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Understanding the Red Boats of the Cantonese Opera: Economics, Social Structure and Violence 1850-1950.

A watercolor on pith image of a river vessel of the same or a similar type which was eventually adopted for the "Red Boats."  Likely painted in Guangzhou during the mid 19th century.  Source: Author's personal collection.
A watercolor on pith image of a river vessel of the same or a similar type which was eventually adopted for the “Red Boats.” Likely painted in Guangzhou during the mid 19th century. Source: Author’s personal collection.


No subject has been more romanticized among students of Guangdong’s martial arts (and Wing Chun practitioners in particular) than the “Red Boat” companies of the Cantonese regional opera tradition.  Late 19th and early 20th century martial arts folklore claimed that remnants of the Southern Shaolin Temple (including the Abbot Jee Shin) found refuge among these wandering performers following the destruction of their sanctuary by the hated Qing government.

Such stories make a lot of narrative sense.  Because of their low social status, and ability to travel from place to place without engendering too much suspicion, opera companies would seem to be the ideal cover for individuals fleeing government persecution.  They were even expected to house martial arts experts among their casts of performers.

Of course the acceptance of these stories as historical facts requires us to overlook other inconvenient details, starting with the likelihood that the Southern Shaolin Temple, imagined in so many Kung Fu legends, never existed.  Further, the anti-government activities of the various secret societies and triad organizations in southern China during the late 19th century had much more to do with criminal scheming and social posturing than they did any organized plan for actual political reform.  Things become more complicated in the first decade of the 20th century when Sun Yat Sen begins to organize genuinely revolutionary activity among some of these groups, but that is not what most Kung Fu legends are describing.

Most of the stories that see opera groups as dedicated political cells (rather than convenient covers for wandering criminals) seem to date to the mid 20th century or later. Some of them were not first recorded until quite recently.  In a recent post I looked at the actual history of political and revolutionary activities of Cantonese Opera troops.  It is true that these groups were often quite vocal in making political demands, and in one memorable instance even went into open rebellion against the state (along with many other elements of Southern China’s underclass.)  Still, a detailed examination of these episodes does not validate the historical accuracy of the Wing Chun folklore.  Rather it strongly suggests that the Red Boat Opera companies were never involved in the sorts of activities that are generally ascribed to them.

This does not mean that individuals interested in Wing Chun’s history are free to ignore the opera connection.  I suspect that it is actually very significant that the orthodox Wing Chun genealogies claim that Leung Jan was influenced by the Cantonese opera tradition during the mid 19th century (probably during the Opera Ban following the Red Turban Revolt for reasons which I have discussed elsewhere).  In fact, Cantonese opera had a particularly close relationship with the southern Chinese martial arts and likely had a substantive impact on both their development and public perception.

It is not my goal in these posts to dismiss any connection between the two.  Rather, it may be necessary draw the line between folklore, on the one hand, and social history, on the other, in order to open a space for new research.  I think that this is a rich topic that could potentially yield findings that would be important not just for our understanding of hand combat systems like Wing Chun and Choy Li Fut, but also southern Chinese popular culture as a whole.

Unfortunately this is not the sort of thing that is easily summarized in a single blog post.  In my last essay on the topic I restricted my focus to the somewhat complex relationship between Cantonese Opera and revolutionary politics in the late Qing and Republic Periods.  In the current post I want to introduce some basic historical and social description about what life was like on the Red Boats.  Southern China was a dangerous place during much of their period of operation.  What precautions did they take when plying the waters?  How did the opera companies fit into the local economy of violence along the Pearl River Estuary?  Just as importantly, how did they manage to train their own apprentices in Kung Fu while constantly on the move?

The historical investigation of these questions is complicated by our reliance on oral accounts.  Specifically, we wish to know more about the Red Boats to expand our understanding of the development of the southern Chinese martial arts.  Yet from the 1970s onward (and the process rapidly accelerated in the 1980s and 1990s) martial arts culture has been read back onto the accounts of the Red Boats themselves.  This created a seamless system of self-reinforcing folkloric accounts easily mistaken for history.

Nor is this challenge restricted to the realm of opera.  Traditionally most individuals within Chinese society held the martial arts in low esteem. They were not an integral part of how people remembered their own cultural past.

