to say that secret societies were never involved in the revolutionary project.  After all, Sun Yat Sen’s Tongmenghui itself was a secret society.  Nor do I want to imply that political killings never happened.  The late Qing and early Republic eras saw an uptick in assassinations and political murders.  But once again, these attacks were carried out by terrorist, mercenaries and government agents using very modern guns and bombs.  Revolutionary opera companies were not either side’s weapon of choice.


Image of a female general in cantonese opera.Copy Right Granted from Stacey Fong, author of Bay Area Cantonese Opera.  Source: Wikimedia.
Image of a female general in Cantonese opera.Copy Right Granted from Stacey Fong, author of Bay Area Cantonese Opera. Source: Wikimedia.

The Red Boat Revolutionaries: Creating a Legend.

A very interesting picture has emerged from the preceding conversation.  There are at least two periods in the late Qing and early Republic era when factions within the Cantonese Opera community became very visibly involved in radical politics.  Both of these eras were short, but highly visible.  In fact, they were exactly the sort of thing that was likely to imprint itself on the popular imagination. 

The first of these occurred in 1854-1855 when Li Wenman led a large number of companies into an open uprising against the government in the midst of the Red Turban Revolt.  Far from being covert, most of this violence occurred on the battlefield.  The political motivations of the major leaders of the uprising were far from unified.  One group escaped the government’s victory in Guangdong to establish their own Taiping Kingdom in the north.  Other factions, including many of the bandit and secret society chiefs, appear to have been motivated mostly by the promise of spoils.  The tens of thousands of peasant recruits that filled out the various armies were motivated mostly by hunger and desperation.  While highly destructive and dedicated to the overthrow of the local government, the Red Turban Revolt was in some respects surprisingly apolitical, especially in comparison to the ongoing Taiping Rebellion in central and northern China.

If you skip forward 50 years another group of radical opera singers appears.  These individuals are dedicated political revolutionaries.  They are ideologically and politically sophisticated, and they seek to spread this radical agenda to the many small theaters and stages that they visit.  Like everyone one else along the Pearl River Delta they journeyed by boat, often in the Red Boats that signaled the arrival of a traveling opera companies.  While never very commercially successful they made their presence known throughout southern China, and then they disappeared almost as rapidly as they had emerged.

We now have all of the pieces to begin to build a new theory of origins of Red Boats Revolutionaries in the Wing Chun creation myth.  I should point out that this is just a theory and one that probably needs additional refinement and revision.  Given the nature of the discussion I can only marshal circumstantial evidence in its favor, but it may be an idea worth considering.

As Wing Chun started to gain popularity in the late 1920s and 1930s it became necessary to repackage discussions of the art’s history and origins in ways that were compatible with the basic pattern of the Hung Mun schools (all of which claimed an origin from Shaolin) and the expectations of potential students (who wanted a story to tell them what this new art was all about).  Story tellers in the 1930s and 1940s (individuals like Ng Chung So) would have been alive during the final years of the Qing dynasty and may have remembered the revolutionary opera companies on their Red Boats, spreading radical ideology in their wake.  Most of their students, however, would have been too young to have any firsthand knowledge of these events.

In an attempt to bring the story of Leung Yee Tai and Wong Wah Bo into conformation with the highly popular Shaolin ethos, the distant memory of the violent 1854 uprising may have been conflated with the more recent revolutionary opera companies to create the vision of a group that sought to use violent means to overthrow the government while “staying undercover” in their daily lives.  Stories of such groups, often with reference to various secret societies, were rife in southern Chinese folklore and were particularly common in the martial arts tales of the “rivers and lakes.”  In fact, given the fading memories of these two sets of radical opera performers, it seems rather natural that they would fall into this commonly available archetypal pattern. 

Adopting this new synthesis would also have the added benefit of giving both Wong Wah Bo and Leung Yee Tai (and hence modern Wing Chun) some real revolutionary credibility.  This could only be helpful given how popular “revolutionary” rhetoric was in the 1930s.  It might also have helped to provide Wing Chun with some rhetorical cover since anyone who examined the art would immediately discover that it was dominated not by the working class (like most other systems) but by wealthy property owners and conservative right-wing political factions.


A model of a Red Boat of the type that carried Cantonese Opera companies in the late 19th and early 20th century.
A model of a Red Boat of the type that carried Cantonese Opera companies in the late 19th and early 20th century.


The provincial archives of southern China contain no evidence that would point to a campaign of targeted political killings and other subversive activities by revolutionary Cantonese opera companies because such groups did not exist.  Most opera companies were more concerned with eeking out a living, and those that may have been associated with secret societies appear to have been smarter than to go around murdering local leaders.

This does not mean that these groups ignored politics.  In fact, there were two very notable periods when they became involved in the political process.  The current myth of the Red Boat Rebels is a mid 20th century conflation of these two memories into a single event.  This new construction allowed Wing Chun to connect itself more fully to the revolutionary rhetoric of the southern Chinese martial arts even though the system has a history of reactionary associations and behaviors.  It also provides additional evidence that the Republic era (from the 1920s-1940s) was a critical formative period in the creation of the modern Wing Chun identity and mythos.

Yim Wing Chun and the “Primitive Passions” of Southern Kung Fu

Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1798-1861). "Yang Hsiang protecting his father from the tiger." ca, 1840. woodblock print
Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1798-1861). “Yang Hsiang protecting his father from the tiger.” ca, 1840. woodblock print






We all know the story (and those who do not may want to quickly review the most popular version of it here). With the destruction of the Shaolin Temple at the hands of a fearful imperial military and a corrupt bureaucracy, China’s martial arts heritage (skills that had come to the service of the state in years past) was threatened. Luckily five elders survived the cataclysm. One of them, the Buddhist nun Ng Moy, fled to the far south west of the nation where she refined and perfected her fighting system after an encounter with a mysterious crane.

At the same time the Yim family of Guangzhou faced a crisis. In addition to being a single father, Mr. Yim was accused of some crime. Rather than taking chances with the vagaries of Qing justice, he took his daughter and fled to the far south west of the country, to the base of White Crane Mountain. Here the two established a tofu shop and rebuilt their lives in exile.

Yet White Crane Mountain was no ordinary neighborhood. In kung fu stories the edge of the empire has always represented a dangerous liminal zone. It is a place where the constraints of the state are far away and the underground institutions of the ‘Rivers and Lakes’ can find their fullest expression. For the Yim family these primal forces were personified in two visitors to the local marketplace.

The family had the good fortune of making the acquaintance of Ng Moy who occasionally visited their tofu shop on her travels around the region. Yet like many rural market towns this one had a problem with local bullies who harassed the shop keepers. One in particular took an interest in Yim Wing Chun and announced his intentions to “marry” her.

With the intercession of Ng Moy an agreement was reached. In one year a public match would be held in the marketplace. If the bully won he could marry the young girl. If not she would be free of his advances. The Yim Wing Chun spent much of the remaining year with Ng Moy training on the mountain, learning her new method of kung fu. Needless to say she was victorious in the challenge match, thus demonstrating the genius of her teacher’s fighting methods.

Freed from the prospects of a forced marriage to a local bandit, Yim Wing Chun was eventually able to return to Guangzhou and marry her original fiancé, a traveling salt merchant. Yet before she left she received the charge to “oppose the Qing” and to pass on what she had learned from her teacher.


"Snow Plum and Twin Cranes" by Bian Jingzhao, early Ming.  Painting.
“Snow Plum and Twin Cranes” by Bian Jingzhao, early Ming. Painting.



This is the last that we generally hear of Yim Wing Chun. At this point she vanishes from most discussions in the style. Rather than passing the art to her children (whose existence most of the old folklore is silent on) it instead falls to her husband to teach her system to individuals involved with the Red Boat Opera Companies. After that it entered the Foshan’s busy martial arts marketplace (under the tutelage of Leung Jan and Chan Wah Shun) and from there it went to Hong Kong and the rest of the world. This is, in abbreviated form, the story of Wing Chun’s creation as it is normally related within the Ip Man lineage.

Yet as we think about this story a few things should start to become evident. This is not really a story about “Shaolin kung fu” as Ng Moy does not attempt to restore the old tradition. Rather she is looking to do something new.

Nor is it really the story of Yim Wing Chun. She slips into and then out of the narrative after playing her part in a larger drama. We never learn much about her origins or her ultimate fate.

This is a story about the creation of a new tradition.

Like all Chinese martial arts, Wing Chun is more than the technical transmission of data. It is also a social institution embedded within in (and forced to negotiate with) an ever changing social and political landscape. This last point is critical.

More than anything else, what we have just read is the story of a moment of crisis in southern China’s imagined past. Wing Chun is explained as a vehicle designed to navigate a social world stumbling under the weight of government corruption, gangster capitalism and incipient revolution. All of these problems demand a solution that preserves the primordial essence of southern Chinese culture while moving forward into the future.

The irony is that Wing Chun, as a publicly taught martial art, actually did come of age under exactly those conditions. Ip Man began to practice the art in the wake of the disastrous Boxer Uprising. He traveled to Hong Kong to attend high school just as revolution was putting an end to the Qing dynasty. When he returned to Foshan during the Republic period he found Wing Chun being taught in the back rooms of opium dens and often coopted by more powerful social forces. Yet this very real moment of crisis bears only scant resemblance to the mythological drama that unfolds in the creation myth that most of us are familiar with.

Why is that? Why does this martial arts system (like so many others) claim to emerge from a primitive and overtly romanticized mountain landscape? Why do concerns about banditry and marriage dominate how this story is told, even though they play little part in the actual coming forth of Wing Chun as a fighting system? And how should we understand the growing popularity of this narrative in the current era?

Many discussions of the Yim Wing Chun legend begin by treating it as a factual event or looking for the “kernel of truth” that lies at the heart of the narrative. As I have argued in multiple other places, this view is simply mistaken. The central figures in this story are literary creations rather than historical persons. The nun Ng Moy appears in no reliable historical records (this is a problem as all Buddhist officers had to be licensed by the state) and instead makes her first appearance as a villain in an anonymously published Kung Fu novel in the 1890s. She was not re-imaged as a heroine in martial arts stories until the 1930s.

Likewise, the Southern Shaolin Temple is best understood as myth rather than history. While multiple local governments are currently promoting their own reconstructed “Southern Shaolin Temples” in an attempt to capture tourist dollars (and there is evidence that a number of real temples in the early 20th century thought of themselves as carrying on this heritage), the specific sanctuary named in both kung fu and Triad lore seems to have its origins in mythology and fiction rather than history.

When we approach the story the Yim Wing Chun we are engaging in popular culture analysis rather than archeology. The object of our study is not just the folklore of the Wing Chun clan, but also the elaborate discourse of wuxia novels, oral stories, popular operas and even radio programs that surrounded and supported it. It was within this field of popular culture that the creation story of Wing Chun kung fu took on social meaning and became a powerful marker of group identity.

To better understand this story on its own terms, the current essay turns to arguments advanced by Rey Chow (later modified by Paul Bowman). She argues that we can understand this type of narrative through the concept of “primitive passion.” This is a specific type of story-telling that emerged in China during moments of social crisis.



Large Bronze Tortoise in the Forbidden City, Beijing.  Source: Photo by CEphoto. Uwe Aranas.  CC-BY-SA-3.0
Large Bronze Tortoise in the Forbidden City, Beijing. Source: Photo by CEphoto. Uwe Aranas. CC-BY-SA-3.0



Primitive Passion and the Crisis of Authority in Wing Chun Kung Fu



Rey Chow has been one of the most important critics of contemporary Chinese film, often engaging with themes of ethnicity, modernization, nationalism, sexuality and gender. Modern Chinese film did not emerge in a vacuum. Its basic themes, plots and conventions draw heavily off of the area’s rich tradition of story-telling, literature and other forms of visual performance including popular opera.

There is also the issue of timing to consider. Martial arts films emerged as an important cultural force in the 1950s. This was also a critical period in the growth and consolidation of modern martial arts traditions in places like Hong Kong, Taiwan and South East Asia. While it might seem more obvious to turn to Chow when attempting to understand recent treatment of the Wing Chun story on film (Yuen Woo Ping’s comedic masterpiece “Wing Chun” comes to mind) I would instead like to see what she might be able to reveal about the forms of Kung Fu folklore that emerged between the 1920s and the 1950s.

In 1995 Rey Chow attempted to elaborate a concept in Chinese story-telling which she referred to as “Primitive Passion.” While laying out her theory she listed a number of key points (seven in total):


1. The interest in the primitive emerges at a moment of cultural crisis—at a time when…the predominant sign of traditional culture…is being dislocated amid vast changes in technologies of signification…

2. [In such a context] fantasies of an origin arise. These fantasies are played out through a generic realm of associations, typically having to do with the animal, the savage, the countryside, the indigenous, the people, and so forth, which stand in for that ‘original’ something that has been lost…

3. This origin is…(re)constructed as a common place and a commonplace, a point of common knowledge and reference that was there prior to our present existence. The primitive, as the figure for this irretrievable common/place, is thus always an invention after the fact—a fabrication of a pre that occurs in the time of the post…

4. The “primitive” defined in these terms provides a way for thinking about the unthinkable—as that which is at once basic, universal, and transparent to us all, and that which is outside time and language…

5. Because it is only in this imaginary space that the primitive is located, the primitive is phantasmagoric and, literally, ex-otic…

6. In a culture caught between the forced of ‘First World’ imperialism and ‘Third World’ nationalism, such as twentieth century China, the primitive is the precise paradox, the amalgamation of the two modes of signification known as ‘culture’ and ‘nature.’ If Chinese culture is ‘primitive’ in the pejorative sense of being ‘backward’ (being stuck in an earlier stage of ‘culture’ and thus closer to ‘nature’) when compared to the West, it is also ‘primitive’ in the melorative sense of being an ancient culture (it was there first, before many western nations). A strong sense of primordial, rural rootedness thus goes hand in hand with an equally compelling conviction of China’s primariness, of China’s potential primacy as a modern nation with a glorious civilization. This paradox of a primitive that sees China as simultaneously victim and empire is what leads modern Chinese intellectuals to their so-called obsession with China…

7. Although there may be nothing new about reinterpreting the past as a way to conceive of the present and the future—and this is definitely one possible way of understanding primitivism—my proposal is that this ‘structure of feeling’ finds its most appropriate material expressed in film. (Chow 1995:22-23 as quoted in Paul Bowman, Martial Arts Studies: Disrupting disciplinary Boundaries, 2015 forthcoming).


Rey Chow clearly developed the idea of “Primitive Passion” as a way of analyzing contemporary Chinese film (as emphasized in point seven). Yet on a theoretical level the basic outline of her argument could have much broader applicability for those attempting to understand themes in Chinese popular culture. Given their shared relationship with Cantonese opera, wuxia novels, and 20th century roots, I suspect that the folkloric narratives of the various martial arts styles may bear many of the same hallmarks that Chow identifies in Chinese film. After all, these stories were explicitly propagated to address many of the same questions, and they seem to have been aimed at similar audiences.

Consider for instance her first three points in relation to questions of geography and setting. In narrative terms, why did Yim Wing Chun have to travel all the way to the western borders of the state to learn Kung Fu? Surely Guangzhou was not devoid of bandits, pirates and secret society members who could have advanced the plot of the story just as efficiently as a small-town marketplace hooligan?

Nor did the Pearl River Delta suffer from a lack of qualified martial arts teachers. The combination of vibrant local trade and increased insecurity during the second half of the Qing dynasty conspired to ensure that the entire area was practically overrun with private security guards, retired soldiers, archery teachers, village militia members, bandit chiefs and any number of other individuals who would have cut an imposing figure as a kung fu mentor. Why the flight to White Crane Mountain after only a briefly mentioned unspecified criminal accusation?

We will return to the question of justice in bandit narratives in a later post. Yet in narrative terms the economic development that made Guangzhou and Foshan incubators for martial arts development in real life also suggested that these locations might be uniquely unsuited to host something like the Wing Chun creation myth. Chow’s first and third points illustrate why.

The modern southern Chinese martial arts emerged and were reorganized during a moment of social crisis. Part of this stemmed from the decline of the Qing dynasty starting in the first years of the 19th century. Yet much of it also flowed from the increased contact with foreign goods, technologies and cultural systems that occurred as western trade rapidly grew throughout the region. Of course Guangzhou (and by extension its economic satellite Foshan) were the geographic center of this crisis. Prior to the Opium War all western trade was directed at this city which became the center of competing cultural, economic and political forces.

The very concrete nature of the historical events taking place in the Pearl River Delta drove the crisis of the mid-19th century. Many authors found themselves forced to abstract away from these events in an effort to tell a story in which universal and untainted cultural themes could play themselves out, far from the complicating realities of the coastal urban areas.



Euprepiophis mandarina.  Probably my favorite Chinese snake.
Euprepiophis mandarina. Probably my favorite Chinese snake.



The uniqueness of White Crane Mountain lies in its pure generic nature. Here, at the very edge of the empire, we find a setting that is as close to universal as one can get. The stage consists only of a mountain, a temple, a single village and the problem of “bare sticks” (young unmarried males) making trouble and fighting in the marketplace.

In the early 20th century such a village could be found practically anywhere. Yet to be universal all of the particulars had to be stripped away. In a time of national and social crisis such a place could only be imagined at the most extreme and “primitive” edge of the empire. That is where we must go to see how a reevaluation of Chinese identity can resolve the crisis at hand.

But what is the actual crisis in this story? By the time that the Yim Wing Chun narrative is first set to paper the corrupt Qing dynasty is long gone. Nor is anyone in southern China really interested in turning their backs on international trade and modernity. Indeed, the crisis that drives this story is an institutional one. This myth is fundamentally meant to explain that nature of the community to members who have just joined, or are thinking of supporting, this institution. The story entertains, comments on the nature of Wing Chun as a technical system, but also provides a way of relating to other forces within Chinese popular culture.

These institutional concerns reveal themselves in two aspects of the story. Both center on the proper response to fundamental cultural disruptions.

The first crisis is the state’s challenge to Shaolin kung fu after the burning of the temple in an act of fragrant betrayal. The second crisis is more personal in nature, revolving around the problem of a broken engagement (the result of Yim Wing Chun’s flight from Guangzhou) and the ongoing threat to her future social status in the form of marketplace bandits who have taken too much interest in her person. Having set the stage in a universally accessible mythic past, how does the creation of Wing Chun kung fu solve these problems, and what does all of this imply for the much more real social crisis facing actual students of the art in the 20th century?

In his forthcoming volume, Martial Arts Studies: Disrupting Disciplinary Boundaries (2015, Rowman & Littlefield), Paul Bowman extends and challenges the concept of “primitive passion” in Chinese storytelling first advanced by Rey Chow in 1995. Bowman clarifies that in many Hong Kong films the ‘nature’ which the narrative attempts to embrace is not some generic natural or psychological world, but rather a specific culturally mediated institution. It is a uniquely “Chinese nature” that is at threat of being lost in the clash with modernity.

Bowman astutely notes that “what is valued in martial arts films is precisely institutions, discipline, respect, tradition, and in other words, a constructed and achieved nature…In Chinese martial arts film, crisis typically comes at the fraught moments and processes of the passing on and passing over of the legacy, the tradition and the institutional inheritance…In martial arts films, then, the primitive passion is not a simple fantasy about nature versus culture…The problem that Chinese martial arts films explore is the problem of maintaining the institution.” (Chapter 2)

Further reflection again suggest that the basic dynamic advanced by Chow and refined by Bowman can be found in all sorts of martial arts stories in addition to those that find their way onto the big screen. After all, the southern Chinese martial arts are practically united in their claims to be descended from the survivors of the Shaolin Temple. What is this narrative except an extended meditation on the challenges of institutional transmission in a time of national crisis? In fact, audiences are likely to identify these events as a “crisis” precisely because they imperil the many social and lineage relationships that define the current social order.

The promise of a new institution, one that retains the essence of the primitive and the sanctity of social responsibility while adapting itself to the challenges of the new era, is likely to be immensely popular. This will be the case whether the story is displayed on the big screen or ritually enacted in southern China’s martial arts training halls. Indeed, the most successful stories are those that enchant daily activities with a new layer of meaning.

This is precisely what we see in the Ng Moy/Yim Wing Chun dyad. Unlike the Abbot Jee Shim, Ng Moy does not attempt to rebuild the Shaolin Temple or to resurrect the past. Instead she draws on natural (dare I say primitive) sources of inspiration to uncover that true nature of Yin (feminine) power in the martial arts. Just as Chow predicts, White Crane Mountain is full of both wild animals (cranes and wild cats) as well as people (bandits and virgin girls) who symbolically demonstrate the central concepts of her combat system.

Of course Douglas Wile, in his discussion of the evolution of Taijiquan has already noted that such narratives play directly into the evolving discourse surrounding western imperialism, the nature of Chinese culture and possible strategies of resistance. The fact that the basic institutions of Wing Chun are also structured around voluntary association (the students that teachers choose to accept) rather than closed family lineages (made triply impossible given the destruction of the temple, Ng Moy’s celibate status, and Yim Wing Chun’s lack of children) all serve to signal the creation of new institutional strategies to embody primordial identities.



Late Ming, Embroidered Panel featuring dragons.  Circa 1600.
Late Ming, Embroidered Panel featuring dragons. Circa 1600.





The preceding essay has attempted to accomplish two things. First, it has introduced Rey Chow’s concept of “Primitive Passion” as a powerful analytical tool for making sense of some of the most common trends in Chinese martial arts folklore. The tendency of these stories to turn their backs on the nuances of history in favor of what at first appears to be self-Orientalizing mythmaking can be seen as an attempt to engage in a set of conversations about identity, modernity and the transmission of social values that is only possible when stories that have abstracted away from particular events to enter a more “universal” realm of meaning.

Given the nature of these stories it is unlikely that researchers will gather much historical data from them. That was never their purpose. Yet to ignore them would be equally disastrous.

They demonstrate that 20th century martial artists, far from being unsophisticated rubes, were actually crafting their own discourses responding to some of the most pressing and complex national debates of their day. Only after we grasp the essential nature of this exercise can we begin to identify the relevant details of the various stories. We can then unwind the different ideas that made up the world of China’s 20th century martial artists. This would be a fruitful line of research for anyone interested in taking up the challenge.

Secondly, this post strongly suggests that while southern China has a centuries long hand combat tradition, the modern martial arts systems that exist today can very much be thought of as a response to the problems of disorder, imperialism and violence that emerged in the 19th century and dominated first half of the 20th. Specifically this protracted period of social change necessitated the creation of new types of institutions capable of carrying out specific functions and also conveying core cultural values. The stories that see surrounding these styles, when read on a more theoretical level, suggest that these organizations may have understood themselves as creative solutions to the 20th century’s crisis of social transmission, rather than as a simple reflection of a timeless past.







If you enjoyed this you might also want to read: Ming Tales of Female Warriors: Searching for the Origins of Yim Wing Chun and Ng Moy.



Hsu-Ming Teo Reconsiders Ip Man, Popular History and the Kung Fu Biopic

The Grandmaster.  opened recently in China.  Films like this are having a notable impact on the Wing Chun community in North America.
An advertising image for “The Grandmaster” by Wong Kar-wai.  The composition of this picture appears to be loosely based on some vintage class pictures that Ip Man took in the 1950s.



Hsu-Ming Teo. 2011. “Popular History and the Chinese Martial Arts Biopic.” History Australia. Vol. 8 No. 1: 42-66.





Technology is a double edged sword. Electronic databases and fancy search tools promise a near omniscient grasp of what other writers have been up to. Yet these same tools can also lead to a false sense of security.

Consider for instance Hsu-Ming Teo’s 2011 study of the relationship between “popular history” and the Hong Kong film industry’s penchant for Kung Fu biopics. Her discussion of the recent Ip Man and Wong Fei Hung films, and how they relate to questions of transnational identity, nationalism and gender, is the sort of thing I would be very interested in reading. In fact, I conduct multiple electronic journal searches a month using a variety of tools in a couple of different libraries just to make sure that I don’t miss out on articles like this.

Something always slips through the cracks. In the ongoing pursuit for “global Kung Fu awareness” it seems that my reach still exceeds my grasp. Luckily Teo just uploaded a copy of her article to, making it available to a broader audience, including myself.

I am very glad that she did. This paper is of interest to many students of martial arts studies. It will fill a valuable hole in a number of literature reviews and would work nicely on many undergraduate reading lists.

Hsu-Ming Teo is a senior lecturer and the head of Modern History at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia.  Much of her research revolves around the history of popular literature, tourism, British imperial culture and post-colonialism. Her major academic publications include Desert Passions: Orientalism and Romance Novels (Austin: University of Texas Press, November 2012) and Cultural History in Australia, ed. Hsu-Ming Teo and Richard White, (Sydney: UNSW Press, 2003). Teo has also published two novels, Behind the Moon (Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 2005; New York: Soho Press 2007) and Love and Vertigo (Sydney: Allen & Unwin 2000), giving her unique insights into how the creative process unfolds.

The article that we will be discussing here draws on her general academic background. As far as I can tell it is her only paper to date that deals exclusively with the Chinese martial arts and their relationship with broader themes in popular culture. Still, her study serves as both a testament to the growing interest in martial arts studies and the general importance of this field’s central questions.



Wong Fei Hung battles a rival in an early film.
Wong Fei Hung battles a rival in an early film.




Popular History within the Kung Fu Genera



Teo takes recent developments in the Hong Kong film industry as her basic point of departure. She notes that ever since 1949 certain trends have been clearly discernible within the field of Chinese martial arts films. Perhaps the most prominent among these are the “Wuxia” and “Kung Fu” genres. The “swordsmen” films which had been produced in Shanghai prior to 1949 tended to feature a relatively stable conversation concerning the the social values of the “Xia” or wandering knight. Many of these stories contained straightforward nationalist themes.

During the 1950s Wuxia narratives increasingly found themselves in competition with “Kung Fu” films. These movies focused on empty hand combat (though a variety of weapons might be employed). They also tended to valorize local folk heroes (such as Wong Fei Hung) or to recast national figures and debates in remarkably flexible ways that responded to the parochial, transnational or social concerns of the audience.

As any fan of Chinese action cinema can attest, the pendulum has swung back and forth between public demand for Wuxia and Kung Fu films over the years. Both of these related genres have their fans. However, Teo seems to detect a renewed identification with the popular folk-heroes of southern China in recent years. The modern incarnation of this movement was grounded in Jet Li’s “Once Upon a Time in China” series, loosely built around the exploits of Wong Fei-hung. This basic trend was then updated and reinforced with Ronny Yu’s 2006 film “Fearless” and Wilson Ip’s 2008 “Ip Man.”

A number of commentators have already addressed one or both of these films. They have noted the immense popularity of these projects in Hong Kong, and the various ways in which the city’s residents have read the directors multi-layered messages about local and national identity.

One of the things that makes Teo’s study unique is her emphasis on a different audience, namely the diaspora Chinese community living around the pacific rim and in other spots across the globe. Her paper begins with a personal account of watching “Ip Man 2” (2010) with a packed house of mostly other Asian patrons in the Hoyts Chatswood Mandarin Cinema:


“For a film with an often risibly cheesy script, it had a powerful, emotional impact on this particular audience, or so it seemed. My memory of watching the final showdown between Ip Man and the sneering British boxer – representing the condescending and sometimes cruel British colonial community in the 1950s Hong Kong – is of an almost unbearably tense atmosphere. In the darkness, the films soundtrack was punctuated by occasional mutterings against the British colonizers, including an explosive and alliterative “Beat the British bugger up!” As the cinema emptied at the end of the film, I heard someone remark in passing: “Gong Gong (Grandfather) said it was just like that in Hong Kong back then. The British wouldn’t allow Chinese beyond the mid-levels unless they were servants or coolies.” Whether this was actually the case or not is beside the point; for that viewer, the biopic had just confirmed his Grandfather’s truth, just as Ip Man had confirmed for Chinese audiences other popular historical truths about the Japanese during the Second World War and what it means to be Chinese.” (p. 43)


Teo’s subsequent paper explores the various ways in which “popular history” (meaning history produced by non-professionals for a variety of purposes including entertainment and economic consumption) has fueled Hong Kong’s Kung Fu film industry. She also asks about its role in shaping the ways in which audiences go on to understand different aspects of their national and local identity.

Obviously the sorts of “history” that these films call on are sometimes quite creative. While the directors and marketing agents of these projects tout their historical credentials, or note the extensive amounts of time and research that went into writing the script (a trend that has become particularly apparent with the recent Ip Man films), in truth none of these movies have proved to be particularly faithful to the actual lives of their subjects.

Rather than debating the quality of this popular history, Teo instead sets out to explore other questions. What social function do these stories serve? Who tells them, who consumes them, and for what reasons? More specifically, do these stories play a positive role in the creation and dissemination of the modern Chinese national identity, both within the nation-state proper and the larger diaspora community?

This last point appears to be the source of some anxiety, and the author returns to it numerous times throughout the paper. In some ways this article becomes an extended meditation on the limitations of the Kung Fu genre as a vehicle for Chinese national identity construction.



Bruce Lee fighting a room full of Japanese martial arts students in "Fists of Fury."  This scene later inspired the "Dojo Fight" in Wilson Ip's 2008 Ip Man biopic.
Bruce Lee fighting a room full of Japanese martial arts students in “Fists of Fury.” This scene later inspired the “Dojo Fight” in Wilson Ip’s 2008 Ip Man biopic.




National vs Local Identity in Hong Kong Martial Arts Films



Teo’s misgivings about the brand of nationalism presented in recent Kung Fu biopics appears to be deeply rooted in her understanding of the structure of the Hong Kong film industry. She notes that after 1949 the center of martial arts film making shifted from Shanghai (which had specialized in the production of Wuxia films) to Hong Kong. Here the Kung Fu movie began to develop in the early 1950s as studios looked for new ways to stage stories about classic figures from local folklore.

On the surface many of these Kung Fu films would appear to promote a very straight forward, even simplistic, appeal to Chinese nationalism. Foreign imperialists and Japanese aggressors were by no means absent from the genre. A wide audience could cheer Bruce Lee on in “Fists of Fury” (1972) as he used his hardened body to destroy both rooms full of karate students and the hated “sick man of Asia” epitaph.

Nevertheless, a strong counter current ran through many of the Hong Kong Kung Fu dramas. These were Cantonese language productions that often featured local heroes rather than national figures. Wong Fei Hung (perhaps the most successful character to ever be staged in any Chinese film) defended his community against many threat. Yet the vast majority of them (especially in the serialized films of the 1950s and 1960s) were actually other Chinese martial arts clans, triads and cultists, not foreign aggressors.

Teo notes that this same dual discourse is clearly evident in Wilson Ip’s 2008 Ip Man biopic. Donnie Yen’s rendition of Ip Man defends the national honor against both the invading Japanese and later the insults of British boxers (2010). Yet he does so only after taking the audience on a visual tour of Foshan’s divided and squabbling martial arts marketplace. Even worse, his most emotionally engaging confrontation happens not with the stereotypically evil officers of the Japanese Imperial Army, but rather with a violent and boorish martial arts master (and later bandit) from northern China who has come to Foshan to make a name for himself at the expense of local society.

Others have noted that this dual discourse was the key to the films commercial success. It allowed for diverse audiences in Hong Kong, Guangdong and other areas of China to identify with key elements of the plot. Still, Teo claims that it undercuts the ability of the film to speak to questions of Chinese nationalism and identity in critical ways.

After all, the Chinese martial arts are not shown as being united in their defense of the country. Nor can one trust or empathize with a given character simply on the basis of their Chinese identity. By the end of the film one wonders whether Ip Man was actually fighting for the welfare of the nation as a whole, or if he was instead defending the honor of southern China?

One of my regrets about Teo’s paper is that it was published in 2011. As a result she missed two of the more recent and interesting additions to the growing collection of Ip Man biopics. Specifically, Wong Kar-wai’s version of Ip Man seems to have been written as a response to some of the issues in Wilson Ip’s earlier film that Teo points to. This Ip Man transcends questions of North and South. Rather than seeing Kung Fu as a matter of local or even national identity, he seems to deliberately foreshadow the growth of a movement that will transcend the bounds of the nation state. Of course this will bring us to another aspect of Teo’s critique, the Kung Fu genre’s persistent transnationalism.

Moving beyond the difficult questions of local versus national identity, Teo is also unhappy with the “Self-Orientalizing” trend that has become apparent in a number of these biopics. In Wilson Ip’s 2008 movie she criticizes the constant visual references to overdone period architecture, asides to antique vases and traditional clothing in an era when such modes of dress where actually becoming rather uncommon.

Gender is also an issue that runs through many of these films. Audiences tend to identify the heroes of these movies through their sheer strength, skill and physicality. Bruce Lee’s Olympian physic is often the first thing that comes to mind when someone mentions the words “Kung Fu.” Yet even when the protagonist is ostensibly older or more scholarly, such as Ip Man or Wong Fei Hung in the “Once Upon a Time” series, these characters are still shown as embodied expressions of the “self-strengthening” movement within Chinese nationalism.

While they occasionally make an appearance, there are many fewer female characters in these films, and most of those that are included tend to fall into two categories. The vast majority simply provide a domestic backdrop against which the protagonist can display his stereotypically male martial prowess. Worse yet, those female characters that are shown as fighters are generally expected to display the same set of “male” personality traits as their co-stars rather than developing a new and challenging way of displaying their own strength.

The end result is that the vision of Chinese nationalism portrayed within these films is oddly constrained. The Chinese state is both geographically and linguistically diverse, yet these stories silence most of those voices. The essence of the Chinese identity is always enacted by a small minority of individuals, overwhelmingly male and socially conservative in nature.

Teo notes that given the plebeian nature of many Kung Fu heroes, one might expect that these stories would have a democratizing effect on the nature of Chinese nationalism, providing everyone with a chance to climb onto the stage of history. Yet in reality the story telling conventions that have dominated these works tend to erase much of the actual variation that exists within the complex and diverse Chinese state, replacing it with a homogenous “imagined community” that has never actually existed at all.

In multiple places in this essay Teo also expresses concerns about the “transnational” nature of the Kung Fu film industry. Given the limited size of the Hong Kong marketplace, its directors have long been accustomed to thinking about the demands of foreign audiences. At first this was the diaspora Chinese community that lived around the edges of the Pacific Rim. Later audiences within mainland China became part of the potential viewership for these films, as did very different onlookers in the west that might not have any association with Chinese nationalism.

This same diversity is also evident in the individuals who make these films. Increasingly directors who have worked in America, or were born in South East Asia, are being tapped to make “Chinese” martial arts films in Hong Kong. Eyebrows may be raised when a famous Cantonese actor from the south is cast to play a “northern” character in a Wuxia film (as happened in “Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon”) or vice versa. Teo notes that in academic terms the increasingly global nature of this film industry makes it difficult to employ their products as a lens for the study of nationalism.

When it comes to questions of nationalism there seems to be a deeper anxiety in her writing. While she does not directly express her distrust, one cannot help but conclude that she is suspicious of the sorts of “imagined communities” that emerge from these films. At no point does she explicitly address Benedict Anderson (or any other major scholar of nationalism) in her work, yet she uses his signature phrase repeatedly. The impression that emerges from her paper is that the “imagined” nationalism of the Kung Fu genre is a dangerous counterfeit which is both erasing and suppressing a more “real” Chinese nation which emerges organically from within the boundaries of state.



Ip Man and an early group of students in the 1950s.  In many ways Ip Man represents the fundemental paradox of the modern martial art's quest for authenticity.  He was an undenibaly genuine and talented local martial artist, yet he is current being infused back into Chinese martial culture through the medium of almost entirely fictional films.
Ip Man and an early group of students in the 1950s. In many ways Ip Man represents the fundamental paradox of the modern martial art’s quest for authenticity. He was an undeniably genuine and talented local martial artist, yet he is current being infused back into Chinese martial culture through the medium of almost entirely fictional films.







Obviously no one paper can do everything. While Teo provides us with a finely nuanced discussion of how these Kung Fu biopics effect identity formation within the diaspora Chinese community, her treatment of their impact on a more general western audience seems oddly underdeveloped. One of the impressive things about this article is the author’s engagement with the literature (as it stood in 2010) on Chinese martial arts cinema. While this area is not her specialty she obviously delved into the various discussions and made them her own. By in large she hits the major authors that one might expect to see in such a paper.

This is precisely what makes her treatment of western audiences and their reactions to Kung Fu films so puzzling. On the basis of her own experience she seems to assume that western audiences are both fairly homogeneous in nature and unmoved by the nationalist appeals within Chinese cinema. Yet there is a substantial literature on how disadvantaged groups within the west (often African-Americans and Hispanics) found deep resonances with this material. In fact, members of these groups were statistically more likely to take up martial arts practice after being exposed to these films.

In terms of her more general engagement with the literature I found it odd that Teo did not pick up on this discussion. Exploring this phenomenon in greater depth would have strengthened her overall critique of the transnational nature of the Kung Fu movement. At the same time one suspect that such a move, if done with an eye towards detail, might also have expanded the scope of this project from “paper” to “monograph.”

Hsu-Ming Teo’s study of popular history and its expression within Kung Fu films will be of interest to any student of martial arts studies. She provides a concise introduction to the academic study of “popular history” and then engages with a recent trend in Chinese martial culture. Her study draws from the existing literature while making a critical contribution to the discussion of how these films impacted the identity formation process within the Chinese diaspora.

My main criticisms of this paper all revolve around areas where I would like to hear more. Given the author’s interest in questions of national identity formation, it would be nice see a more direct engagement with the central debates and authors in that literature. I am also a little sad that this paper was published in 2011. The next few years saw the release of other popular films including Herman Yau’s “Ip Man: The Final Fight” (2013) and Wong Kar-wai “The Grandmaster” (2013).

One of the most interesting things to me about the Kung Fu biopic genre is the way in which characters evolve and build upon their previous incarnations over time. Obviously Wong Fei Hung, who has been featured in more films than any other martial arts hero, is the classic example of this. Yet the basic image of Ip Man laid out in Wilson Ip’s 2008 film has also been undergoing some subtle but interesting changes.

Herman Yau when out of his way to throw Ip Man’s into a very modern world, devoid of the luxury, classical architecture and the “Self-Orientalizing antique vases” that Teo criticized. Likewise Wong Kar-wai took Wilson Ip’s already multilayered discussion of national and local identity within the Ip Man narrative and added a few new dimensions of his own. Following in the best tradition of the Kung Fu genre, what this paper needs is a sequel, one that turns the author’s critical attention to these later (and in some ways more sophisticated) works.

Hsu-Ming Teo’s paper should be more widely known and read in martial arts studies circles. Her argument is clear and concise. In fact, this paper provides a very readable introduction to some of the more difficult theoretical issues that currently occupy the field’s interest. Her writing is also both engaging and critical. It is always appreciated when a scholar from outside of the martial arts studies area engages with these questions, and I very much hope that she finds additional opportunities to contribute to these discussions in the future.





If you enjoyed this you might also want to read: Essential Kung Fu Cinema (3): A Touch of Zen




Why is Ip Man a Role Model?

Donny Yen reprises his role as Ip Man.  Is this Ip Man your role model?
Donny Yen reprises his role as Ip Man. Is this “Ip Man” your role model?




Introduction: A Question from a Reader



The title (and subject) of today’s post is borrowed from a google query that brought a reader to this blog last week. WordPress has an incentive to encourage writers to improve the popularity of their blogs as that allows them to sell more advertising. As such they provide a basic package of metrics allowing the owner of every blog to see just how popular their latest post was, how many other pages have been clicked and where all these visitors are coming from.

I suspect that this blog is fairly ordinary in that most of its traffic is generated first by visits from regular readers (thanks!) followed by google searches and Facebook links. Google itself will sometimes allow you to see the specific search query that directed someone to your page.

“Bruce Lee” generates more traffic for this blog than any other single google search. Given his association with the Chinese martial arts in the public consciousness that is not much of a surprise. Beyond that things are pretty random.

I do not normally pay a lot of attention to the google search queries, but at some point last week a reader ended up coming to 功夫网 looking for information about Ip Man. Specifically, they wanted to know why he is a role model. I do not know who the reader was, or even in what context they asked the question.

Still, this seemingly simple question struck me as being actually quite complicated. I could easily imagine someone asking me this exact question in a personal conversation and I realized that I am not sure what I would say.

This is not because I am unfamiliar with Ip Man. He became the subject of an extended case study in my volume (now with the publisher) on the social history of the southern Chinese martial arts. I have read most of what has been published on his life (in both Chinese and English), my coauthor has interviewed his surviving family members. I have spent years studying his martial art on a practical level as well as delving into more theoretical discussions about their origin and place in Hong Kong society. Ip Man is someone with whom I am very familiar and have a deep respect for.

Still, on some level I am not sure what it means to ask why a martial arts master from a previous generation is a “role model.” One suspects that many of the individuals who might hold him in this regard are not all that familiar with the actual details of his life and career. Like his student Bruce Lee, Ip Man’s image has been spread and immortalized through a number of generally well produced martial arts films by directors such as Wilson Ip (“Ip Man” 2008), Wong Kar-wai (“The Grand Master” 2013) and Herman Yau (“Ip Man, the Final Fight” 2013). It looks like there may even be more in the works.

The real Ip Man was known within the Hong Kong martial arts community, but he was far from a household name. While teaching Wing Chun was his primary source of income, he never advertised his school and refused to even hang up a sign. His younger students in the 1950s and 1960s certainly looked up to him as a role model. In accounts of his school they remember not just his great skill but also his humor, gentleness and genuine friendship in an era when Kung Fu teachers and students did not always have close relationships.