Yet after the Kung Fu Craze of the 1970s, where these traditional fighting systems came to be accepted as a legitimate marker of Chinese identity, this changed.   Increasingly they have come to be projected back onto the past, often in very creative (if totally anachronistic) ways.  In the final section of this post I hope to examine a few examples of this process as it relates to Cantonese opera and consider how we might attempt to control for it.

In a future installment of this series I will examine some 19th century accounts of Cantonese opera performances, particularly as they related to “military plays.”  I will also take a closer look at what we think we know about how these groups learned their martial arts in the first place, as well as the realities of river violence and piracy during the late imperial period.  Hopefully this series of posts will lay the groundwork for future research on the relationship between the martial arts and opera as related strands in the region’s popular culture.

Lastly, I should say a few things about my sources.  There are really only a handful of books and articles in the scholarly literature that focus directly on the history and description of Cantonese opera as it relates to questions of interest to martial artists.  This blog post relies heavily on two sources.  The first is an article by the anthropologists Barbara E. Ward titled “The Red Boats of the Canton Delta: A Historical Chapter in the Sociology of Chinese Regional Drama” (Proceedings of the International Conference on Sinology. 1981. pp. 233-258.)  Her work is based on a very large number of interviews (conducted between approximately 1975-1980) with individuals who lived and performed on the Red Boats.  Ward also conducted extensive ethnographic research with Cantonese Opera companies in her home city of Hong Kong (where she was employed as a professor of Anthropology at Chinese University of Hong Kong.)

The other source that I have turned too in writing this is a Master thesis by Loretta Siuling Yeung titled “Red Boat Troupes and Cantonese Opera.”  This research was completed much more recently (2010) and was supervised at the University of Georgia.  Yeung also conducted a number of interviews, but seems to have relied much more on the historical and secondary literature.  This change in research strategy is certainly understandable given the lack of surviving veteran Red Boat performers in 2010 and the academic goals of a Master’s thesis.  In general the historical accounts of Yeung and Ward are quite consistent.  Still, the differences which occasionally appear are also quite suggestive.

"Chinese Stage Shows" Cigarette Card.  Source: Digital Collections of the NY Public Library.
“Chinese Stage Shows” Cigarette Card. Source: Digital Collections of the NY Public Library.

Understanding the Red Boats as a Physical, Economic and Social System

The Red Boats present the student of popular culture with a number of paradoxes.  The era in which they plied the waters of the Pearl River was absolutely critical to our understanding of Cantonese opera.  In fact, this is when many of the traditions and customs that we now think of as “ancient” and “timeless” first emerged.

Barbara Ward has noted that echoes of life on the Red Boats can be seen in many aspects of modern, theater-bound, opera troops in Hong Kong.  Everything from the arrangement of dressing rooms to the details of incense burning rituals looks back to life on the boats.  Throughout the post-war period veterans performers who had actually lived on the boats were lionized and idealized by their younger peers.  Yet a number of very basic questions about these vessels remain unanswered.

During the 1970s Ward and others were able to locate a number of individuals who could give very detailed accounts of what the structure of these boats had been like.  Interestingly almost all of the actual Red Boats were internally identical.

The vessels were all made to the same basic specifications and were owned either by the opera guild or some other group of individuals (I have not yet been able to answer this question).  Individual opera companies generally rented these vessels for years at a time, and were responsible for hiring their own crew of sailors.  The high degree of standardization between boats allowed for companies to change ships with little disruption as the social structure of their company was designed to be compatible with any of the 60 or so specially built Red Boats which sailed the waters of southern China.

The era of the Red Boats was also much briefer than most martial artists realize.  When speaking of these opera companies I suspect that the vessels themselves were really only part of the entire equation, and possibly a small one at that.  For me the most interesting aspect of Ward’s extensive research was the discovery that each Cantonese Opera company had a shared social structure optimized for both performance and life on the boat.

These groups were not generalists or traveling troubadour/mercenaries.  Rather they were units composed of highly specialized performers supported by an elaborate physical and administrative infrastructure.  The real “technology” of these companies, the thing that accounted for their remarkable success, was actually organizational in nature.  It was their own internal structure and group cultural.  The physical layout of the boats both reflected this and helped it to gel.  In fact, Ward found that by the 1980s (more than 30 years after then last voyage of a Red Boat) it remained remarkably intact.