For the current generation of students in both Hong Kong and the west, who have never had the opportunity to meet Ip Man, asking in what ways he functions as a “role model” becomes a more complicated question. He has gone on from being remembered as “the teacher of Bruce Lee” to becoming a popular media property in his own right. The Ip Man that most of us are familiar with is not a humble Kung Fu teacher in Kowloon, but a local hero from Foshan who single handedly defended the honor of the southern Chinese martial arts (and identity) by wiping out a room full of Japanese karate students after defeating a number of wandering northern wushu masters in artistically choreographed duels.

It would be wrong to note that the Ip Man who exists in the public consciousness is an artistic creation, an invention of the entertainment industry, and simply dismiss the question out of hand. Obiwan Kenobi, one time general of the Clone Wars and Jedi recluse, is also a fictional character. Yet he continues to be cited as an inspirational role model by generations of movie goers. When it comes to role models, their tactile reality may be less important than the functions that they perform. As so many others have noted, Obiwan is an almost perfect “initiatory figure.”  He shows no sign of fading from discussions of youth role models just because he is fictional.

The question seems not be whether one has actually talked with a role model, but whether you have “focused” on them. Indeed, the selection and construction of role models always includes a dose of fantasy.  In that sense Ip Man once again becomes very interesting.

As a recent historical figure, fans that enjoyed his movies have a chance to go out and collect more information about their new hero. Since Ip Man’s career is pretty well documented there are many accounts that can be studied and meditated upon. In an ironic twist the known historical details of Ip Man’s life have become a sort of “hypertext” for his fictionalized biography. They are an additional “DVD Special Feature” that true fans might wish to track down to show their increasing dedication to their role model.

Then there is Wing Chun. Ip Man left behind more than just historic accounts and vintage photographs. He and his students did a remarkable job of saving their version of the Wing Chun system from obscurity. It is now one of the most popular Chinese martial arts in the world.

Most Wing Chun schools are presided over by Ip Man’s portrait and they feature his training methods. These are usually an emphasis on practical applications, a concept based approach to the Chinese martial arts, and an emphasis on Chi Sau (or sticky hands) as a major teaching tool. Ip Man’s personal approach to the martial arts still exists within his teaching system and it gives modern students a way of experiencing some aspect of his presence even if they cannot touch hands with the master directly.

Within my lineage it is said that Chi Sao unfolds like a conversation. In tactile and subconscious terms it asks students to consider “what would you do in this situation.” When Ip Man touched hands with his first student he started a new branch of this age-old conversation, and it is one that has never stopped.

Students are drawn to Wing Chun for a variety of reasons. Some are looking to get in shape, others want to learn how to defend themselves. A not insubstantial number have seen the recent Ip Man films and they, on some level, are looking for that “role model.” Almost all of them will discover after a few weeks or months that the reality of Wing Chun training (or any martial art) is different from what they initially expected.

More interesting to me is the question of why they stay. I suspect that for many individuals they remain because they enjoy being part of the conversation that Ip Man started. They feel compelled to keep listening and they want to make their own contributions to it.



And this is how he is imagined today, as an almost superhuman fighter.
Ip Man as imagined in “The Grandmaster” (2013).  Is this “Ip Man” your role model?



What is a Role Model?


Still, not everyone who is respected is accepted as a role model. In the United States presidents are generally respected, yet the partisan nature of the political system tends to excludes modern leaders from the ranks of universally accepted “role models.” Likewise on a university campus the president is always a respected figure, but empirically speaking students are much more likely to cite their own professors as role models, or individuals who had a transformative impact on their lives.

The idea of a “role model” has so completely penetrated popular thought that we often forget that it is in reality a (contested) sociological theory attempting to explain certain aspects of youth socialization. This term was coined by Robert Merton, an important professor of Sociology who spent much of his career at Columbia University in New York City.

Merton is probably best remembered today as the father of the “sociology of science” as well as for his work on “unintended consequences” in complex social systems (another new common term which he coined). The idea of the “role model” emerged as he watched the ways in which medical students at Columbia learned new social roles and identities as they sought to align their behavior with the expectations of a “reference group.” The realization of the importance of an individual “role model” and mentor arose as an extension of his research on “reference groups.”

One of Merton’s critical realizations was that initiates did not necessarily have to belong (or have expectations of belonging) to the reference group in order to be influenced by its presence. Broader social structures that linked these players and transmitted expectations turned out to be the critical links. It is these structures that both open the possibility for, and demand the acceptance of, an entire range of new behaviors and identities rather than just the adoption of a single role (in this case becoming a medical doctor).

A reference group or role model helped to demonstrate this more complex set of social relationships. Yet what makes someone an effective role model is precisely the fact that they are in some ways quite different from the individuals who are observing them. If we are discussing an instructor passing on purely technical skills, it may be helpful to have two individuals with similar backgrounds so that the student will be confident in their ability to also perform the task at hand.

In the case of a role model the specific things that they do take a back seat in importance to how they go about doing them. Or more specifically, how do they relate to other individuals and social groups in the performance of these skills. This is where identity, rather than just technical expertise, is demonstrated.

Of course the idea of “difference” is central to discussions of role models and identities in the Asian martial arts. Adam Frank explored the question of how racial and national identity affected the transmission and transformation of martial practice in his volume Taijiquan and the Search for the “Little Old Chinese Man”: Understanding identity through the martial arts. It may be worth considering how different preexisting social categories affect Ip Man’s availability as a role model.

As we saw previously, within the primary community of his own Wing Chun clan in Hong Kong during the 1950s and 1960s, there can be no doubt that Ip Man functioned as a role model for his younger students. In his accounts of life during the early years of the school, Chu Shong Tin has noted how the older Ip Man, who received a traditional education in Foshan before attending an English high school (or college) in Hong Kong, appeared to be the epitome of the traditional Confucian gentlemen. Displaced young men in Hong Kong, or simply those wrestling with questions of what it meant to be “Chinese” while living in a rapidly changing city under foreign control, were drawn to the confidence and “Confucian glamor” that he radiated.

In Ip Man these individuals found a role model for the performance of (one version of) traditional Chinese values and identities in the modern world. This image led to the development of certain expectations that went well beyond the presentation of Wing Chun as a fighting system. When it was revealed that Ip Man was involved with another woman (other than his wife) during the 1950s many of his students took this to be a serious breach of their conception of “martial virtue” as well as their expectations of how a traditional gentleman should behave.

In point of fact the “traditional gentlemen” who inhabited the world of Ip Man’s youth took second wives with some frequency. Still this rupture in expectations hurt his ability to act as a role model. Many students left during this period.

This brings up one of the many issues that surround the question of role models. In technical terms such an individual is valuable because they demonstrate a new set of identities and social relationships that the student feels compelled to take on. They act as initiatory figures in the ritual of life.

Yet as a society we tend to place unrealistic demands on our role models. We want our youth to be exposed to only the most exemplary behaviors. This is the trap of the modern celebrity role model. Youth turn to celebrities (often in the sports and entertainment industries) as they are exemplars of both social and material success. The fact that their image is distributed through various mass marketing campaigns also makes them readily available for different sorts of appropriation and manipulation in youth culture.

Unfortunately the personal lives of many of these celebrities seem almost calculated to give parents and teachers heart burn. Actors and athletes are more often chosen for their unique professional qualifications rather than their ability to model the set of values (usually quite puritanical) that we wish for our own children. Nor is it always wise to delve too deeply into the biographies of your childhood heroes.

This warning also holds true for Ip Man, and many other traditional martial arts masters. As the younger son of a very wealthy family, Ip Man was not forced to do much to contribute to the family fortune. After returning to Foshan from Hong Kong he enjoyed a life of wealth and leisure as he focused on his martial arts and other hobbies, rather than making more concrete social contributions. To use modern parlance, as a young man the future master was basically a “kung fu bum.”

Accusations of drug use swirl around Ip Man’s career.  Opium was commonly consumed within elite social circles during the Republic period and Ng Chung So’s school (frequented by Ip) was said to be in the back room of a local opium den. Some of Ip Man’s students have also accused him of using drugs (either opium or heroin, accounts differ) later in the Hong Kong period as well. The historical reliability of these accounts is questionable.  Yet when thinking about someone’s value as a “role model” reality is much less important than perception. The current popular wisdom which will quickly be encountered by anyone researching the internet for details of Ip Man’s life is that he was a drug addict.

There are other stories about his career which, while not damming, do not easily fit into the sorts of exemplary modes that we wish to see our children emulating.  While the Ip Man of the big screen is clearly meant to be a hero, the historical figure was vastly more complex. It is not uncommon to encounter on-line discussions in which certain darker elements of his life story are held up as reasons to stay away from Wing Chun, or at least his organization.

Socially speaking we seem to reserve a special place in hell for (often reluctant or unwitting) role models who disappoint our expectations. Nor is Ip Man alone in this. The one fact that has become abundantly clear as I have researched the lives of many Republic era martial artists is that while most of these individuals had very admirable traits, few of them were saints. All of them were complex people with multifaceted lives. Ip Man’s recent prominence seems to have attracted a certain amount of negative attention that more obscure figures are often spared. Still, it raises questions of who could function as an effective role model in the current social environment.

Answering this last problem requires that we be willing to refocus our analytical lens on our own motivations. American society is marked by a certain sense of restlessness. In different times this has manifest itself in a variety of ways from the drive for independence, to the Jacksonian push to overthrow social restrictions, to “manifest destiny” as the country pushed west. We seem to be a people either geographically or socially on the move.

China (and by extension Chinese martial culture) has played an interesting role in all of this. So often it has become the “metaphorical other,” the foil against which we have defined our conception of self. As John Rogers Haddad points out, Chinese tea, served in blue and white porcelain bearing images of a wistful oriental landscape, were some of the only trade goods to be found in the majority of American homes from the middle of the 18th to the early 19th century.

Even more interesting to consider is that in an age before mechanical reproduction, when few newspapers had illustrations, the images of an idealized Chinese landscape found on these willow ware dishes was often the only pictures that one could find in the average American home. Is it any wonder then that when so many Americans dreamed of an escape from the drudgery of daily life it was to China (or more precisely the quasi-imaginary and mystical land of Cathay) that their minds flew?

Later in the 19th century with the advent of steam ships and rail roads (and the violent opening of both China and Japan by western imperialist) the dream of travel started to become a reality. Of course it was only a reality for the fortunate few. Most people remained tied down by work and family and commitments, and could not afford to spend six months on a grand tour of Asia. Yet in an era when the restless American spirit found its fullest expression in exploration and wanderlust, there was immense interest in those who could.

Haddad notes that the late 19th century, as a new round of western colonization was encircling the globe, was perhaps the only time in which travel writers became universally acclaimed national celebrities and role models. Within the printed pages of their journals middle class readers found entertainment, often dressed as educational expositions, in the vicarious voyages being mass produced by various newspapers and publishers.

Bayard Taylor became a national celebrity after the publication of series of letters detailing his journey up the coast of China and then to Japan (with Admiral Perry) in the 1850s. Lacking any form of scientific or geographic training Taylor relied on the art of analyzing faces and heads (popular in the 19th century) to divine the true nature of the communities who he encountered.

His judgments on Chinese society (then wracked by the Red Turban Revolt in Guangzhou and the Taiping Rebellion in Shanghai) were devastating. In China Taylor found a people who were prone to disorder, vice and violence. Apparently he made no allowances for the fact that the people he encountered were largely refugees from the most devastating civil war in human history. The Japanese he judged to be intellectually curious and progressive, a nation to be watched with empathy and great interest.

Taylor’s judgments helped to pave the path for the late 19th century Exclusion Act which barred Chinese immigration to the United States. They also seem to prefigure a long standing pattern in the role that China and Japan would play in the popular imagination. While America would go on to fight a bloody war against the Japanese, the public has always had an easier time accepting their aesthetic and cultural values. In the 20th century China, while still exotic, remained tinged with the perception of disorder and violence.

During the post-war period Americans were once again struck with wanderlust, yet increasingly it was the internal world to which they turned their attention. The exploration of the mind and the unknown kingdom of “personal potential” became major themes during the 1960s and 1970s. This quickly became bound up with the growing interest in Asian culture and art which was evident in many quarters of American society, from the 1950s veterans of the Japanese occupation to the counter culture movements of the 1970s.

At this cultural moment the ascetic discipline and philosophy of the martial arts became linked to the exploration of the self through altered states of consciousness. Here was a method by which practically any individuals could experience their body and senses in new ways, doing things that they had never previously thought possible.

While all of this is certainly true, it is also worth pointing out that what drove a peasant to join the Red Spears in 1928, or a teenager to study Kung Fu in Hong Kong in 1958, differed in important ways from the motivations of the average American in 1978. Here we see the wide scale adoption of Chinese physical culture as an expression of distinctly western political and social impulses.

Still, if one is going to radically transform the self, a “reference group” is necessary. If one is going to unlock the potential of altered states of consciousness, a guru or initiatory figure seems to be an essential part of the process. And if one enrolls your child in martial arts classes in the hopes that they will gain confidence, self-esteem and discipline, the promise of an appropriate set of role models is mandatory.



A rare shot of Ip Man enjoying a cup of 功夫网.  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.
A rare shot of Ip Man enjoying a cup of 功夫网.  Is the historic Ip Man your role model?




Reevaluating Ip Man as a Role Model


All of this brings us back to our opening question. Why is Ip Man a role model? The most immediate answer is that certain communities have decided to promote him as such because his public image has become closely linked with a set of social values that they hold. Still, it should be noted that not all of these communities share the same ideals. The Confucian behavior that was so important to his students in Hong Kong in the 1950s would likely go largely unnoticed (or unidentified) by his great-grand students in America today.

Their knowledge of Ip Man is not a product of personal contact and relationships within a primary community. Rather he is similar to other celebrity role models, the product of a commercial media discourse which individuals appropriate and modify (often in very creative ways) to their own ends. Often these have more to do with the expression of western New Age impulses and orientalist fantasies than they do an actual engagement with the complex and messy reality of Chinese culture. The memory of Ip Man becomes a screen onto which these various identities and yearnings can be projected. To borrow a concept from Adam Frank, Ip Man functions as a role model in the west to the extent that he can be imagined as simply the latest incarnation of the wise and eternally vital “Little Old Chinese Man.”

Of course all of this discussion leaves open the question of my own feelings about Ip Man and whether I personally consider him to be a role model. One of the hazards of going to graduate school is the slowly dawning realization that “theory ruins everything.”

On the one hand it gives you the conceptual tools and research skills to really delve into subjects of interest. Yet in some ways it makes the enjoyment of popular culture more difficult. After studying economics one sees market failures on every trip to the grocery story. Feminist theorists discover an unending stream of gendered discourses in every new television show, and historians can be very difficult people to watch movies with. Graduate school might make you smarter, but I am not sure that it makes you any happier.

On a fundamental level I am not really sure how useful the idea of “role models” are for understanding how new identities form. This was a concept that arose in the context of a specific theory and its ultimate value is something that sociologists and psychologists will have to determine. I am more certain that trying to make martial arts masters easily marketed “youth role models” by reducing the complexity and nuance of their lives is probably a losing proposition in the long run.

Still, I suspect on some level I do accept Ip Man as a role model. It is hard to admire someone who is absolutely perfect. One of the things that I find most interesting about him is that he is a very sympathetic figure. He was capable of being lonely and depressed, he had trouble sleeping and he loved nothing more than to watch building fires. His personal life was marred by constant disruption and frustrated expectations.

Throughout this all Ip Man demonstrated a remarkable ability to endure, to go on and build a new life in the face of disappointment. In a way his life story is emblematic of what was happening throughout Chinese society. He was born into a landlord’s family at the end of the Qing dynasty, he came of age during the tumultuous Republic, weathered the Japanese invasion and finally witnessed the victory of the communist party. Each of these events redirected the course of his life in important ways. These changes also transformed the role of the martial arts within Chinese society.

Ip Man had an opportunity to witness a period of immense social change. In every period he found a new way to live. Finally, in Hong Kong he drew on this accumulated wisdom to create a compelling vision of how Wing Chun could be transformed and promoted as a modern fighting system, one which would bridge China’s past and future.

Ip Man was many things, some of them contradictory. He was both a pragmatist and an idealist. He valued traditional culture, yet he was a reformer within the world of the southern Chinese martial arts. When faced with change and loss he responded by putting forth a burst of creative energy. In his martial arts instruction he advanced a series of questions that his students are still exploring today.

The pace of change and global transformation has not diminished since Ip Man’s death in 1972. If anything it has increased. Social dislocation and frustrated expectations are the inevitable results of these large scale economic shifts. What does one do when the dreams of past generations have lost their luster? Can greatness still exist in a world of diminished expectations? Ip Man’s life forces us to once again confront the central question, “What would you do?” In many ways he seems to be an ideal role model for the current age.







If you enjoyed this post you might also want to read: Ming Tales of Female Warriors: Searching for the Origins of Yim Wing Chun and Ng Moy.



Tai Hsuan-chih Remembers “The Red Spears, 1916-1949”

A soldier during the 1930s, armed with both a Mauser handgun and dadao.
A soldier during the 1930s, armed with both a Mauser handgun and dadao.





This is the second entry in our ongoing study of the Red Spear movement in northern China during the first half of the twentieth century. For a brief overview of the origins of this movement and its relevance to discussions of martial arts history please see here.

In the previous post I noted that the Red Spear movement has come due for reevaluation. Periodic reconsideration of key subjects are an important part of any historical discussion. In this case it may be especially useful as much of the literature on these events dates back to the 1970s and early 1980s. While the quality of this historical research is generally good, it goes without saying that much has changed since then. Our understanding of Chinese popular and martial culture in the Republic era is much improved, and this may alter how we frame the discussion of the Red Spears in important ways.

The theoretical interests of historians, social scientists and cultural theorists have also continued to evolve. Much of the previous discussion was geared towards uncovering the origins of this movement as a way of understanding the idea of “popular rebellion” in rural China. This in turn was one aspect of a larger Cold War driven research program focused on understanding the origins of the Chinese communist revolution.

While these remain interesting questions, current scholarship tends to be less willing to accept the Red Spears as a unitary subject of study and is instead more interested in questions of regional variation, how this social movement evolved over time and the obvious discomfort that its existence has caused so many commentators on Chinese society.

Students of Chinese martial studies are well positioned to contribute to this discussion. While unique in some respects, there are certainly a number of striking similarities between northern Chinese martial arts societies and Red Spear chapters. These extend beyond the simple practice of Kung Fu (in truth there are only so many ways to wield a dao or spear) and includes cultural elements as well.

For instance, students of martial arts studies will immediately recognize the sorts of legends purporting to explain the origins of the Red Spear movement. Composed in the 1920s they bear more than a passing resemblance to the sorts of “creation myths” which were being composed and circulated by China’s many folk martial arts systems.

The pattern of social organization seen in the creation of Red Spear chapters, where a village notable might sponsor the creation of an altar and school in the local clan temple has been observed in many other times and places as well. Lastly, some of the Red Spear groups discussed by Perry (see especially the “Big” and “Small” Hong Boxing Schools) were actually preexisting martial arts groups that appear to have gotten caught up in the early 20th century rush to construct local militias. They managed to outlive these trends and continue to be part of the martial arts community today.

Of course this will not be a one sided exchange. Students of Chinese martial studies also have much to gain from a reexamination of the Red Spear movement. Given the numerous debates as to the role of religion or spirituality within the Chinese martial arts, this is potentially an interesting case. While elements of different esoteric spiritual practices (including invulnerability rituals, spirit possession and magical healing) have long been present in a minority of folk styles in Northern China, over the course of only a few years in the 1920s these practices exploded in popularity and were adopted by more people than had likely been the case the during the previous century. So many men were being forced to join Red Spear units (the entire male population of many small villages), and the training regimes of these groups were so demanding (often meeting every day for multiple hours), one suspects that other more conventional martial arts practices were probably pushed into the background.

While the rituals of the Red Spears were direct descendants of various local religious practices, we must consider the possibility that there was nothing “traditional” about the sudden eruption of these practices in the 1920s. As Esherick has pointed out in his study of “Big Sword Societies” in the same region in the 19th century, there were always some groups that shared these general beliefs. Yet they were a minority with the local landscape.

So why in the early 20th century did this set of minority practices suddenly become a mandatory regime for most adult males between the ages of 16 and 60 throughout much of Northern China’s countryside? This is not only a puzzling episode in the history of the martial arts, but it would appear to fly in the face of much of sociology’s “modernization hypothesis.” Likewise the widespread nature of the Red Spear movement may provide us with a wonderful opportunity to directly observe how martial culture interacted with various aspects of local, provincial and national society.

Those interested in the Red Spears will likely find the existing English language literature somewhat limited. While this topic has also been addressed by scholars in China and Japan, the two most commonly cited sources on the topic in the western literature are Elizabeth Perry’s chapter on the topic in her important monograph Rebels and Revolutionaries in North China, 1845-1945 (Stanford University Press, 1980) and Tai Hsuan-chih book, The Red Spears, 1916-1949, translated by Ronald Suleski (University of Michigan, 1985).

In our last post we took a detailed look at Elizabeth Perry’s thoughts on the origins of the Red Spear movement, and the reception of her work within the academic literature. In today’s post we will turn our attention to the prior efforts of Professor Tai to bring the Red Spears back into the center of academic discussions of Chinese history during the Republic period.

Prior to the initial Chinese language publication of Tai’s monograph in 1973 the Red Spears had received virtually no sustained scholarly attention. This is quite surprising as they successfully mobilized hundreds of thousands of civilians to resist local bandits, the warlords, the communists, the KMT and the Japanese in quick succession.

Given their importance to understanding the local landscape of northern China in the 1920s and 1930s, it all seems like an unlikely oversight. Tai notes that in the more political atmosphere of the 1950s and 1960s the mixed legacy of the Red Spears posed a problem for all sorts of historians. While scholars in mainland China were happy to see peasants resisting the Japanese and KMT tax collectors, they were bothered by the fact that these groups tended to be led by the local gentry. As such they were staunchly opposed to the communists. While scholars in Taiwan were less concerned with the conservative and reactionary nature of the Red Spears, they were less happy to discuss the sectarian basis of this movement’s social organization, or its systematic opposition to the national government throughout the late 1920s and early 1930s.

In short, scholars tended not to discuss the Red Spears because this multitude of intersecting groups, stubbornly local by nature, did not fit into the dominant narratives of Chinese history that defined the post war discussion. I think that we can go one step further than Tai in suggesting how the Red Spears could be on the one hand a hugely popular social movement, yet also a somewhat embarrassing subject.

In the end it may all come down to the nation building project. Historians in both the CCP and Taiwan (and many in the west) have sought to weave competing narratives of China’s emergence as a “modern nation” out of the tumultuous ashes of the 20th century. Yet the Red Spears do not conform to this nation-building narrative.

It is not so much that they opposed the idea of a nation as that they were doggedly dedicated to ensuring survival at the local level. Specifically, the Red Spears stood ready to oppose any agent of national or social reform who threatened their parochial way of life. Of course everyone’s plans for nation building (no matter their ultimate origin) were all predicated on the extraction of massive amounts of wealth from the countryside in an attempt to jump-start various modernization, education and reform programs. Ergo the Communists, Nationalists and Japanese all got off on the wrong foot with the Red Spears.

The Chinese martial arts themselves were traditionally a product of local popular culture. While some reformers (notably the Jingwu and Guoshu movements) attempted to reform and harness these practices as part of their nation building program, a certain tension always remained between local pride and national identity. Nowhere can this be seen more clearly than within the ranks of the Red Spear Uprisings of the 1920s and 1930s. This parochial loyalty, as much as anything else, probably accounts for the hostile or confused tone of so many later judgments. The Red Spears turned out to be incredibly effective social organizers, but they had thrown their weight behind the wrong types of communities.



A nationalist militia in the 1940s armed with spears.  Many of these groups were composed of former Red Spear units that had been reorganized by the KMT.  Source:
A nationalist militia in the 1940s armed with spears. Many of these groups were composed of former Red Spear units that had been reorganized by the KMT. Source:



Professor Tai’s great contribution was to refocus this discussion and argue that a better understanding of this social movement was necessary when coming to terms with broader patterns of rebellion and revolution across northern China. Still, it is interesting to consider his motivations for writing this book in the first place. Most of his prior research dealt with various secret societies in the late Qing including the White Lotus, Hung Men and the Heaven and Earth Society. His previous book was an in depth examination of the Boxer Rebellion seeking the origins of the uprising in northern China’s village militia tradition (Study of the Boxers, 1963).

As a youth Tai had lived in the countryside of Northern China where his father was a wealthy landlord and lineage elder. Due to their visible social status the family became frequent targets for kidnappers. Tai, his older brother and father were all kidnapped and held for ransom multiple times. After a relative was abducted and killed Tai’s father organized a branch of the Yellow Spears (one of the many groups that made up the larger “Red Spear” movement) which met to train daily in the family home (most likely in the clan temple). Tai vividly remembered watching groups of about sixty men gather daily to perform rituals and engage in kung fu training in the family home. Later this group of Yellow Spears would become involved on the losing end of a pitch battle with other elements of the local Red Spear movement, resulting in the deaths of many of Tai’s relatives.

Given Tai’s deep personal connection to the Red Spear movement, it is important to note what his book is not. It is not a personal account, nor does it focus on the family events that Tai directly witnessed. Unfortunately these are mentioned only in passing.

Instead Professor Tai pursued his research into the Red Spears with all of the professionalism that one might expect. He relied on official sources that were recorded at both the provincial and local level. He also drew heavily on local gazetteers, contemporary newspaper accounts and even popular folk songs and poetry. Direct field work and interviews did not play as much a role in this work, but given Tai’s location in Taiwan and Singapore this is understandable.

In future posts I will engage with the actual substance of Tai’s research in greater detail. However, in this more introductory post I would like to make a few observations about his work. This volume is not without limitations. To begin with, it is now quite dated. Matters are also complicated by the fact that what the University of Michigan actually published was an abridgment of Tai’s original (much longer) volume. To “aid the reader” many names of specific groups and details (as well as entire chapters that the translator felt were too repetitive) were simply omitted from the English language version. The end result is extremely readable, but might contain less historical detail than a student of the Red Spear movement might wish.

There are two additional points that need to be assessed with some care. To begin with, Tai attempts to use the Boxer Uprising (1899-1900) as a theoretical framework for understanding both the village militia movement in general and the Red Spears in particular. However his understanding of the Boxers is fundamentally flawed. Interested readers will want to carefully compare his work to that of Esherick and Cohen. This may have had the unintended consequence of leading Tai to emphasize certain accounts and behaviors in an attempt to remake the Red Spears in a “Boxer mold.” Yet in reality the mold that Tai was working with doesn’t even fit the Boxers, let alone the much later militia movement, with much precision.

A number of other critics have already noted that while Tai preserves and publishes some really important historical sources, his book does not deal with any of the more theoretical discussions of social movements or banditry. This is true, yet readers should also be aware that Tai is not simply reporting his sources as he found them. The Red Spears were an incredibly diverse movement which varied both geographically and over time. Even two chapters in the same region might have important differences.

Suleski’s translation of Tai’s work carries an introduction by Elizabeth Perry. In it she outlines some of the research that looks specifically at this sort of regional variation within the Red Spear movement. Readers should note however that Tai himself does not emphasize this critical fact. He actually obscures it. Following the pattern set in his prior work on secret societies, Tai often sees larger, more coherent and hierarchically organized social structures than most modern historians would be comfortable with. This tendency towards unification allowed Tai to lump the relatively few sources that existed together into a single “coherent” description of how a “typical” Red Spear unit functioned.

Yet if you carefully examine the footnotes it becomes apparent that what Tai presents is a radically composite view of how the Red Spears may have functioned in general, rather than an actual account of what any specific chapter was really like. This limits the utility of his narrative for those seeking to explore geographic or temporal variations. It is actually a shame that he did not focus more heavily on his own family’s involvement with the Yellow Spears as that would have provided us with at least one firm and detailed data point.

Still, it is not my aim to dissuade readers from reading Tai’s research. It is full of interesting historical observations. Readers will want to pay special attention to the volume’s front matter. The introductory essay by Elizabeth Perry makes a very nice addition to her previous work on the Red Spears and introduces a number of the theoretical discussions that critics noted were missing from her initial work. Ronald Suleski’s introduction provides additional details about Tai’s background and the original manuscript.

Lastly, Tai asked his friend and colleague T’ao Hsi-sheng to contribute a preface to the volume. T’ao’s childhood and background were similar to Tai’s. His preface goes a long way to providing the sorts of personal recollections that are missing from Tai’s more conventionally scholarly volume. Students of martial arts studies will find T’ao’s preface to be one of the most valuable aspects of the volume.

Leveraging his status as an “inside/outsider” in Henan’s countryside, T’ao provides us both with a compelling portrait of local society as well as the place of the martial arts within it. His brief notes about high-school martial arts displays, and the role that these played in local marriage patterns, are particularly interesting. These are descriptions that we just do not find in most discussions of the Republic period martial arts, yet they are critical for understanding their changing place in local society.

Unfortunately I suspect that many readers will not actually get a chance to look at this material. Tai’s book is long out of print and tends to be a bit expensive. Worse yet, it is of an age that many libraries are purging it from their collections. Needless to say this is not a book that you can get on a kindle.

Many of the most critical historical observations within Tai’s work have made their way into Perry’s subsequent publications. To be perfectly honest she actually does a better job of contextualizing this information. Still, there are interesting elements within his work that are worth discussing.

In an attempt to aid readers who might not feel compelled to search out a copy of this monograph I have included a couple of extended quotations below. The first of these is the preface written by T’ao Hsi-sheng. This material will be of interest to anyone looking for firsthand accounts of the martial arts community in Northern China in the late Qing and Republic period. After that I included a shorter excerpt from Suleski’s essay describing Tai’s family history with the “Yellow Spears.” Readers should note that given the date of publication this volume used the Wade-Giles system.

Together these brief excerpts help us to build a more detailed understanding of the local communities that created and sustained the Red Spear movement. They also leave little doubt as to the value of martial arts training in everyday life and local culture. All of these themes will emerge again in future posts on the Red Spear movement.


Member of a northern Warlord Army displays his Mauser handgun and Dadao.  This picture probably dates to the 1920s.
Member of a northern Warlord Army displays his Mauser handgun and Dadao. This picture probably dates to the 1920s.  The Red Spears often clashed with similar soldiers.


Preface by T’ao Hsi-sheng (pp. xxix-xxxii)


In this book T’ai Hsuan-chih explores the role of the Red Spear secret society in the complex period between the 1911 Revolution and the Northern Expedition of 1928, and the ways in which the Red Spears were involved in the social and political problems caused by the warlords and the constant warfare which plagued China at the time. This historical period is too often neglected.

In the early Republic period such self-defense organizations as the Red Spears were largest and most numerous in Honan province. Before the 1911 Revolution I travelled with my parents through Honan, including the cities of Lo-yang and K’ai-feng, where I lived as a middle-school student. After the 1911 Revolution, I often visited Hsin-yang. My travels gave me the opportunity to become well acquainted with the social and political conditions of northern China through personal observation. There are several stories I can recall about local self-defense groups such as the Red Spears.

The area where the provinces of Honan, Anhwei and Shantung meet, where as I boy I traveled with my father, is notorious for bandits who shot whistling arrows to announce their coming. Although the common people there armed themselves for self-protection, they did not lightly oppose these bandits. Usually the police could not capture the highwaymen because they lacked information about their movements. Even if they managed to capture a well-known bandit leader, the leader might make a confession, or deny everything, but would never involve other members of the band or implicate those who helped him.

Southwestern Honan is mountainous and at that time was another area filled with bandits. At the end of the Ch’ing dynasty the highwaymen had strict codes of conduct among themselves. In one case, when a girl was raped the leader sentenced the responsible band member to public execution and all the members took this as a warning. One year, when I was a middle-school student returning to K’ai-feng from a summer vacation, our carriage passed through as area where the bandits came and went freely and the common people had built fortifications and earthworks to protect themselves. This brought to mind stories of similar situations in China’s past. The memory is still fresh in my mind.

To the south of the Lo River in Lo-yang hsien a road once ran into the mountains. At the end of the Ch’ing dynasty this was an area where the bandits and common people often confronted one another. In nearby regions, at the end of the Ch’ing, one could still travel to visit the temples there, but by the beginning of the Republic even the beautiful Ch’ien-ch’i Temple was used as a bandit headquarters.

Most of the men who lived in the village on the plain practiced the martial arts. My middle school in Honan was one of the first in the province and so it was well known. Behind the school was a large athletic field where, in addition to gymnastics, the students practiced the martial arts. I remember the most skillful students, two brothers who came from Lin-hsien and an uncle and his nephew from Sui-p’ing. In Lin-hsien every March a large competition in the martial arts was held just outside the city in which most of the youth participated. The best participants would dress as well-known heroes from Chinese history such as Chang Fei, Kuan-kung, and others. In Sui-p’ing hsien, people often encouraged their sons to train in the martial arts. They even employed teachers to instruct them, which accounted for their expertise. Young girls would stand at the edge of the field watching the competition and if they found a boy they liked they would seek out the head of his house to see about a marriage. My classmates at the middle school were some of these skillful boys from Lin-hsien and Sui-p’ing hsien.

At the end of the Ch’ing period the bandits usually practiced a code of honor among themselves. This was because the suppression of such rebellions as the T’ai-ping Heavenly Kingdom [1851-64] left provincial and county governors with plenary powers to impose sanctions upon bandits. At that time, provincial governors could deploy troops and local officials could even order executions. Long ago China did not have a police force because villagers organized for their own defense and local authorities supported the people by granting legal permission to carry out death sentences. If bandit groups became so strong that the people and the authorities could not subdue them, regular army forces were summoned. When this occurred, the local people sometimes suffered as much as the bandits at the hands of the government troops. Thus, villagers with martial skills assisted local authorities. But, if they could not overcome the bandits they often struck a bargain with them. In such cases the bandits would agree to cease operations in the immediate vicinity and in return the people would not organize against them.

In the early 1900s, I observed local officials who were appointed to posts in the countryside under orders to eliminate banditry. They considered themselves responsible only for chasing the bandits out of their hsien and sometimes they resorted to negotiations to accomplish this task. Knowing that their reputations would be enhanced if the bandits left the hsien, they would agree to refrain from punitive action if the gangs would abandon the area. In such a case they protected their own territory by moving the brigands into a neighboring jurisdiction.

With the beginning of the Republic conditions deteriorated greatly due to the imposition of special taxes, the spread of warlordism, and so on. Local officials did not protect the people and people could not protect themselves. Bandits were everywhere. They even invaded the towns and killed officials. Obviously these authorities could not protect themselves, let alone protect the people, and the army protected no one. The warlords had no morality and the bandits no code of conduct. Where was order to come from?

Once in the late Ch’ing a bandit known as White Wolf was captured, but the government released him with only a light punishment. In the early Republic this man became the leader of a bandit gang. Whenever the gang marched, White Wolf would lock himself in a covered sedan chair and give the keys to his followers to show that he had no intention of abandoning his comrades.

The roving bandit gangs were broad-based organizations but it is inappropriate to speak of them as heroes or romantic adventures. To protect themselves the common people formed their own broad-based organizations. These groups arose partly as a reaction to rampant warlordism and partly as a response to the depredation of the bandits. The Red Spears was this sort of popular self-defense group.

In this book Tai Hsuan-chih has provided an overview and analysis of the Red Spears and their organization. And the social and political environment which spawned them. The recollections from my youth are intended as an added, more personal glimpse of the Red Spears.


Militiamen with homemade weapons head to the front.  Photograph by Sha Fei, 1938-1940.
Militiamen with homemade weapons head to the front. Photograph by Sha Fei, 1938-1940. This photo also gives a fairly good impression of what a small group of bandits would probably have looked like.


Translator’s Introduction (pp. xxiv-xxv)


Tai Hsuan-chih was born in 1922 in Hsin-tsai hsien, Honan province, into a family which owned about four hundred mou of land near the Hsin-tsai county seat. His father was the clan elder who counseled clan members and every spring supervised the distribution of free food to members in financial trouble.

Tai experienced personally the conditions which led to the formation of secret societies and the way in which they were organized. Before Tai’s birth and during his childhood, bandits flourished in the vicinity of his family home. In 1912 and 1913 local warfare around Tai’s home became serious. Although the family employed armed body guards, Tai’s older brother, then four years old, was twice captured by bandits and had to be ransomed. When Tai was an infant, he and his mother were taken hostage by bandits and held for ten days. The most serious encounter occurred in August 1926 when bandits stormed the Hsin-tsai county seat and captured most of the males in the family, including the five year old Tai, his father and eleven year old brother. After about a week Tai’s brother was released and told to return to his family home to secure cash for the ransom of his father. Tai was also released by the bandits. After a month in captivity, Tai’s father managed to escape and rejoin his family.

In the spring of 1927, another Tai relative was captured and apparently killed by bandits who demanded money and opium. His body was never found. To avenge his murder Tai’s father organized the Yellow Spear Society [Huang-ch’iang-hui], which resembled the Red Spears. A large room in one wing of the family house, where Tai and his brothers and sisters used to study, was designated as the meeting room [hui-t’ang] of the society. A man known as Teacher Liang was invited to erect an altar in this room and prepare the written magic phrases. About sixty young men joined. Members gathered in the meeting room every evening after supper to practice with broadswords and perform many of the ritual training exercises described in Tai’s book. Tai, then a boy of six, would peer in the windows of the meeting room, observing the training of the society members.

Since his father was a graduate of a private academy in K’ai-feng, Tai has always felt that he did not personally believe in the power of magic incantations, but organized the Yellow Study Society so that clan members could protect themselves and their property from bandits. His father funded the society, but never took part in its rituals. It was formally disbanded in 1929 when the family left the countryside where they had been living since 1926 [sic?] and returned to the Hsin-tsai county seat.

Tai has had a distinguished career as a historian. He graduated from National His-pei [Northwestern] University in 1947, and taught at Taiwan National University from 1949-1969. He taught in the History Department of Nan-yang University in Singapore from 1969-1979, and has served as chairman of the department from 1975 to 1977. He has been a visiting professor at National Ching-chi University in Taiwan since 1979.





If you enjoyed this discussion you might also want to read: The Book Club: Chinese Archery by Stephen Selby: A critical text for all students of Chinese martial studies.



Happy Birthday 功夫网 (!) and More on Butterfly Swords at Sea

Image taken from a vintage french postcard showing soldiers gambling in Yunnan province.  Note that the standing soldier on the left is holding a hudiedao in a reverse grip.  Source: Author's personal collection.
Image taken from a vintage french postcard showing soldiers gambling in Yunnan province. Note that the standing soldier on the left is holding a hudiedao in a reverse grip. Source: Author’s personal collection.



功夫网 Turns Two Years Old!

Today is the second anniversary of my first post here at 功夫网.  The last two years have been a blast as well as something of a blur.  Looking back at my records it appears that this blog has now hosted over 200 unique posts.  Nor have most of these been “light reading.”  Quick estimations based on average length and word count indicate that I have now written about 1,000 single spaced pages and am closing in on a million words.

To say that this experience has been educational would be a vast understatement.  Education has always been this blog’s central mission.  There are currently no graduate programs that offer a Masters or PhD in “martial arts studies.”  As more writers and academics of various backgrounds enter this field it is necessary for us to explore the literature, encounter new perspectives and begin to craft our own opinions on a vast range of topics.  功夫网 was created as a vehicle to allow me to do precisely that in a slightly more organized and rigorous way than might otherwise have been the case.  I am continually surprised and elated to discover so many readers from a variety of backgrounds who are enthusiastic to sign on for this journey.  Thank you for all of your support and kind wishes.

I think that I can also say with confidence that the best is yet to come.  Over the next year I hope to tackle a number of exciting topics in semi-regular series of posts, much like our current investigation of piracy and the world of seafarers in the 19th century Chinese martial arts.  The blog will also feature interviews and guest-posts with important scholars in the field, further extending our understanding of what these fighting systems really are and how we can best go about understanding them.  Lastly (once some final timeline details get nailed down) I will have a couple of exciting announcements to make.

For today’s post I would like to go back and revisit an essay that I first published about four months ago.  My initial aims in writing this piece was to relate a few of my most recent findings on the evolution and use of the butterfly sword (or hudiedao) in 19th century China.  However, as I began to think about the topic I realized that the descriptions of life aboard southern Chinese merchant vessels included in this account were just as important as the explicit discussions of these sailor’s weapons.  Our current series of posts on the intersection of piracy and the Chinese martial arts was actually born out of this essay, so it seems only fitting that we go back and revisit it in greater detail today.

One of the issues that I find most interesting is the difference in powers vested in “merchant” verses “pirate” captains.  Robert J. Antony has noted in his volume Like Froth Floating on the Sea: The World of Pirates and Seafarers, that these ships, while manned by identical crews, were often structured quite differently.  Chinese sailors turned to piracy in times of economic stress precisely because it tended to pay rather well.  At minimum the wealth of pirate vessels was much more even distributed than the economic shares (or sometimes cash salaries) which sailors earned on merchant ships.

Still, this was no proto-democratic paradise.  Antony goes to lengths to point out the total and draconian powers that pirate captains had over their crews.  Officers could execute sailors (often in gruesome ways) for violations of the various “ships codes” that they created.  It was also not uncommon for the officers of these vessels to be “related” to each other through either actual or pseudo-kinship ties.  This may not surprise us as it sounds similar to the world of martial artists and secret society members.  Yet in structural terms it served to hamper “upward mobility” within pirate crews.