No historical account, either in Chinese or any other language, mentions Red Boats in southern China prior to the 1850s.  It is possible that they were introduced as a social and economic system for organizing opera performances just prior to the Red Turban Revolt of the 1850s, but if so they made very few voyages before the decade long opera ban that followed the end of that conflict.  The real start of the era of “Red Boat” activity was in the 1870s.  From that time forward these vessels became a conspicuous aspect of local popular culture.

The purpose of the Red Boats was to allow opera companies to travel from one temple festival to the next during the performance season.  Almost all of these voyages were actually carried out through southern China’s extensive river system.  These were not ocean going vessels and were not actually capable of moving along China’s coastline.  Occasionally a pair of boats (they always traveled two at a time) would be dispatched to fill a contract in Macao, but that was really as far into “open water” as any of these vessels ever ventured.  Even that journey was probably a harrowing experience for the cast and crew.

The Red Boats themselves appear to have been an artifact of one stage of the economic development within the Cantonese opera industry.  Clearly it took a lot of capital to build these ships, and individual companies had to earn a lot of money to pay the rent on them.  Prior to the 1850s most opera companies still traveled by water (with few roads in the region almost everyone in southern China did).  But there was nothing remarkable about their vessels and I have yet to see evidence indicating that the internal structure of these companies were standardized to the same extent that would later become common.

During this earlier period the region’s economy was generally smaller and it does not appear that traveling companies could make all that much money.  But as revenues grew in the middle of the century it became possible for the opera guild to invest in new technologies that would streamline the performance process.  In short, the Red Boat system that modern martial artists seem to be so interested in really appears to be an artifact of economic changes that were just starting in the middle of the 19th century.

The Red Boat opera companies reached the peak of their popularity in the 1920s.  This was really their golden era.  After that they became a victim of their own success.  Traditionally Cantonese operas were only performed on makeshift temporary stages that were erected as part of a temple festival.  The temples offered these performances to the local gods, and were responsible for raising the funds that were used to pay the actors who stage the performance.  The entire community would then come out to watch the show.

In the middle of the 19th century southern China had no (or very few) dedicated theaters.  It took a substantial investment of capital to build the Red Boats, but they were still a stop-gap solution for the opera guild.  The truth was that owning land and building theaters was incredibly expensive.  There simply wasn’t enough money in opera to make that viable in most places.

However, the rapid economic growth of the 1920s started to change all of this.  As opera companies grew rich, and more people flocked to cities, suddenly it became possible to build permanent theaters.  Access to these structures was still controlled by the guild, but the cost of staging a performance was vastly lowered if one did not have to travel to it.  And when it was necessary to travel to the countryside to fulfill lucrative festival contracts, a company could simply book passage on the new steam ships and trains.

Red Boat opera troops continued to travel through the 1930s but the institution was in decline even at that point.  The Japanese invasion in 1938 put a stop to much of this activity.  Rumor has it that they even bombed a pair of boats (possibly the last ones) moored in the harbor of Guangzhou.  Other accounts state that the last known sighting of a pair of Red Boats was in Macao circa 1950.

A number of people have asked me why the Red Boats were never really resurrected after WWII.  I think that the answer is basically financial.  The boats themselves represented a certain level of capital investment which made sense when the Cantonese opera companies were starting to enjoy a surplus (due to changes in the structure of the local economy) but could not yet afford speedier forms of travel and permanent theaters for off-season performances.  The Red Boats helped to give shape to the internal culture of the modern Cantonese opera company, but once they ceased to fill their basic economic function they were quickly discarded.

Barbara Ward's 1981 Reconstruction of a classic Red Boat.  See page 254, Figure 1.
Barbara Ward’s 1981 Reconstruction of a classic Red Boat. See page 254, Figure 1.

I doubt many performers were all that nostalgic about this change in 1940s and 1950s.  All of the accounts collected by Yeung and Ward indicate that life on these vessels was a challenge.  Generally speaking these vessels traveled in pairs (termed a “Heaven Boat” and an “Earth Boat.”)  Both Red Boats housed between them about a 140-160 people in spaces that were only 80 Chinese feet long by just 10 feet wide.  Ward states that a full Opera crew included 62 actors, 12 musicians, 11 full time administrators/managers, 9 “costume men”, 10 property handlers/stage hands, 2 barbers, 4 laundry men, 7 cooks, 12 boatmen, 4 professional guards, a ship’s doctor, captain and other officers.