What was life like in the rest of China’s merchant fleet?  The sources we will be reviewing today paint a very different picture.  Sailors on fishing and merchant vessels were not paid nearly as well.  They were often the victims of various sorts of economic exploitation.  On the other hand relationships within crews, and between the crews and the officers, were not nearly as militarized as what Antony relates.

These descriptions leave us to wonder how much of the institutionalization of pirate life really reflected traditional modes of bandit organization rather than seafaring structures.  All of this is interesting as it suggests why poor peasants might be drawn to a life in trade or on the water in the first place.  That in turn allows us to understand one of the driving mechanisms behind the southern Chinese economy.  But before we get to these aspects of the discussion we will need to take another look at some clues regarding the development of the hudiedao (butterfly sword).  Enjoy!


The Butterfly Sword on Land and Sea

Understanding the actual history and use of hudiedao (or Butterfly Swords) reflects the challenges faced by students of martial studies more generally. These short paired swords, with their distinctive D-shaped hand guards, are one of the most commonly seen weapons in the southern Chinese martial arts. Wing Chun, Choy Li Fut, Hung Gar, White Crane and numerous other styles all train with these distinctive blades.

In fact, these weapons have become emblematic of southern Chinese martial arts. They have been featured in countless movies, television programs, instructional DVDs and public demonstrations. They have been popularized to the point that they are currently making routine appearances in children’s cartoons.

I doubt that it would even be possible to count the number of Wing Chun schools that employ the hudiedao (or Baat Jam Dao, meaning “eight cutting swords”) in their school logos and regalia. These knives function as a symbol of legitimacy on multiple levels. In post-WWII Wing Chun practice and folklore the knives have been reserved for only the “best” and “most dedicated” students. Demonstrating proficiency in their use indicates a mastery of the systems as a whole. At the same time they are undeniably exotic. There is nothing in the traditional western arsenal quite like them. Indeed, they have a number of unique features, and a somewhat shadowy history, even within their original Chinese environment.

Butterfly Swords have benefited immensely from the successive waves of popular interest that followed events such as the rise of Bruce Lee or the various Ip Man movies. This once obscure weapon now has its own pop-culture following. This in turn has led to the rise of all sorts of stories and myths concerning the origins of these blades.

Some seek to tie them to the Shaolin Temple, and claim that the swords were employed by the monks for protection on the road. Of course the actual historic accounts of the monks of Henan province never mention anything like butterfly swords. Other stories focus on the connections between the hudiedao and secret societies. Occasionally they are called “River Pirate Swords” by western weapons collectors. There is some evidence that both land and sea based bandits did employ these blades in southern China, though they had no special claim on the weapon.

It seems that this weapon’s recent popularity has led to a profusion of legends that have obscured and overwritten its more mundane origins. These swords seem to have existed in a fairly stable and recognizable form in southern China since at least the start of the 19th century, and possibly before. In fact, some of the earliest western descriptions of Chinese weapons in the Pearl River Delta region provide us with detailed accounts of these blades including their appearance and use.

Chinese language historical and military records have very little to say on the topic of Butterfly Swords. These weapons were never adopted by either the Banner or Green Standard armies. This is precisely what makes the early western accounts so interesting. They stopped to comment on things that were, at the time, either too basic or utterly uninteresting to warrant mention by most educated Chinese individuals.

Hudiedao appear to have started off as one regional variation of the numerous double sword traditions that had been popular in the Chinese martial arts going back as far as the Ming Dynasty. While different sorts of double sword traditions are seen throughout the country, the blades used normally resemble typical jians or daos. The shorter blades and D-shaped guards seen on southern hudiedao may be a result of contact with Europeans, though this point is still open to debate. Guangdong was more tightly tied into the global trade system than other areas of China in the 18th and 19th centuries and it is hard to ignore the passing resemblance between these weapons and western military hangers and cutlasses.

Far from being the weapon of only the “most elite” warriors, the hudiedao appears to have been popularized and adopted by a large number of 19th century martial artists precisely because it was relatively easy to master and adaptable to a large number of styles. In other posts we have already reviewed how the hudiedao was adopted as a standard sidearm of Guangdong’s provincial militia in the volatile mid 19th century because they could be mass produced and taught to new recruits who probably had some sort of background in village boxing.

During the 1840s government trainers provided daily drilling to literally thousands of militia members on the use of the hudiedao in and around Guangzhou. I suspect that this, more than anything else, might help to explain the subsequent popularity of the weapon with local martial artists. After all, individuals like Leung Jan and Chan Wah Shun were a product of this environment.  Should we be surprised that the two most commonly taught weapons in Wing Chun (the hudiedao and long pole) were also among the most commonly issued militia arms?

Of course double swords are also visually impressive weapons and they have always been a favorite of opera singers. Some of our best early pictures of their use show them in the hands of local performers.

The recent resurgence of interest in the hudiedao has been something of a mixed blessing. On the one hand these swords have become a powerful symbol of what is unique and interesting about the southern Chinese martial arts. Yet their original shape, history and capabilities are not well understood. The following post attempts to build on our previous discussions by introducing four new period observations of these weapons.

Two of these are early accounts (from the 1830s-1840s) in which western observers describe both the physical appearance of these unique weapons and the social environment that surrounds them. One account focuses on land forces while then other provides a much rarer look at the place of the hudiedao on merchant vessels.

The other two witnesses are both late 19th/early 20th century photographs. In both cases these images were published on postcards and have been previously overlooked by students of Chinese martial history. These photos are particularly important because they allow us to match specific examples of these weapons to a known time and place. As important as antique weapons are, they usually come to use as decontextualized artifacts with no known history. Collectors are then left to guess at their age and purpose. Obviously this makes it difficult to reconstruct the social history of these weapons.


Butterfly Swords in Sketches of China by W. W. Wood (1830)



A great variety of weapons, offensive and defensive, are in use in China; such as matchlocks, bows and arrows, cross-bows, spears, javelins, pikes, halberds, double and single swords, daggers, maces, &c. Shields and armor of various kinds, serve as protection against the weapons of their adversaries. The artillery is very incomplete, owing to the bad mountings of the cannon, and efficient execution is out of the question, from the ignorance of the people in gunnery. Many of the implements of war are calculated for inflicting very cruel wounds, especially some kinds of spears and barbed arrows, the extraction of which is extremely difficult, and the injuries caused by them dreadful. A kind of sword, composed of an iron bar, about eighteen inches long, and an inch and a half thick, or two inches in circumference, is used to break the limbs of their adversaries, by repeated and violent blows.

The double swords are very short, not longer in the blade than a large dagger, the inside surfaces are ground very flat, so that when placed in contact, they lie close to each other, and go into a single scabbard. The blades are very wide at the base, and decrease very much towards the point. Being ground very sharp, and having great weight, the wounds given by them are severe. I am informed, that the principal object in using them, is to hamstring the enemy, and thus entirely disable him.

Most of the arms made in canton, are exceedingly rude and unfinished in comparison with our own, In the sword-making art they are better than in other departments, but the metal is generally of inferior quality, and the form of these weapons bad; the mountings are handsome, but there is little or no guard for the protection of the hand.

W. W. Wood. 1830. Sketches of China: with Illustrations from Original Drawings. Philadelphia: Carey & Lead. pp. 162-163


When analyzing period documents it is necessary to start by asking a few questions about the background and general reliability of the author. William Wightman Wood (1804-?) is best remembered today as a poet and for the introduction of photography into the Philippines where he worked as a manager of a coffee and sugar plantation.

As a young adult he spent a few years living in Hong Kong and Macao in the 1820s and 1830s. While there he started the Canton Register in 1827. This was the first English language newspaper in China and it was made possible through the generous support of James and Alexander Matheson of the notorious Jardine, Matheson & Co. In addition to reporting the news Wood published editorials that bitterly attacked the British East India Company’s monopoly on China trade. He also vocally criticized the concessions that foreign traders were forced to make under the “Canton Trade System.” The paper ran only briefly before the East India Company forced Wood out. He later returned to the region and tried his hand at trade with little success. In 1831 he started a second newspaper, but that project also failed.

While he did have extensive “on the ground experience” Wood was notably less sympathetic in his views of the Chinese life and society than some of the other authors I have discussed on the blog. At the same time even his critics conceded that he was a talented writer and artist, and he certainly had an eye for the habits of daily life.

When looking at the specific quote above its interesting to note how Wood situates the hudiedao (always referred to in period sources as “double swords”) within his overall discussion of Chinese arms. He spends more time discussing them any other single weapon. He also introduces both the hudiedao and the bar-maces (sometimes called “iron rulers”) after observing the particularly “cruel” nature of some Chinese weapons. In the case of the butterfly swords he notes that one of the goals of these weapons is to “hamstring” one’s enemies.

This last point is particularly interesting. One would be tempted to simply dismiss it as a western exaggeration except that the guidebook to Nathan Dunn’s extensive collection of Chinese artifacts, displayed in Philadelphia in 1838 (10,000 Chinese Things by Enoch Cobb Vines), makes exactly the same claim. Dunn was an extremely sympathetic observer and a careful collector. He spent years cultivating relationships throughout local society and his Chinese agents brought him a wide assortment of artifacts and descriptions of their use.

I have previously wondered if this association of butterfly swords might not be a remembrance of their use in “hamstringing” as a judicial punishment by the Canton yamen. Some sources indicate that this punishment was used on those who attempted to escape prison or exile before being banned by Chinese legal reformers. However the appearance of this same story in a second source now has me wondering if perhaps the association between this weapon and maiming one’s opponent was not more widespread in 19th century popular culture.

More interesting still is the description of the weapons provided by Wood. Many of the surviving hudiedao and early photographs from the mid 19th century have surprisingly long blades.  Other examples from that period seem more designed as thrusting weapons. However the swords that Wood observed in the 1830s were much shorter, in his opinion no longer than daggers. I had previously assumed that the hudiedao shrank in size late in the 19th century, though this account seems to suggest that there were always shorter weapons in circulation. Or perhaps the length and heft of these blades was actually increased during the tumultuous 1840s and 1850s?

Readers should note that Wood mentions the surprising thickness and weight of the hudiedao blades. Apparently this, and their triangular flat ground profile, are characteristics that have remained stable over time. Lastly his observations about the quality of weapons made during the 19th century (poor fit and finish, but with the nicer swords being notably better) aligns with the description of other early collectors.


The Armory of the Wang-Ho as seen on an early 20th century postcard.  Note the Hudiedao in the rack on the back wall.  Source: Author's personal collection.
The Armory of the Wang-Ho as seen on an early 20th century postcard. Note the Hudiedao in the rack on the back wall. Source: Author’s personal collection.



Hudiedao and other Arms on Merchant Vessels


BOAT MAKING AND SAILING.—A large smuggling-boat constructed at Hong Kong, employed forty carpenters for one month and cost with rigging 1600 dollars. These boats do not last more than three or four years without repairing; their dimensions are about: –

Length…………………..70 cubits
Breadth amidship……….13 “
Depth of hold……………5 “
Height of the main mast…50 “
Do. Mizzen do…………35 “
Drawing water…………..3 ½ “

This boat would only be second class; the first class would be seventy-eight cubits long; a cubit is fifteen inches English. When fully manned, the crew are as follows: first and second captains, sixty rowers, and ten sailors to steer and shift sails. The crews are residents or natives of Whampoa; and if married, their wives are not allowed with them, lest their presence would damp their courage in danger. One of these fast boats will carry 350 chests of opium, or 400 of Congo tea. The profit from each voyage are arranged thus. Provisions, six dollars per day, or 180 Dollars per month; the proprietor then takes half, and the remainder is divided among the crew; the first captain takes 100 percent., the second captain fifty percent about all others on board. With a calm sea and a fair tide the boat can go six miles an hour without using sails, with a good breeze ten or twelve miles at the same time.

At night the “watch” consists of six men relieved every hour. Time is calculated by burning a joss stick (if they have no watch), with four marks at equal distances. A “watch” extends from one mark to another, and is lighted at eight o’clock, so they burn two during the night. The last “watch” ends at four o’clock A.M.

The armament is as follows: one cannon, twelve pounder, one do., six pounder; twelve gingalls or small rampart pieces, on pivots; one English musket; twenty pairs of double swords; thirty rattan shields, 2000 pikes, sixty oars; fifteen mats to cover the vessel, two cables, one of them bamboo, and the other coir, fifty fathoms long, one pump of bamboo tubes; one European telescope: one compass, which is rarely used, their voyages being near shore.

The crew seldom goes on shore. The captain has no power to strike any of the crew nor put a man in irons, but by common consent the disturbers are put ashore; no articles of agreement are entered into; the captain selects his men, and generally advances them a dollar or two. There is no medicine on board; no one is permitted to smoke opium, unless the boat is anchored in a safe place…..

R. Montgomery Martin, Esq. 1847. China; Political, Commercial and Social: In an Official Report to Her Majesty’s Government . Vol. I. London: James Madden, 8 Leadenhall Street. p. 99


Robert Montgomery Martin (1801 – 1868) lived a life of adventure and exploration of the sort that was really only possible in the 19th century. Born into a protestant family in Dublin, as a young man Robert was involved with voyages of exploration to Africa, the Indian Ocean and Asia. Later in life he became deeply involved in “the colonial question” and proved to be a prolific writer. In 1844 Martin was named the treasurer of the newly created colony of Hong Kong. However after falling ill and quarrelling with the governor he left the post in 1845 and thereafter turned to literature. Needless to say his extensive travels provided him with a seemingly unending supply of subject material.

While well-traveled Martin was certainly not an “old China hand.” He only spent a brief period of time in Hong Kong, though he did get to see the colony at a critical point in its development (he famously predicted that it would fail). Still, he had spent a sizable percentage of his life on various sorts of merchant and naval vessels. That probably explains the detailed interest that he took in the outfitting of a typical south China merchant/smuggling ship.

Obviously the important revelation in this quote is that by the 1840s hudiedaos had become a standard part of any ocean going vessel’s armaments. The ship described by Martin above carried a total crew of 72 individuals (including officers). In an engagement up to 20 of those people (more than ¼ of the crew) might be armed with Hudiedao. One would guess that most of the other would carry pikes or man the various guns.

While reviewing the 19th century literature I have certainly come across other references to sailors carrying hudiedao in the waters off Southern China. Yet this in the only inventory of a merchant ship’s armory that I have ever seen.

For years the received wisdom was that the hudiedao was a product of the late 19th century explosion of interest in the martial arts. It was seen as an eccentric, non-practical, weapon of martial arts masters caught up in their own warrior dreams.

These quotes, along with those presented here help to paint a different picture. The hudiedao was in fact one of the most commonly issued and encountered weapons in southern China. The government purchased them in large numbers and issued them to the gentry led militia forces of the mid 19th century. At the same time they were adopted in mass by a wide variety of civilians, ranging from private guards and opera singers to sailors and merchant marines.



Early 20th Century Images of Butterfly Swords


I would now like to briefly turn my attention to the two images which illustrate this post. The first of these shows a group of “soldiers” and civilians apparently engaged in gambling in Yunnan province in the early 20th century, prior to the 1911 revolution. Two of the individuals in the center of this frame are armed. The soldier of the right has some sort of ring handled sword (possibly a dadao like weapon) slung across his back. Unfortunately we can’t see its blade.

We are more fortunate with the individuals on the left. He is holding a single hudiedao in a reverse grip. One can just make out the shape of the D-shaped hand guard at the bottom of the handle. By my own rough estimate the blade of this weapon is probably about 10 inches (or about 15 cm) long. It also appears to widen about three-quarters of the way towards the point, giving it a flare similar to that seen on many ox-tailed daos (a weapon popular with civilian martial artists and marketplace performers). Given the resolution of the original photograph it is hard to make a definitive statement, but I would hazard a guess that this knife had a steel hand guard.

The second image presented in this post continues with the nautical theme introduced by Martin. It is taken from a vintage postcard in my own collection showing the arms room of a vessel called the Wang-Ho. I intend to take a much closer look at the strange story of the Wang-Ho and its sister ships in a future essay. However, for our present purposes it is enough to point out that the above image does not show an authentic mid 19th century armory.

Instead this vessel was bought in the opening years of the 20th century, refitted in Shanghai and sent to California (by way of Japan) to be a tourist attraction. The ship hosted visitors, featured a crew of “authentic” Chinese sailors, fought mock battles against pirates and introduced many people to a certain vision of Chinese martial culture and the martial arts. Of course the ship also featured a gift shop (where this postcard was purchased) which was actually located in the armory pictured above.

I think that we can safely assume that all of the arms in this photograph were either produced in Shanghai at the turn of the century or bought in its secondhand markets. There seems to be some variety in the polearms, but all of the hudiedao look remarkably similar. Given that they are nearly identical to one another I would assume all of these swords were made in a single batch.

While these swords have a more pronounced hatchet point than most modern martial arts weapons, their general blade shape is familiar. Compared to the swords of the mid 19th century these are very short and wide. While still capable of a thrust they have blades that would be effective chopping weapons. The D-guards are thick and highly reflective, leading me to suspect that they are brass. Also interesting is the fact that the quillions on these swords is rather short and clearly intended to protect the wielder’s wrist rather than to catch an opponent’s blade. This photograph indicates that the hudiedao that have dominated the modern imagination are a direct descendant of blades made in the early years of the 20th century. The swords that may have been used when these systems were first coming together in the 1840s-1850s were likely somewhat different.


A detail of the armory in the Whang-Ho showing the butterfly sword collection.  Source: Author's personal collection.
A detail of the armory in the Whang-Ho showing the butterfly sword collection. Source: Author’s personal collection.



Conclusion: What have we learned about 19th Century Butterfly Swords?


One of the ways of judging the maturity of a research program is by looking at how it responds to the addition of new observation. If our understanding of some theory changes radically every time a new piece of information is added, that is a pretty good sign that we are still building an elementary level of understanding. If, on the other hand, most newly discovered observations fit the general pattern that we have come to expect, that indicates that our theories about the past are starting to gain some traction.

This post has introduced four new puzzle pieces for individuals attempting to reconstruct the history of the hudiedao and understand how it came to occupy the prominent place that it currently enjoy in the southern Chinese martial arts. The two published accounts originate from the early part of the 19th century (the late 1820s and mid 1840s) while the two photographs capture events in the final years of the Qing dynasty.

In general I think that these accounts fit well with the understanding of the butterfly swords that has grown out of the previous posts on this topic here at 功夫网. The review of a standard ships arms locker certainly reinforces our previous conclusion that by the mid 19th century the Hudiedao had become a standard sidearm for not just martial artists and opera performers but also private guards, militiamen, sailors and law enforcement officers. Further, the weapon was already in widespread use by the 1820s, and possibly earlier.

For me the biggest surprise in these accounts was Wood’s characterization of the early hudiedaos as a dagger sized weapon. It is unfortunate that he never gave us the exact measurements as he did for the bar maces. But this might indicate that during the relatively conflict prone mid 19th century these weapons became longer and heavier as they were expected to see actual battlefield combat.

Finally the butterfly swords of the early 20th century assumed a set of proportions that modern martial artists would be more familiar with. Their blades remained relatively wide and hatchet-pointed, but they shrank in length to 8-10 inches. Of course given the tremendous variety in surviving 19th century examples, we need to be cautious about extrapolating too much from a handful of observations. While this seems to have been a general trend, it would appear that there was always a lot of room for personal preference in the construction of a hudiedao.

As we improve our understanding of these weapons we will simultaneously learn more about the environment that gave rise to martial arts like Wing Chun, Hung Gar, Choy Li Fut and White Crane. This can assist scholars in understanding their place in the development of southern Chinese civil society, and martial artists in assessing their progress as they attempt to understand and master these systems on a more technical level.



If you are interested in understanding the actual use of traditional weapons please also see: Tools of the Trade: The Use of Firearms and Traditional Weapons among the Tongs of San Francisco, 1877-1878.




A Hung Gar Story: Community, Memory and Reality in Hong Kong.

Chan Hon Chung
Chan Hon Chung




The academic life has a sense of seasonality. In a world dedicated to the creation and multiplication of identical, homogeneous and interchangeable units of “work,” this is increasingly rare. I think that it is safe to say that most teachers look forward to the summer as a time to catch up on their writing, and more importantly, reading. The production of articles, lectures, seminars and chapters depends on the steady consumption of literature, and yet in the crush of the semester most of us have very little time for reading.

Over the last few weeks I have found myself working my way through the pile of books and articles that I previously had set aside for later review. Most of this material, such as Antony’s monograph of piracy in the South China Sea, is resolutely academic in nature and directly related to my own research.  Yet every once in a while something a little lighter manages to emerge at the top of the pile.

Alberto Biraghi recently published a short memoir of his initial introduction to the Hung Gar system in Hong Kong where he studied at the school of Chan Hon Chung between 1977 and the middle of the 1980s. Titled, Hung Ga Story: Me and Master Chan Hon Chung this small work (just under 100 printed pages) is published by Blue Vision, part of Practical Hung Kyun.

This volume is a member of the growing genera of martial arts travelogues. Anchored by works as Angry White Pajamas, American Shaolin and Sugong such personalized accounts of western encounters with the martial arts (and Asian culture more generally) seem to be enjoying something of a moment.  Such stories offer writers all of the traditional opportunities that one expects to find in a good travelers tale. Yet this particular school of books also seems to tap into the need for a more detailed discussion of the nature, origin, history or simply the atmosphere of these communities.

This genre seems to be strongly marked with a sense of nostalgia. Even though most of these works were written quite recently and reference events that happened in the last few decades, they all emphasize the “closing of an era.” The community surrounding the Shaolin Temple which Matthew Polly first encountered when visiting the region is now only a memory. From Japan to South East Asia, authors paint a picture of communities in flux.

In some sense this reflects both the nature of personal reflection (our lives only seem to acquire meaning in retrospect) as well as the nascent orientalist assumptions of the audience. Readers are consistently drawn to stories of the “exotic East” and they seem to respond the most strongly to images in which that vision is slowly receding from view. Perhaps this is enough to allow us to maintain our faith in the existence of a genuine wisdom tradition while simultaneously distancing ourselves from the messy reality of contemporary Chinese events and attitudes.
Of course the other possibility is that the world that these authors are describing really is vanishing in a sense that moves beyond the simple generational churn that one expects in every new decade. This has increasingly become an issue in contemporary discussions of the martial arts in China. The Cultural Revolution did immeasurable harm to countless styles. Nor does it appear that the boom of interest seen in the 1980s and 1990s will be returning any time soon.

Traditional hand combat fared better in Taiwan and Hong Kong, both of which received large numbers of expatriate martial artists. Some of these masters were able to build impressive organizations which helped to transmit their styles both to the west and back to mainland China. Still, this more modern period of martial arts history doesn’t receive the same attention that older debates about events in the Ming and Qing dynasty do.

This is a shame as individuals who directly witnessed these trends (and their families) are often still alive. This provides us with an excellent opportunity to gather interviews, records and artifacts on a critical era in modern martial arts history. Further, a better sense of perspective on our immediate past might be very helpful in understanding the current state, or future prospects, of the Chinese martial arts.

These were the sorts of questions that motivated me when I first approached Alberto Biraghi’s memoir. I should state at the outset that while I am deeply interested in the southern Chinese martial arts, I am not a student of Hung Gar. As such I am not well situated to address the technical aspect of his discussion, nor do I wish to venture into any of the questions of lineage and politics that seem go along with all of these styles.

Obviously long time students of Hung Gar may find these questions to be a very stimulating aspect of this work. But my concerns were social in nature. How did the author describe the training environment in a typical Kung Fu school in Hong Kong during the 1970s? How did this institution function? What were the students like? What was the essential nature of this community?


The author (left) and Chan Hon Chung (right). Source:


Meeting Master Chan Hon Chung


It would be unfair of me to ask this work to bear too much weight. Clearly Biraghi was not writing with an academic audience in mind, nor did he travel to Hong Kong in the hopes of completing ethnographic research. In fact, the great value of this work lies in the fact that he appears to have been a fairly typical (if dedicated) “Kung Fu tourist,” but one who has the good fortune to be able to give a first-hand account of events in an important Hung Gar school in the 1970s.

The work itself is brief and the text moves along at a surprisingly fast pace. The book is split into a number of topical (roughly chronological) chapters few of which are more than three pages in length. As such the author’s story is told through a series of brief interludes rather than extended meditations. The end result is something of a page-turner as readers will find themselves drawn from one section to the next without putting the volume down. In fact, this would be great “beach book” and it can be completed in an afternoon.

The quality of the writing is a bit uneven most likely because the author is a native Italian speaker. On the one hand Biraghi actually manages to paint a fairly vivid picture of life in the school. He tells us about the little shops that sold Kung Fu gear, the ubiquitous tea houses in which so much of the city’s social life happened, and even the area’s exceptionally robust cockroaches which thrive in the near tropical environment.

At the same time sections of this book could have used more consistent editing. One also wishes that he would slow down in places and really reflect on what it all meant. His story revolves very much around the recounting of events, and not their comparison or analysis.

Still, I was surprised by the amount of good observational data in this book. Biraghi managed to capture the nature and tenor of Chan Hon Chung’s school quite well. He adroitly describes the fact that this individual was not simply the master of a form of southern Kung Fu, but was also an economic and social force within the local landscape. His school did not just train disciples, but it also created a surprisingly robust network of students and businesses.

One of the questions that I have spent a lot of time thinking about over the last few years is whether and how traditional Kung Fun schools were able to contribute to the creation of “social capital” within southern Chinese civil society. Social capital refers to the bonds of trust and reciprocity that make cooperative action (not enforced by either the government or economic markets) possible. When civil society has abundant reserves of social capital, political and economic institutions tend to function more smoothly. Society is better able to address its problems and conflict is reduced. Having too little social capital can lead to a number of problems in these same areas.

Obviously Biraghi was not attempting to address these questions as he discussed Chan’s relationship with his students, and the network of “Kung Fu Brothers” that he found himself enmeshed within. Still, it was hard not to notice how an organization like Chan’s helped to build bonds of reciprocity both within his immediate school but also throughout the local community.

Biraghi’s memoir touches (often in very brief or oblique ways) on a number of other issues as well. In it we see how rising real estate prices helped to destabilize and geographically displace all sorts of economic and social interest as Hong Kong became more prosperous. Anyone who has looked at the history of the city’s martial arts community can attest to just how important the real estate market can be. Likewise his discussion of the events surrounding Chan’s declining health (he implies that he suffered from some sort of dementia) and eventual death are also interesting. While not subjects that are normally discussed within martial arts circles (where such suggestions are often seen as very disrespectful), anthropologist and sociologists have long contended that understanding such moments of crisis within a community reveals critical information about the nature and function of the social units in question.

Most of the author’s discussion was focused on the big events of his first two or three training trips to Hong Kong. There is certainly interesting stuff in here, but I wished that he could have been more detailed in his treatment of events back in Italy as well. Throughout the book he offers us tantalizing glimpses of what the early days of the European Kung Fu Craze was like, but he never really delves into this subject. That is a shame as those events are just as critical to understanding the global spread of the TCMA as what was happening in Hong Kong. Further, English language readers are not often given an opportunity to learn about the development of the Italian or European Chinese martial arts community. To me this felt like a missed opportunity.

Still, for a book that aspired to be nothing more than a short personal memoir of one man’s introduction to Kung Fu, a Hung Ga Story touches on a number of the discussions that go on in Chinese martial studies. More consistent editing is needed, but my main complaint about this volume is simply that I would have liked to hear more. While I suspect that most readers approaching this book will be Hung Gar students, it may appeal to anyone who is interested in the southern Chinese martial arts.


Chan Hon Chung instructing a student on the wooden dummy.  Source:
Chan Hon Chung instructing a student on the wooden dummy. Source:


Conclusion: Finding “Reality” in a Chinese Martial Arts Community


One of the themes that Biraghi returns to throughout this book is the enduring quality of the friendships that he forged with his Kung Fu brothers and sisters. In fact, he spends just as much time discussing his classmates as his more famous teacher. It is clear that even decades later the author feels a very genuine sense of affection for his fellow travelers on the Hung Gar path.

These relationships seem to have provided much of the emotional fuel that powered the author’s Kung Fu journey. He repeatedly emphasizes the degree to which Chan’s school was an organic community in ways that later (more “rational”) Hung Gar institutions were not. He discusses his feelings of listlessness after returning to Italy at the end of his training expeditions and how one simply could not experience the “authentic” martial arts in isolation or (in his view) outside of China.

In fact, the author seems to make a very pointed argument that Hung Gar is in its essence not a technical system of physical movements, but is instead an expression of culture. He doubts the ability of anyone who was not born within the Chinese language and society to genuinely master the art, let alone teach it. In fact, one cannot help but escape the impression that for him the Chinese martial arts are “authentic” precisely because they emerge from (and ultimately reduce to) an expression of Chinese culture. Still, reading between the lines it seems that he felt that being immersed within his network of Kung Fu Brothers was enough to give him access to some of the inner aspects of the art, and make up for his own lack of deep cultural background.

The broader field of martial arts studies has recently been engaged in a discussion of the idea of “reality” in the martial arts and the media discourse that surrounds them.  While reading this book I was struck by the fact that what seemed to make Hung Gar “real” for the author, what gave him a sense of faith in his art and security in a foreign city, was ultimately the social network that Chan created rather than any specific technique or training method that he may have employed.

I think that this might be a critical idea to consider when thinking about the question of “reality” in the traditional Chinese martial arts. For most western students “reality” seems to be basically a byword for their faith in the art. It is important that a style “works” on the street or in the ring. Yet in some ways these discussions are always predicated on a rather unrealistic (if terrifying) scenario. We always seem to be concerned with being the lone victim of an attack by a stranger in dark alley where, like Chuck Norris, we have nothing but our two hands and our two feet to save us.

Yet this scenario might be the single most unrealistic aspect of the entire discussion of reality in the martial arts. In reality most attacks originate from someone we know, not a stranger in a dark alley. Most assaults in the US involve weapons. Many include more than single attacker or victim.

In another reading project (discussed here) I have been looking at some very different martial arts teachers and their organization in northern China during the time of the Boxer Uprising.  This was an important episode as it allows us to see exactly what community violence in China actually looked like at the turn of the century.

The results are not pretty. It turns out that martial arts schools were sometimes involved in attacks on innocent groups and unprovoked anti-Christian violence. Some of these were individuals who had trained their entire adult lives in boxing and fencing. And yet when they actually attacked their neighbors they did not use anything that would conform to our modern vision of the martial arts. Instead their most important weapon was fire which they used to burn down both individual homes and whole neighborhoods. Both bows and rifles were commonly used, and horsemanship was perhaps the critical “martial skill” that made all of this possible.

In short, when Chinese martial arts groups pulled out all of the stops and actually became embroiled in community violence, they fought in pretty much exactly the same way as any other group involved in an armed insurrection. Nor should this be a surprise. Traditional weapons were used on the battlefields of the Taiping Rebellion, but the conflict itself much more closely resembled the American civil war (with massed groups of infantry and lots of cannons) than it did a Kung Fu movie. Yet after the war many of these same veterans went on to teach martial arts for a living. Why?

I am starting to wonder if the problem is our basic assumption about the primacy of individual combat. The historical lesson to be learned from China’s rich history of social violence in the 19th century was that individuals rarely went to war, but communities often did. Therefore if one is really looking for safety, become part of a community that is cohesive, strong and loyal is a good idea.

As social change eroded traditional modes of organizations (such as clan lineage structures in the south) increasingly transient individuals turned to martial arts schools to fill that need. Thus a martial arts school “succeeded” in its central goals by creating a large and robust community of trustworthy individuals, and not necessarily by training the most skilled boxers in the shortest periods of time. After all, if you are really in trouble it will take more than two hands and two feet to bail you out.

Of course this is only one element of what a martial arts community could provide. It would also be a huge mistake to assume that all sorts of schools necessarily had the same goals. Still, as we look over the historical records there are enough instances of crossover between hand combat schools and either gangs or secret societies to lead us to ask some probing questions about how these students understood their economic and physical safety.

In future posts I intend to draw on the sociological and economic literatures to further explore these questions. Specifically I hope to discuss how groups might create a reputation that would attract dedicated members who are willing to contribute their own resources while eliminating “free riders.”

Widespread community violence was much less of an issue in Hong Kong during the 1970s when Biraghi was first visiting Chan’s school. Still, the strength of the social network that he created made a real impression on the author. If you are interested in Kung Fu travelogues, or find yourself reaching for a “breach book” this summer, you might want to consider this offering. If you are a social scientist it may instead by worthwhile to ask what attracted all of those bright young people to Chan’s school, and what sort of “realism” drove their Kung Fu dreams?



If you enjoyed this post you might also want to read: Telling Stories about Wong Fei Hung and Ip Man: The Evolution of a Heroic Type


Book Club: Like Froth Floating on the Sea: The World of Pirates and Seafarers in Late Imperial South China.

Chinese and British ships engaged in battle.  Source: Wikimedia.
Chinese and British ships engaged in battle. Source: Wikimedia.



Robert J. Antony. 2003. Like Froth Floating on the Sea: The World of Pirates and Seafarers in Late Imperial South China. China Research Monograph 56. Berkeley, University of California: Institute of East Asian Studies. 198 pages.



Introduction: Piracy and Chinese Martial Studies


This is the second entry in our occasional series on the intersection of Chinese martial culture and the world of merchants, pirates and seafarers in the Late Imperial and Republican periods. Our first essay looked at the historic voyage of the Junk Keying from southern China to the United Kingdom, where its crew introduced London to the first public displays of the Chinese martial arts to occur in Europe in 1851.  In the current essay we will turn our focus back to the east and look at the role of piracy in shaping life and commerce in southern China during the 18th and the 19th centuries.

To introduce us to this subject we will be discussing Professor Robert J. Antony’s excellent monograph Like Froth Floating on the Sea: The World of Pirates and Seafares in Late Imperial China (University of California, 2003). Many of the essays posted here at 功夫网 attempt to understand the evolution and development of the traditional martial arts of southern China. For students of this subject the world of pirates, merchant traders and impoverished fishermen is actually a critical topic.

Life in southern China was dominated by the sea. This was especially true for residents of Guangdong’s craggy coastline and the densely populated Pearl River delta. This same nautical primacy extended up through the coastal areas of Fujian province and Taiwan.

Much of southern China is cut off from the interior by high chains of mountains and deep river valleys. Few roads were constructed in the region, and those that existed tended to be harassed by bandits throughout the later parts of the Qing dynasty. As a result both agricultural and manufactured goods moved along oceanic, river and coastal trade routes.

One cannot underestimate the importance and size of this trade. Guangdong province handled up to 75% of all of China’s foreign trade in the early 19th century. Nor could the province feed itself. Due to movement towards sericulture and other cash-crops in the 18th century, the area’s population was forced to rely of frequent shipments of rice and other staple crops from South East Asia for its basic sustenance. A vast network of Junk merchants and local ports split these goods and distributed them to markets throughout the region.

Given the scarcity of high quality farm land in the coastal areas, large numbers of people also depended on fishing for their livelihood. While some well-funded outfits fished the waters of Indonesia and the Philippines, most ships worked the local waters. Individuals of modest means might fish during one season, and then find work as sailors on merchant or pirate vessels when the trade winds picked up later in the year.

Whether we are discussing trans-oceanic trade, river transport between villages or coastal fishing communities, much of life in southern China happened on boats. The world of merchants and pirates was not confined to a few large ports. In some way shape or form it reached out to touch practically everyone.

Nor was this an idyllic seascape. While vital economic arteries, the water ways of southern China could also be very dangerous. Pirates not only disrupted shipping, but they went out of their way to kidnap and hold vast numbers of individuals who were either ransomed or (more commonly) kept as a forced labor reserve on their ships. Merchant vessels carried large numbers of guns and professional guards, and still found it necessary to pay protection fees to the local pirate fleets. Indeed, the history and folklore of the region is replete with stories of individuals who took up the study of the martial arts, or founded schools, following an encounter with a pirate vessel.

Still, piracy does not seem to receive much attention in our discussions of the development of the southern Chinese martial arts. In some ways this is surprising as rural banditry, gentry militias, urban secret societies and tax rebellions have all become relatively common topics of discussion. Further, a number of local boxing styles contain references to the necessity of fighting on ships, or the invention of special techniques meant to be applied in confined spaces, in their creation mythology. Yet there has not been much actual engagement with the academic sources on local piracy and its impact on the development of southern Chinese popular culture.

Anyone wishing to learn more about this topic would be well advised to locate a copy of Like Froth Floating on the Sea. Written by Robert J. Antony, a professor of history at the University of Macao, this book offers a compelling review and reappraisal of the extent documentary sources on piracy in the South China Sea.  Engaging with the historical literature on marginal and criminal groups produced by scholars like Perry, Kuhn, Ownby and Murray, Antony creates a compelling account of the rise and fall of Southern China’s golden age of piracy while painting a vivid picture of these individual’s difficult and often desperate lives. His background in naval history allows him to discuss both parallels and contradictions with the evolution of western piracy. Further, his study moves beyond the usual large scale geo-political discussions of the causes of piracy to offer a much more detailed view which frames these predatory practices within the context of local market trends and social practices.


An image of Chinese sailors (often labeled as "pirates") taken from an early 20th century postcard sold in the United States.
An image of Chinese sailors (often labeled as “pirates”) taken from an early 20th century postcard sold to tourists at a nautical attraction in the United States.  Note the matching uniforms.


A Review of Piracy in Southern China: 1780-1810


Antony’s monograph starts off with an extended discussion of three distinct eras in Southern Chinese piracy. These are the periods of the Wokou raids of the Ming dynasty, the merchant and rebel “sea-lords” of the Ming-Qing transition, and finally the more plebeian criminal networks that dominated coastal piracy in the late 18th and early 19th century. It is this last period that his monograph will explore, yet a better understanding of the previous eras of piracy (and what drove them) throws the theoretical questions that motivate his study into sharper relief.

Following this introduction Antony offers two chapters that look at the economic and social structures of life in coastal China. This is explored from both the perspective of individuals who worked in the mercantile and the fishing sectors. The evidence presented in these chapters strengthens the author’s main theoretical arguments that piracy was an essentially economic response to desperation and changes in local market conditions.

Rather than their being a special class of “professional pirates,” Antony argues that essentially any of the impoverished individuals that comprised southern China’s water world might be driven to opportunistically take up criminal behavior. Further, it was not uncommon to encounter individuals who might turn to piracy during a specific crisis (or a slack season) only to return to their normal civilian life once the situation settled.

While a handful of individuals took advantage of favorable geo-political conditions to build vast criminal fleets, it seems that most pirates of were basically amateurs. Even more interesting is his discussion of the fact that the majority of sailors in the larger gangs were actually “reluctant pirates,” or prisoners being held for forced labor. This unpaid work was actually the key ingredient in making piracy pay.

Antony next turns to a detailed investigation of the role of violence in piracy. Many accounts of such encounters paint pictures of almost indiscriminate murder, rape and torture, whereas others show pirates conducting trade with local populations, inducing sailors to join their ranks through the promise of treasure and offering protection to local shipping that agreed to sail under their flag. One of the author’s strengths is his ability to wade through the various popular and official accounts of pirate behavior and paint a more comprehensive picture of the social, economic and psychological logic behind their actions.

While it is easy to fixate on accounts of human sacrifice or torture, Antony reminds us that the Chinese state itself was a violent institution that attempted to enforce social order through public displays of terror. Many of the excesses of these rouge seamen are best thought of as conscious imitations or appropriations of this “official terror” which became useful as these groups sought to establish their own hegemony over local society. Other more heterodox behaviors (such as the performance of human sacrifices or unorthodox patterns of sexual relationships) can be thought of as a more or less conscious inversion of the dominant Confucian order.

This pattern of dual appropriation and inversion of orthodox social norms calls for some careful consideration. How should we think of these subaltern social groups? Do they represent a nascent revolutionary urge, as small scale democracy among western pirates is often portrayed? Or is something else going on here?

When looking at a related set of issues among contemporary petty criminals in southern China and Taiwan, Avron Boretz has argued that we should resist the temptation to see this socially constructed subaltern world (the so called land of “Rivers and Lakes”) as a genuine threat to the dominant social order. Boretz notes that while these gangsters contest who should sit at the top of the social hierarchy, they do not ask more fundamental questions about its existence. Likewise, while their own thoughts on “martial virtue” are often used to justify their anti-social behaviors, the more fundamental motivations that lay behind these specific expressions serve to strengthen, rather than undermine, the basic norms of Chinese society.

One suspects a similar argument might be made about the social realm of southern Chinese pirates. In one sense this was a true community that cut across linguistic, ethnic and provincial boundaries. It was ruled by its own economic and social logic. It even tended to develop its own highly colorful and criminal vocabulary.

Still, Antony’s discussion suggests that pirate communities continued to rely very strongly on more general cultural norms and institutions. The leadership of crews often followed pseudo-Confucian patterns of fathers and son, masters and disciples. While they may have contested who had the right to collect taxes in certain ports, we should probably resist the temptation to think of Southern China’s pirates as a “revolutionary force” in either a Liberal or Marxist sense.

I personally found chapters six and seven to be the most interesting aspect of the study. They may also contain some of the most useful material in the volume for students of martial arts studies who are attempting to construct a more detailed understanding of the underside of Chinese society in the 19th century.