As performances became more elaborate in the early 20th century a third vessel was often added to the armada.  Its job was to carry the increasingly complex scenery and props which were becoming a part of newer styles of stage performances.  It was simply termed the “Scenery boat” was not made to any special specifications.

Each of these vessels had a raised deck on the stern and rows of cabins running down the sides.  They also had a mast that could be raised or lowered.  About half of the individuals on the boat were the performers, apprentices, musicians, property managers and administrators who made up the opera company proper.  They monopolized the cabins and area below decks.

Again, the internal layout of each of these vessels was standardized and basically identical.  Both Yeung and Ward confirm that the names of the various cabins were even standardized from ship to ship.  The “cabins” (really more like double bunks which could have privacy screens installed) were on the port and starboard side of the ship and were separated by a “hall” that was only a few feet wide.  Some of these bunks had better circulation and views than others.  Cabins were assigned by lottery at the start of each season and no one wanted to draw cabins with such poetic names as “Trash Heap” and “Mosquito Den” (which Ward speculates may actually have been unfortunately literal).

Interestingly Ward points out that all members of the opera company actually had equal chances of drawing a good birth going into the lottery, meaning that potentially a raw apprentice would end up with the best assignment on the boat.  Of course he probably would not keep it, but according to both rules and tradition the more senior members of the company would have to bid to buy it from him.  This could be a valuable boon for a young individual with very little access to money, and it is a fascinating way in which resources were redistributed (albeit on a limited scale) from senior members of the company to junior ones at least once a year.

A view of the interior layout of a Red Boat.  Source: Barbara Ward, 1981.  pp. 255, Figure 2.
A view of the interior layout of a Red Boat. Source: Barbara Ward, 1981. pp. 255, Figure 2.

Given everything that one reads about the cruelty of opera training, not to mention impoverished parents selling their children to traveling groups of performers, I thought that this was an interesting bit of evidence as to the willingness of these groups to actually make some investment in their youngest members.  It should also be noted that even the most junior apprentice in the opera company was still “senior” to 50% of these individuals on the craft.

Of course they would have been the crew.  With the exception of the Captain and the ship’s doctor, the crew and officers did not have any place below decks.  They worked and lived on the surface of the vessel, rolling out blankets and sleeping on the decks at night.  The crew included a number of sailors, but also more specialized individuals such as cooks, barbers, members of armed escort companies tasked with providing security for the vessel and general officers.

None of these individuals were attached to either the opera company or the vessel itself.  Instead the company rented the vessel for the season and then was responsible for finding and hiring a crew.  Ward suspects that most of the individuals who signed on for such missions were from the caste of “Boat People” who were so common on the waterways of southern China at that time.

Generating enough revenue to sustain an operation of this size and complexity cannot have been easy.  The ability to manage this complexity, staying both booked and on schedule, was really the great innovation of the Red Boat system.  Again, their greatest assets appears to have been organizational in nature.  I find it particularly revealing that a company traveled with no fewer than 11 full time managers and many other individuals who roles essentially boiled down to “performance logistics.”

Martial artists often wonder to what degree we can think of the Red Boat opera companies as semi-specialized bands of who may have adopted the role of “pirate” or “mercenary,” if not outright “rebel.”  Obviously we have much less information about what earlier groups in the 18th or early 19th century were doing.  Yet by the time the Opera Ban is lifted it is pretty clear that this is not usually the case.  These companies were highly specialized economic units.  Their vessels are not well suited for either open water sailing or combat.  In fact, they actually turned to local specialists for their defense.

"Chinese Stage Shows." Cigarette Card.  Source: Digital Collections of the NY Public Library.
“Chinese Stage Shows.” Cigarette Card. Source: Digital Collections of the NY Public Library.

Violence on the Red Boats

Having laid out a description of the basic character of the Red Boat opera companies I would now like to return to a more focused discussion of their relationship with civil violence in the late Qing and Republic periods.  Again, this is a broad subject, and it is not the sort of thing that can be tackled in a single blog post.  The current discussion is by necessity limited though I intend to return to these same themes in my follow-up discussion.

The threat of violence was an actual concern for members of the Red Boat companies.  In some ways they may even have been uniquely cursed.  When thinking about social conflict in southern China we often draw a distinction between the sorts of banditry that was common in the countryside versus the criminality and secret societies that plagued the cities.  Due to their peripatetic nature these troops were practically guaranteed to be exposed to both of these forces at one time or another.