Chapter six moves beyond the basic descriptions provided in the first half of the book, providing a more detailed discussion of how large numbers of pirates integrated themselves into the maritime society and markets of the early 19th century. This includes discussions of how pirates interacted with communities on the land. Some of these were the targets of extortion, but in many other cases the interactions were commercial in nature and highly favorable to those who were able to sell the seamen food, water, nautical supplies or weapons. Other communities became safe havens for pirate ships who needed to put in for repairs, recruit crews, exchange information or to sell their stolen goods.

As Chinese officials have noted throughout the centuries, pirates would be unable to operate except for the constant support that they receive from individuals and communities on the land. Indeed, as piracy became a major avenue for capital accumulation (even compensating for insufficient legal markets in some areas), all sorts of individuals discovered that they could prosper by actively or passively aiding these criminal groups.

As helpful as this chapter was, it was one area of the book where I personally wanted to see more. At various times Antony mentions fascinating tidbits, such as the occasional collusion between pirates and urban secret societies, or the participation of petty merchants (and even whole markets) in the disposal of stolen goods. These are subjects that deserve a more detailed investigation.

How exactly did pirates and secret society members relate to each other? Did pirates join the Triads or otherwise adopt elements of their lore? Likewise, what happened to the social structure of coastal villages whose economic fortunes came to be dominated by occasional (or even more frequent) piratical encounters?

The final substantive chapter of this book provides a brief glimpse into the “cultural world” of southern China’s pirates. Again, these pages make a major contribution to our understanding of this material. Antony’s description of the popular religions and cults that dominated the lives of both sailors and pirates is fascinating. His reconstruction of this cultural milieu is all the more impressive when we remember that the main sources that he drew from (official reports, court documents and gazetteers) tend to avoid any detailed discussions of local (heterodox) religious practices.

Here we have another area where Antony whetted my appetite and left me wanting more. How much more one can actually expect to find in the relatively thin historical record is another matter. Certainly this is an issue that students of martial arts history can sympathize with.

Nevertheless, I suspect that there are a few avenues of investigation that might be fruitful, especially if one is considering expanding the study to look at the interaction between piratical and coastal communities in greater detail. Martial artists would probably be very interested in learning more about the relationship between these gangs and the various opera companies that plied the waters of southern China. Given that operas were staged at coastal temples that pirates were known to frequent, these groups must have come into at least occasional contact. Did traveling opera singers fit into the environment of wandering (sometimes violent) seamen that Antony describes, or did their own guilds and social structures prevent them from fully integrating into the world of sailors that surrounded them?

Also interesting would be a fuller account of how pirates were perceived and portrayed in the popular literature of the period. Obviously their occasional occurrence in martial arts novels is fascinating. Researchers might also want to look for evidence that they may ever have appeared as figures in Cantonese military operas or in the tales of traveling story tellers.

Ironically actual martial artists were often among the most enthusiastic consumers of the various genera of Kung Fu fiction. The literary and cultural discourse on the martial arts has probably been impacting their perception and practice from time immemorial.

Boretz has also noted that petty gangsters in contemporary southern China consume huge amounts of clearly fictional media glamorizing the world of “River and Lakes.” What about the pirates? To what extent was their behavior a response to, or an extension of, social scripts that were being propagated throughout popular culture?

In the final chapter Antony reviews some of the larger theoretical issues that arise throughout the monograph. What is the value of doing “bottom up” historical research when attempting to understand the development of popular society? The points that he raises will no doubt sound familiar to students of martial arts studies.


Captured pirates in the 1930s.  Source:
Captured pirates in the 1930s. Source:


Conclusion: A Critical Study of Social Violence in 19th Century Southern China


Our understanding of the history and nature of the martial arts can grow no faster than our overall grasp of the development of popular culture in China’s many regions. The martial arts (as we understand them today) are a byproduct of the development of certain trends in Chinese popular culture during the Late Imperial and Republic periods. Unfortunately our understanding of this subject is still incomplete and subject to continual refinement.

This is precisely what makes Like Froth Floating on the Sea an essential book for any student of the development of the southern Chinese martial arts. This may seem like an odd assertion as Professor Antony never mentions boxing or any other sort of hand combat training within the text. He is totally preoccupied with his own subject matter.

Still, rampant piracy on the sea (and banditry on land) defined the environment in which the Chinese martial arts would develop. This is especially true for those styles that originated in the coastal regions of both Guangdong and Fujian province. Understanding the environment in which these arts arose is critical to grasping their actual goals and essential nature.

While reviewing Antony’s manuscript I was struck with another thought. The socio-economic profile of those individuals who were most likely to be caught up in a life of piracy (“bare branches” or young unmarried men with few family connections or economic prospects) closely matches the contours of individuals who tended to become boxers, “braves” or members of “big sword” societies. By introducing their life stories (usually culled from court documents) Antony confirms many of the root factors that drew individuals towards a life of wandering and violence.

For these reasons I have always been happy to recommend this book to anyone trying to get a handle on the basic nature of social violence and human security in Late Imperial southern China. This volume is compact (170 pages of text) and a determined reader can probably make their way through it in a day. It provides enough information (all culled from important historical sources) to give academic students a comprehensive introduction to the subject without getting bogged down in any one theoretical debate.

In short, we need to see more books like this one in the field of Chinese martial arts history. It had been a few years since my last review of this text, and as I made my way through the book earlier this week I was once again struck by its handy layout and fast pace. Similar studies on armed escort companies, the recruitment of “braves” during mid-19th century uprisings, salt smuggling, the traditional weapons manufacturing industry or even the imperial military examination system, would go a long way towards improving our understanding of the environment in which the martial arts appeared.

Professor Antony deftly illustrates how highly focused studies such as these, examining a single subject in one region over the course of a decade or two, can generate finely grained historical observations that are critical to all sorts of debates ranging from the construction of gender norms to the importance of geo-political factors in stimulating local outbreaks of community violence. Not only does he provide us with valuable data, but this work is also a template that anyone considering a historical volume on the development of some aspect of the Chinese martial arts may wish to consider.

Clearly this monograph has succeeded in its central goal of explaining who in China became pirates and why. It has also been successful in generating a whole host of new questions that I would now like to know more about. Chapters from this text would be wonderful as supporting material in an undergraduate course on martial arts studies, and I would have no reservations about using this book in a graduate seminar. Antony’s work deserves a place on the bookshelf of any serious student of Chinese martial arts history.




If you were enjoyed this post you might also want to read: Nick Hurst Talks to 功夫网 about Writing, Research, and Curating the Memory of a Shaolin Grandmaster.


From the Archives: Taming the Little Dragon – Symbolic Politics and the Translation of Bruce Lee.

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


***Welcome to this weeks exploration of the archives.  My writing/editing project has been progressing well and I am getting closer to announcement time.

This last week I found myself revisiting a discussion of Bruce Lee’s role in the globalization of the Chinese martial arts.  As such I thought that it would be appropriate to go back and take a look at one of the first essays that I wrote on Lee.  In this piece I tried to think about what he represented in modern popular culture by looking at the public response to the use of his image in two recent advertising campaigns.  This post has subsequently become one of the most popular pieces here at 功夫网The original draft and comments can be found here.  Enjoy!****


My Definite Chief Aim

I, Bruce Lee, will be the first highest paid Oriental super star in the United States. In return I will give the most exciting performances and render the best of quality in the capacity of an actor. Starting in 1970 I will achieve world fame and from then onward till the end of 1980 I will have in my possession $10,000,000. I will live the way I please and achieve inner harmony and happiness.

-Bruce Lee, Jan. 1969


A good teacher protects his pupils from his own influence.

-Bruce Lee, paraphrasing educator Amos Bronson Alcott.




Introduction: Bruce Lee as Symbol

It is hard to overstate Bruce Lee’s influence on the development of the traditional Asian martial arts in the western world.  Certainly some people practiced various disciplines before his time.  Yet in his brief tenure as both a movie star and promoter of the martial arts he opened these styles to a broader range of individuals than anyone had imagined possible.  This was all the more remarkable as martial reformers in China had been trying to modernize and ignite the martial arts as a mass phenomenon since at least the 1910s.  By in large they failed to do so, even when they enjoyed considerable government backing.

How did one individual, working in Hollywood and Hong Kong, manage to accomplish what had eluded so many others?  Even more interesting is the fact that the Kung Fu explosion that Lee ignited actually burned the fastest in the west.  This week is the 40th anniversary of Lee’s death.  It seems like the proper time to stop and reflect on some of these critical questions.

I myself am not a Bruce Lee expert.  I was born too late to have any memories of his impact on popular culture.  And while most of my research does focus on the southern Chinese martial arts, my main period of interest is actually 1850-1950.  While a critical subject, Lee has always been slightly tangential to most of the questions that I ask.

Still, this is not a topic that I can easily overlook.  One of the reasons that I study 19th century manifestations of globalization in southern China is to understand more about our current era of economic, social and cultural exchange.

Lee remains as critical to the global image of the Chinese martial arts today as he did the moment Enter the Dragon was released (which is also enjoying its 40th anniversary this month).  Lee’s body of work is still serving as a cultural bridge, encouraging encounters between groups of people that might not otherwise think very much about each other.  It is hard to imagine that any other figure could have been so gripping, or would have fit that era quite so well.

Yet it is not enough to simply describe the past.  The 1970s were the start of our current era of globalization, but this phenomenon has not been a constant force over the last 40 years.  It accelerated rapidly as both the economies and societies of the western and eastern hemispheres underwent fundamental transformations.  The Hong Kong of the 1950s is almost unrecognizable from our modern vantage point.

Many of the social triggers that Lee tripped in the 1970s were unique to that era.  His early films in Hong Kong tapped into a vast reservoir of anti-Japanese animus and class tensions.  These were palatable forces that shaped life in the city.

Meanwhile his American audiences were drawn to different aspects of his film and television career.  Many social theorists have noted that Lee’s appearance coincided with an era in which the US was struggling to come to terms with its defeat in the Vietnam War.  Lee’s personal philosophy was eclectic, drawing on elements as diverse as Chinese Daoism, New Age gurus and Alan Watt’s seminal writings on Zen Buddhism.  This unique blend of outlooks seemed almost tailored to appeal to both counter-culture and libertarian strains in American thought.  Further, the inherent radicalism of Lee’s message and his violent on-screen appearance (usually in the service of social justice) made him immediately relevant to larger discussions of race and ethnicity in America.

The social landscape of the current era is very different.  The basic legacies of the 1970s, when 1960s radicalism was transformed into something safer and more commercial, are still very much with us today.  I think you can still see some of these discussions (particularly as they relate to race, gender and equality) as the foundations that our current social edifices are built on top of.  And yet the actual issues and discursive terrain of the current era are unique.

Most of the students I teach now do not remember very much of the pre-9/11 era.  I find myself having to give quick historical lessons so that we can discuss important events of the Cold War in my international relations classes.  I can assure you that none of my students lose sleep over the Vietnam War.

In fact, not much from the 1970s is still sought in the current era.  Most of the popular culture of that decade has been discarded without a second glance, but Bruce Lee survives.  He has been a near permanent fixture on the covers of martial arts magazine for the last two decades.  He has inspired more movies, documentaries, books, magazine articles and other tributes than any other martial artist in the world.  How has he maintained this degree of social relevance?  In an era when everything else has changed, why is Bruce Lee still cool?


Bruce Lee executes a spectacular flying kick while filming "Game of Death."
Bruce Lee executes a spectacular flying kick while filming “Game of Death.”


The Evolution of Bruce Lee

Lee is remembered in many ways.  That is really the crux of our problem.  To some he was a martial artist and reformer, to other he was a fitness guru.  Some focus on his philosophy (making him perhaps the first martial artist to arise as a “public intellectual” in the west) and of course there seems to be an entire cottage industry devoted to reducing his arguments and interviews to decontextualized, almost random, “thoughts of the day.” He was also a dedicated actor and film maker.

In fact, in Bruce Lee’s life acting came first.  His father was a well known star of both stage and screen.  While the two were never close its not surprising that Bruce would have enjoyed early exposure to the family business.  He appeared in about 20 films as a child star and achieved a certain level of fame early in his life.  Kung Fu came later.

If there is one thing that unites Lee’s diverse fan-base it is his sheer physicality.  The most iconic images of Lee, such as the sparing match at the Shaolin temple in Enter the Dragon, focus almost entirely on his physical form.  Fashion may come and go, but muscles are timeless.  The dedication and drive behind that degree of physical perfection stands out no matter what decade we happen to live in.

Calm and emotional, still and violent in turns, this image has become a potent symbol for what the individual can achieve and become.  It is this symbol that gives meaning to Lee’s various statements.  His image is the engine that generates the fictive power behind his Kung Fu fantasy.

Paul Bowman has argued in his recent work that Lee cannot simply be read and deconstructed as a text.  My background is not in the same sort of social theory, but I largely agree with his conclusions.  Turning to the language of social anthropology, Lee became more than just one more commercial product because he became a powerful symbol of wish fulfillment.

The interesting thing about symbols, as Victor Turner argued, is that they are by definition multivocal.  Every symbol can be read in more than one way.  In a ritual the color red can mean: war, blood and death.  Or alternatively it could be interpreted as: Blood, birth and life.

The individual who perceives the symbol becomes part of the interpretive process and is transformed (to some degree) by what they feel.  And while a symbol might be interpreted in a specific way in a given context, it still draws emotional power from the vast range of unstated possibilities that always rest just beneath the surface in our subconscious mind.

This may seem somewhat complicated but it is actually something that most of us are familiar with.  Classic stories and parables (such as the creation myths for many Chinese martial arts) never seem to get old.  That is because these stories are often rich in abstract symbolic elements (“Why is it important that Ng Moy fled to White Crane Mountain?”) and every time we encounter these story elements we read them slightly differently.  The story may not change, but the reader certainly does.

Lee’s sheer charisma and physicality appeared in the popular consciousness at a time when people were actively looking for alternate ways of understanding their lives and achieving personal transformation.  Further, Lee himself seems to have been aware of the multivocality of the symbols that he was creating.  He consciously crafted not one but multiple Kung Fu myths.

I should stop and point out that in the current context I am using the terms “myth” and “fantasy” in their most positive aspects.  While these words are often used to denote something that is “not true,” anthropologists and psychologists are most interested in how myths open a space for “mental play.”  This allows individuals to imagine themselves in different role and therefore to undergo actual self-transformation.  Again, as Victor Turner pointed out, there are definite reasons why myths so often accompany rituals and “rites of passages.”  All of these things are just different ways in which the multivocal power of symbols can be harnessed in a social setting.

This brings us back to Lee’s somewhat paradoxical public image.  His films (produced in Hong Kong) were rife with anti-Japanese animus, yet in real life some of Lee’s closest friends were Japanese?

Western theorists often focus on the issue of race when analyzing Lee’s films, but the much more obvious concern is class and social justice.  Nor was this simply confined to his on-screen characters.  By all account Lee could not stand to see the little guy get knocked down.  And yet he associated freely and easily with Hollywood’s elite, including many of the most powerful and famous individuals of his time?

When teaching Jeet Kune Do, or writing about the martial arts, Lee was a relentless missionary for the simple, the direct and the utilitarian.  He never missed an opportunity to excoriate the “classical mess” which he perceived in the stubborn traditionalism of the other Japanese and Chinese styles.  Yet on screen Lee never used a front kick where a spectacular flying sidekick could be worked in.  On the one hand Lee was a stubborn advocate for simple utilitarianism; on the other he was busy creating the sorts of camera wizardry and visual illusions that would take the traditional Hong Kong action films into the twentieth century.

We even see this in the two quotes at the top of this post.  When discussing the ideal teacher Lee’s concern is not to smother the individuality of the student.  Yet at the same time he relentlessly drives himself to accomplish career goals that depend to selling a uniform and commercialized vision of the martial arts to a vast number of people.  Nor was Lee much of a romantic about what it took to succeed in the unforgiving entertainment industry.

It would be beyond pointless to ask which of these quotes, or which Kung Fu fantasy, represents the “real Bruce Lee.”  They both did.  Identities are complex, careers have many aspects to them, and a single symbol can power many projects.

Different individuals in the west seem to have various strategies for dealing with the almost dialectic tension between Lee’s multiple, sometimes contradictory, contributions to popular culture.  Some individuals focus only on one aspect of his career, be it his films, his life philosophy or his “serious” martial arts writing and thought.  Other individuals adopt a more hybridized view.

I must admit that I am always a little unsure how to react when I hear students attempting to relate a quote form one of Lee’s movies or TV performances to a practical hand combat problem.  The obvious question is whether that quote is really Lee the “martial artists” speaking, or whether it was Lee the “script writer and advertising genius.”

This sort of tension is inescapable when you think about Lee (or are surrounded by a lot of people who think about him constantly).  It makes you really wrestle with what he was attempting to say and ask the more fundamental question of whether he really had anything to say at all.  Was Lee an original thinker, or was he simply a product of his times?

Yet if Lee was just the vectored sum of the nascent forces of globalization, why did he succeed with such style when so many others failed to launch?  After all, the Hong Kong film industry had been trying to go global for a long time before Lee showed up.  For whatever reason, it just wasn’t clicking.  He was the missing ingredient.

It is this sort of emotional investment on the part of individuals that makes the “Bruce Lee symbol” function.  His work established a sort of dialectic, and we find ourselves caught in the middle.  Can I really improve Wing Chun’s footwork by looking to western fencing and boxing?  Was there really a fully functioning branch of the Shaolin temple in Hong Kong during the 1970s?  Lee’s brilliance was to appeal both to our romantic and modern yearning, often at the same time.

If he had not sculpted himself into a “master symbol,” none of this would have been possible.  If his career had depended solely on unified and coherent texts, easily accessible to any member of the audience, this would not have been possible.  Lastly, if Lee had decided that he would focus on only the Chinese or American audience, this would not have been possible.

It was his ability to put the audience member or martial arts student in the middle of all of this, to make them the interpretive key, that really insured his success in the 1970s.  Once this symbolic discourse was launched, the process never stopped.  New fans, surrounded by MMA and social media, still encounter Lee as a striking, almost primal figure, and are forced to ask, “What do I make of this?”


Bruce Lee.  Detailed portrait.
Bruce Lee. Detailed portrait.


Teaching Bruce Lee Mandarin: the Opportunities and Perils of Cultural Translation.

Casual students of the traditional Chinese martial arts are often surprised to discover that Bruce Lee did not always have a huge following on the mainland.  He is an icon in Hong Kong, he is pretty popular in Taiwan yet he has had less of following in the PRC.

There are a number of reasons behind this.  The Cultural Revolution was certainly a factor.  The state strictly controlled all media and movies showing any sort of violence or sex were strictly forbidden.  Nor were films shot in capitalist countries ever played.  Lastly, Lee’s films were all produced in Cantonese (his mother tongue), a dialect that is pretty inaccessible to anyone outside of Southern China.

While Lee launched a Kung Fu revolution in the global market, that same transformation would not hit the shores of mainland China until 1983.  Inspired by the success of the Kung Fu Craze in improving China’s international image, and grasping the obvious possibilities for creating a new sense of national pride following the disastrous years of the Cultural Revolution, the Chinese government decided to allow their own Kung Fu films.  The result was Jet Li’s now legendary movie, The Shaolin Temple.

It is hard to understate the impact of this film on Chinese popular culture.  After years of bland carefully censored material, audiences were shocked and electrified by everything they saw on the screen.  It is difficult to guess what had the bigger impact, the graphic portrayal of violence, or the warm embrace of China’s traditional (e.g., feudal) past.

While Bruce Lee introduced the Shaolin Temple to the world, it was Jet Li who reminded the Chinese of people of its existence, literally putting it back on the map.  In purely historical terms it seems unlikely that Li’s film would have ever been made if not for Enter the Dragon’s prior success.  Still, it is important to remember that this is probably not the way most mainlanders perceived things.

In the 1980s Lee was not well known, and to the extent that he did gain recognition it was often somewhat mixed given his association with the west and, to be totally honest, Cantonese culture.  This has started to change in recent years.  Some positive media about Bruce Lee has been produced and there are even a few JKD schools in mainland China promoting his martial philosophy.

Today many Chinese people feel pride in what Lee was able to accomplish.  Yet by in large not many individuals actually know very much about his life or martial arts career.  Once again, we see Lee being appreciated primarily as a physical symbol.  Ironically, this is a symbol that now appears to be ready for a wider introduction into a new market where it remains somewhat obscure, China itself.

And so we come inexorably to the Bruce Lee controversy of the moment.  Recently the Lee estate entered into a marketing agreement with Johnnie Walker, a brand of Scotch Whisky owned by Diego.  The firm wished to expand their share of the mainland market.  This is the sort of consumable luxury good that is doing quite well in China right now, meaning that the upside potential of this move is large.

As such they went all out in a marketing campaign for their Blue Label Whisky.  Rather than using any of the existing Bruce Lee footage (which they decided was overexposed) they employed a complex mixture of traditional acting and CGI to create a digital image of Lee as he might appear today.

You can watch the original spot, released in China, here.  The add is beautifully rendered.  Typically CGI has trouble generating realistic human features, but many of the individual scenes in this advertisement are genuinely impressive (a couple still need some work).  The entire production has a sumptuous and modern appearance.

It begins with Lee standing on the rooftop deck of the Crown Plaza Hotel in Causeway Bay.  The scene is set at night, and he is looking at the lights of the city and across the bay (somewhat nostalgically) at Kowloon.  Intermittently black and white images of his earlier interviews and life are projected on surrounding buildings or played across the screen.

Lee walks through the area, back into the hotel while discussing his philosophy of success.  This appears to be a newly composed speech based on his famous “be like water” discussion on the Longstreet television series.  While the verbal discussion focuses on individuality and passion, the visual cues, from the handmade leather shoes to the fine architectural details, all say one thing, wealth.

It is hard to read this add as anything other than an extended meditation on material success.  In fact, if you did not already know who Bruce Lee was, there would be no reason to guess that he was a martial artist (or even an actor).  I would probably have guessed that he was a nouveau riche real estate developer from Shanghai or Beijing.

This is a bit ironic as Lee never really managed to achieve the sort of material success in his life that he coveted.  It is nice to think that he was on the cusp of great success when he died, but you never really know.  There are lots of great actors who never get rich.  Hollywood is a risky place.  But nothing is impossible in the land of digital wish fulfillment.

The producers of the advertisement realized that they had some additional issues that needed to be finessed.  Claims that the spot was really meant as a “tribute” not withstand, the entire thing is a blatant advertisement for hard spirits.  Yet Bruce Lee was not much of a drinker.  He had a reputation for abstaining from alcohol (and supposedly even coffee) as part of his strict health and diet regime.  Secondly, the real Bruce Lee was a Cantonese speaker, but the advertisement was aimed at the mainland market.  As such the spot was written and recorded in the more standard Mandarin ( Putonghua) dialect.

When this advertisement was first released a large part of the internet serving Hong Kong literally exploded.  Viewers in the city were enraged.  That anger quickly spread to the west where a number of Bruce Lee fans and martial artists have expressed a fair degree of disgust.

The objections of these western fans can be directly linked to the dialectic we discussed above.  Those who see Lee primarily as a martial artists and health advocate hated the fact that he was advertising a product that, if he had lived, he probably would not have consumed or recommended.  While there is evidence that Lee drank from time to time, one suspects he probably would not have recommended the practice in general.  For many viewers this seemed to be a clear case of selling out Lee’s martial integrity to make a quick buck.

More philosophically minded critics were less concerned with what was being sold.  They tended to focus on the inherent disjoint between telling people to trust in their individuality, to follow their passions, while at the same time telling them to consume the same mass produced faux status symbol as everyone else.  It is hard to deny that there is a certain logic to both objections.

Yet in a sense this is not a radically new situation.  Lee created multiple Kung Fu myths, the rational and the romantic, the individual and the mass media market, which were never consistent with one another.  At the end of the day one cannot train every individual to be an iconoclast and make 10 million 1969 dollars as a celebrity figure at the same time.  Free thinkers do not need idols and it is dangerous to stand on a pedestal in front of iconoclasts.

The Johnnie Walker add started by inducing a feeling of nostalgia, at least for the Western and Cantonese audiences who had some real history with Lee.  Nostalgia is a strong emotion and it is often tinged with pain.  It makes things personal.  The actual product pitch at the end of the spot was just too abrupt.  It jarred the viewer out of a space that they thought was their own and inadvertently exposed to the conscious mind the fundamental contradictions that had been hiding beneath the surface all along.

It is interesting to note that audiences in Hong Kong also hated the advertisement, but for an entirely different set of reasons.  Most of them have no problem with a martial arts master drinking.  Kung Fu in the west, because of its counter-culture associations, is often practiced along with other healthy behaviors such as not smoking or eating a balanced diet.

That is not always the case in China where (as often as not) the health benefits of Kung Fu are seen as a way to continue to smoke and drink copious of alcohol well into ones old age.  Such figures are not at all uncommon in the Chinese martial arts.  In fact, they are an easily identifiable type.  Many fewer Hong Kong citizens were put off by the presence of alcohol itself.

For them Lee represented yet another Kung Fu fantasy, one that reflected their status as doublely colonized individuals.  Hong Kong’s citizens were in a genuinely precarious situation in the 1960s.  On the one hand they were subject to British rule and all of the humiliations that go along with the imperialist project.  On the other hand Cantonese language and culture does not get a lot of respect in mainland China.  The individuals of southern China have never been masters of their own destiny.

In fact, since 1949 there had been a massive influx of northern refugees into the already crowded city.  Some of them complained bitterly in the local newspapers that all of southern China, and Hong Kong in particular, was a blighted cultural wasteland.  Clearly it was these northern, Mandarin speaking visitors, who would need to “do something” about that.

When his movies came out (all of which favored Cantonese speaking underdogs defeating the imperialists and bullies of the world with nothing but their bare hands) he added yet another symbolic aspect to his personal mythology.  Or perhaps it would be better to say that he co-opted a larger preexisting narrative.

Some of the very first modern martial arts novels to be published in southern China in the 1890s prominently featured local martial artists standing up to aggressive outsiders (usually from the north) who sought to disparage the south.  The ethnic, linguistic and economic subtexts in Lee’s film quite intentionally (and successfully) tied his image to this tradition of fierce regional loyalty.  In this context Lee’s pure physicality became a symbol of regional value and pride.  In Bruce Lee Hong Kong had given China, and indeed the entire world, something that no other place could, their own hero.

Needless to say very few people in Hong Kong were happy to hear Lee speaking Mandarin (especially with that accent).  The advertisement is an homage to the wealth and achievement of not just Lee, but of the city itself.  The Hong Kong skyline and Crown Plaza Hotel actually get almost as much screen time as Bruce Lee does himself.  And why not?  The Causeway Bay area is one of the most exclusive shopping districts in the world, with real estate prices and rents higher than just about anywhere else on the planet.  If one must reimagine Bruce Lee as a real estate developer, this was not a bad place to do it.

Yet by transforming Lee into a Mandarin speaker the advertising company managed to not just appropriate Hong Kong’s favorite son, but also the city’s glamor, its hard won success and its very sense self.  The question of mainland investors driving up real estate prices and dominating the local commercial landscape is already a very sensitive issue in Hong Kong right now.  In fact, studies show that the emotional identification between local residents and the mainland has been dropping for years.  Fears of meddling in the local political councils and even the school curriculum have exacerbated the situation in the last year.  This was a bad time to symbolically reimagine Bruce Lee as a northern.

Still, I would not hold my breath waiting for a retraction of the advertisement or a heartfelt apology, at least not from Johnnie Walker (the Lee estate likely has more to lose on this one.)  This was an advertisement aimed pretty squarely at nouveau riche real estate developers in northern China.  These are individuals who probably have some feeling of pride in Lee’s accomplishments, little understanding of his actual martial legacy and no positive association with Cantonese language or culture.  In effect the challenge was to reimagine Bruce Lee as one of them, or at least as a figure they could more easily identify with.

Of course they focused on luxury over martial integrity.  Of course they transformed Lee into a Mandarin speaker.  What sort of advertising agency would not do these things?  And by all accounts it worked beautifully.  The advertisement has proved to be very popular and effective across mainland media markets.  It plays well to economic and cultural narratives in current Chinese popular culture.  These may even become new aspects of the ever growing Bruce Lee mythology.


Bruce Lee's first apearance (of many) on the cover of Black Belt Magazine.  October, 1967.
Bruce Lee’s first apearance (of many) on the cover of Black Belt Magazine. October, 1967.


Applying J. Z. Smith to Bruce Lee: When does a symbolic system work?

It should be remembered that this is not the first time that Bruce Lee has been cinemagraphically resurrected to sell an unlikely product.  Five years ago (on the 35th anniversary of this death) Nokia produced what appeared to be a black and white home-movie showing Bruce Lee on the set of the Game of Death, playing ping pong against a determined opponent armed only with a pair of nunchucks.

Parts of this footage were initially released without any indication that it was part of an advertising campaign.  As we all know the footage went viral.  There was much debate online as to its authenticity, followed by whether such a feat was even possible.  It was very engaging because it was the sort of skill that seemed just on the edge of possibility.

Eventually it became clear that the film was a fiction and part of a clever advertising campaign to convince individuals in mainland China that they needed the latest Finnish cellphone (globalization at its finest).  At the end of the day the words “I told you so” were heard on many internet discussions.  Yet most people liked the short film and no one was swearing terrible oaths of vengeance against Nokia.  In fact, the film was popular enough that they ended up expanding their initial advertising campaign into a global effort.

This was also a clear attempt to use Bruce Lee’s image to sell products that he never bought himself.  But it did not have the same polarizing effect on audiences as the later Johnnie Walker Campaign.  Further, it was basically accepted by consumers in all three media markets (the west, Hong Kong and on the mainland).  It may be possible to learn one last lesson about how symbols work, and what sorts of fantasies generate the most fictive power, by taking a very quick look at these two different advertising campaigns.

While discussing ritual J. Z. Smith, the important student of Comparative Religion, noted that symbols are often used as a compact representation of a more complex reality.  In this case the simpler your symbol the better.  One of his many discussions of this point used the various monuments of Washington DC as an illustration.

The Vietnam War Memorial is about the most abstract, and simplest, monument that one can build.  From a distance it looks like a black gash or scar on the landscape.  Approaching the monument you see that it is a list of names of fallen service men and women.  It could not be simpler, but it has a profound emotional effect on many of its visitors, even those who are not veterans.

Juxtapose this now with the Korean War Monument.  That remembrance features large bronze statues of a number of figures, dressed in winter gear and carrying their weapons, presumably out on some sort of patrol.  Of course mostly uneventful patrols is what most soldiers spend most of their time doing.  It is all very realistic.  Further the artist went to great lengths to get the period details of the weapons, uniforms, helmets and gear exactly correct.

Clearly a lot of work went into the planning and execution of this monument.  But for many individuals it simply does not have the same emotional and transformative power as the Vietnam Memorial.  Smith claims that the problem is that it is too detailed; it is just too accurate.

The end result is that anyone who is not a soldier has a hard time identifying with it.  And those individuals who were soldier often get stuck on the details, noticing how canteens were different in the 1950s than in the 1980s.  But this was not meant to be a monument to canteens or rifles.

By contrast the abstraction of the Vietnam Memorial gives the mind no place to hide from the central message of the monument.  This is what makes it such a powerful symbol.  One is forced to confront the message and by extension the grim reality of human sacrifice and loss.

J.Z. Smith concludes that good symbols are like maps.  When evaluating a map details are critical.  It needs to have enough detail to tell us where we are, and to show us where we want to go.  But beyond that extra detail just clutters the image and gets in the way.  It becomes an impediment to comprehension.

This is why any modern train or subway map is usually simplified to the point of abstraction.  The sorts of maps that were produced for the New York City subway in the 1940s were highly detailed masterpieces.  They look wonderful framed on an office wall, but they were terribly confusing to actually use.  By having too many details they became useless as abstract representations of reality.

Symbolic systems become the most useful when you leave out the non-essential.  Extra facts and social signs just function as a barrier stopping people from becoming part of the interpretive process.  Abstract representations of a principle are generally more successfully than baroque ones.

We can now return to our two advertising campaigns.  Both used a resurrected Bruce Lee to sell a product.  But there can be no doubt which is the more abstract.  The Johnnie Walker advertisement is beautiful because of its details, but it is those same details that become the symbolic barriers keeping viewers out.  Did they use the best quotes?  Does he speak it in the right language?  Is this a whisky he would actually drink?  Hmmm, was that last digitally rendered smile really realistic, or just vaguely unsettling?

In comparison the Nokia add had no dialogue at all.  The way it was shot there was no visual detail at all other than the suggestion that Bruce Lee was wearing his famous tracksuit while playing ping pong with a set of nunchucks.  The entire focus of the viewer was directed to the star’s amazing physicality.  This was the master symbol that Lee presented to his audiences.  Its silent abstraction demands that viewers focus intently on the image to determine if it is real and, in any case, what it all means.

The same fundamental contradiction is still here.  We are still using the image of former celebrity to sell a product totally unrelated to his life and career.  It might be one thing to have him sell tracksuits, but cellphones?

Nevertheless, in the Nokia advertisement all of these latent anxieties stay in the background.  I don’t think J. Z. Smith would be at all surprised to discover that as similar as these two campaigns were, one was an almost universal success, whereas the other has already proved to be terribly polarizing.  It turns out that with Bruce Lee, like any other good symbolic or mythological system, the devil really is in the details.



If you enjoyed this post you might also want to read: Paul Bowman Visits 功夫网 and Helps Us to See Beyond Bruce Lee.


The New Economics of Taiji Quan: Culture, Identity and the Rise of China’s Upper Middle Class

A recent scene in Beijing as smog clouded the skyline.  Source:
A recent scene in Beijing as smog clouded the skyline. Source:

***Sascha and I were recently talking about the different currents that can be seen in the consumer market for martial arts instruction in China today.  As a longtime observer of these trends he was gracious enough to write a guest post helping to explain the recent reemergence of Taiji Quan as a high status consumer good sought by a new generation of students.  These individuals are different in many ways from those who came to the art in the 1980 and 1990s.  Be sure to check out The Last Masters to see some of this other thoughts on these issues***


The New Economics of Taiji Quan

By Sascha Matuszak

It’s safe to say that Taijiquan has made it through the gauntlet. Of all the many elements of the traditional martial arts that have fallen into disfavor or disrepute recently, none have managed to rebound and rebrand themselves the way taiji has. The key to taiji’s success in China is the upper middle class, who find that taiji fulfills several of their core demands.

You can walk around any city in China and see the older generations practicing taiji in the public parks. But as one taiji master in Sichuan told me, “the old people have no purchasing power.” Neither do the martial artists who make up the other stalwart demographic practicing taiji. Without the money of the new taiji enthusiast, the art would have flowed along softly, not quite stagnating but never really growing.

Now, with real budgets to work with, taiji masters can open larger schools, throw events exhibitions and seminars, and travel the world promoting their art. Money breeds money; the more CEOs who turn to a taiji master in search of answers, the more taiji masters and schools will emerge to fill that need.

That’s what is happening in China right now. As has been pointed out in great detail on this blog, this is not an unexpected phenomenon, and there are several trends that helped popularize taiji. I am going to describe one of these trends, the rise of the upper middle class, through a few separate stories.

The first is about the Men of Culture.

I was joined on my trip to Chenjiagou in Henan Province by Chen Jia, a disciple of Chen Xiaowang who has her own taiji school in Shanghai, and four men who had paid for exclusive access to Chen Xiaowang during his annual spring trip to Chenjiagou.

One of them was a calligrapher, another was a tea buff. The third was a regular rich guy from Guangdong, who worked out a bit. The last man had brought them together, negotiated the fee, and helped chaperone them on the trip. Promoting culture is his business; he’s a culture fence.

These men are deep into Chinese culture. Highly educated on what teas to drink and when to drink them, able to quote popular Tang poetry, discuss the best watercolor painters alive today, and tell you when to climb which mountain in order to glimpse a certain flower that blooms only then. Being with them is to be constantly tested for one’s grasp of esoteric knowledge. They hurled culture at each other like a food fight; they winked culture at each other knowingly, over tea. They proclaimed it from on high, until they were in the presence of Chen Xiaowang himself, and then they became clumsy and muddle headed, unable to form a straight line or look anyone in the eye. Traditional Chinese culture emphasizes hierarchy and accepting one’s status, so when men of culture meet a cultural icon such as Chen Xiaowang, they tend to bow and scrape.

The cultural knowledge of these four men was undeniable, but so was their charlatanism. Culture is an accoutrement for these men, and taiji is a new jewel. The right shoe to be wearing right now. Taiji has become popular with culture buffs, because it represents an intrinsic Chinese contribution to world culture; it is as important these days to know your taiji as it is to quote poetry, drink good tea, or have bamboo furniture in your small garden. The tea buff had the strongest grasp of all these elements, his stances were solid, and he knew the movements. That’s why he ended up asserting his cultural dominance over the group: his was the most authentic culture.

Taiji is as important to the image of the monied class as a flashy car or brand name bag. In fact, a strong grasp of taiji (and therefore also Chinese medicine and perhaps a bit of art) is what separates the truly cultured gentleman from the uncouth peasant and his recent riches. The middle class is defiantly distancing itself from its farmer roots, from the title of nouveau riche itself, from the greedy masses, from yesterday’s fashions.

Yang Style Taiji in Shanghai, 2005.  The traditional Chinese martial arts are always forced to create a sheltered space within the larger community. Source: Wikimedia.
Yang Style Taiji in Shanghai, 2005. Once again, note the heavy smog. Source: Wikimedia.

The second story is about the Stressed Out CEO.

I was sitting with a taiji master, drinking tea of course, when he leaned over and showed me a text message he had just received. It was from a female CEO of some large company that he didn’t mention. He read it out to me, but the first sentence is what sticks in my mind,

“Wise Master, thank you so much for your advice, all things become clear and simple when you describe them to me … “

It wasn’t surprising really, to see people here reach out for a guru. Taiji is tied to Taoism, and every student expects their taiji master to also possess a bit of deep wisdom to go with the taiji sword. What surprised me was the lengths the masters would go to meet the demand.

CEOs reaching out for quick, effective remedies to the stress that builds up has resulted in simplified taiji forms – down to six moves for example – that can be downloaded onto a smart phone and practiced in an office room. If the businessperson has a question, just hop onto Wechat and send a voice message. Taiji masters must be able to navigate social media and mobile apps, be able to explain simple moves, and above all be able to couch everything in pop philosophy.

This market is the exploding one. The exclusive, high end taiji service for the elite Chinese businessperson. One high level official I spoke to salivated over the possibilities a chain of high end taiji-themed spas would provide him with. Taiji Zen, Jack Ma and Jet Li’s endeavor, is exactly that wrapped in populism and cultural tradition. Of course. The whole point to is differentiate between the nouveau riche of the 1990s and early 21st century and those that are taking China into the next era.

Taiji masters with high level clients stay busy traveling from company to company, government office to five-star hotel, holding seminars, dispensing wisdom, commenting on certain stances, and looking positively Taoist.

Although having a taiji master in China today is almost like having a lawyer, the product is real. The demand is very real. People want their health back, both physical and mental. And they are willing to pay for it. Unlike the cultured men who want to be able to talk about and demonstrate taiji, the businessperson is interested in an exchange of capital for services: I make sure you get rich like me, you make sure I live long and think deep like you. The taiji masters must not only know their forms, but also be able to deliver common sense, detached opinions in Taoist terminology.

The third story is about the Ardent Activist.

Taiji is actually just riding the wave. The middle class is not just about money or symbols, the people who have made some money and have a bit of an outlook on life are also about saving their country.

For many of the activist Chinese, the first thing that needs to be saved is the soul. Not necessarily the “Christian soul” though; the Chinese soul requires morality, balance, and sustainability for this life, not for possible rewards in the next.

Middle class Chinese are seeking out alternatives to what they feel is a repressive and outdated education system. They are looking to organic farms due to concerns for food safety. Middle class activists for a better China are re-discovering traditional Chinese medicine, for the same reasons they are accepting of taiji. Chinese seek exposure to the best the outer world has to offer, better books and better movies.

There is a demand for quality now, and taiji falls into the category of “positive influence” and also, more importantly, taiji has not been discredited as much as traditional Chinese medicine has been. Taiji has benefited from a large number of accomplished masters who have helped maintain the reputation of the art, so the middle class repays the art by ensuring that the majority opinion toward taiji is a positive one.

In my experience, activists are not necessarily practitioners, but they are the social media in the equation. They help in their role as barometer for what is righteous and good for society and for China. That in turn informs who CEOs may turn to for help, and what cultured men require for their collection.

Although in the public discourse, the government and the elite have the largest and most powerful voices, society here works by consensus. The consensus is that taiji is valuable, and must be nurtured and protected.

The rise of taiji is part of a larger phenomenon across China. Middle and upper middle class Chinese are seeking out better lives, not just enough money to survive, and taiji – along with food safety and traditional medicine – fulfill that demand. Equally important is the fact that taiji also fits into the Chinese affluent class’s image of themselves and the world: modern and avant garde, yet steeped in traditional Chinese values.


Source: None/Getty Images AsiaPac
Source: None/Getty Images AsiaPac


About the Author: Sascha Matuszak is a freelance writer based in Chengdu, China, and an editor of the site Chengdu Living.  Sascha also runs a martial arts themed blog,  You can also find his writing at Fightland.


If You Enjoyed this post you might also want to read: Imagining the Chinese Martial Arts without Bruce Lee: Sophia Delza, an American Taiji Quan Pioneer.


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