Members of these companies were likely also vulnerable for other reasons.  The low social status of performers may have made it difficult for them to seek redress through established official channels.  Also, by virtue of their appearance at temple festivals, opera performances were linked to gambling and other sorts of commerce that was often controlled by organized crime.

Of course piracy was another major issue on China’s waterways in the 19th century.  Robert Antony (Like Froth Floating on the Sea, 2003) identifies the period from about 1790-1810 as being the peak of the region’s piracy crisis.  While this sort of activity dropped precipitously after 1810 it never totally vanished.  One can easily add it to the already long list of concerns that the officers and crew of the Red Boats would have had to contend with

So how did the Red Boat opera companies handle these threats?  Wing Chun mythology suggests that it was by maintaining a separate set of more practical and deadly martial skills than those that were exhibited on stage.  For instance, in a number of stories the exiled Shaolin Abbot who has been hiding as a cook on a Red Boat reveals himself to be a martial arts master only after various members of the company fail to defeat a gangster who has been harassing the group.

The reality of the situation is probably more nuanced than these sorts of accounts would indicate.  As security on China’s roads and waterways broke down towards the end of Qing dynasty most merchants turned to “Armed Escort Companies” to provide safety for both goods and people while traveling.  In fact, these companies became a major employer of both civilian trained martial artist and retired military officers.  It is actually impossible to tell the story of the development of the modern martial arts without exploring these groups.

These security specialists employed a wide range of skills beyond Kung Fu.  Their most critical asset was actually their deep local knowledge, established relationships with local strong-men and their carefully cultivated diplomatic skills.  If these should fail many of these companies were also armed with relatively modern rifles, carbines and in some cases even state of the art handguns.

It is absolutely true that members of these companies also carried traditional weapons such as swords and spears.  Man of them had extensive training in hand to hand combat.  But if actual fighting could not be avoided very few individuals wanted to leave any of their bases uncovered.

It seems that the Red Boat Opera companies dealt with the turmoil of the 19th and early 20th century in exactly the same way that most merchants did, by hiring professional guards and escort companies armed with a variety of modern weaponry.  Even after the heyday of the armed escort company passed in the early 20th century, the Red Boats continued to turn to dedicated professionals for their immediate security needs.

Barbra Ward relates the following oral account in her paper which provides some additional information on this subject:

“Informant S, male aged 72, February 1975: When I was a boy my father used to take me to the theater whenever he could because he liked it very much.  So we used to see not only the plays in our own town at the festival times but also those in neighboring towns and villages.  Sometimes we walked and sometimes we went by boat.  I remember the Red Boats were really like special ferry boats.  And they had guns too.  In those days public order was not reliable, and the ferry boats always used to carry armed guards.  There were usually three of them.  They stood on the top of the ferry boat (i.e., on the cabin roof. B.E.W.) to keep a look out.  Quite often, too, a sort of platform was built at the bow on which a small gun was mounted.  The ferry boat often had iron sheets built along the cabin sides for protection against gunfire.  I know that the Red Boats had the same arrangements about armed guards, and I think that they often had iron sheeting too.  I used to like to see the guns.” (Ward, 234-235)

Clearly the Red Boats took security seriously, and that meant turning to professionals with modern weapons.  In that regard they were very similar to pretty much every other ferry and commercial vessel of any size on the Pearl River at that point in time.

Of course this does not mean that martial arts would have been a useless skill outside of the stage.  As useful as a small artillery piece is, it may not help in an altercation in an urban environment or when dealing with petty crime.  And we know from a variety of period accounts that these were things that many martial artists had to deal with.  There is no reason to suspect that the Opera companies would have been uniquely exempt on that front.  Still, it is clear that when dealing with major threats to the ship or crew they, like most other civilians, turned to professional specialists in violence.

Late 19th century performers with a large planted wooden dummy.
Purported image of late 19th century performers with a large planted wooden dummy on a vessel.  This image is commonly passed around the internet, but I have yet to actually confirm the photographer, subjects or original place of publication.

Before concluding I would also like to review a few points about martial arts and operatic training on the Red Boats.  Again this is a topic that has generated a lot of speculation among Wing Chun students and other martial artists.  I have read numerous accounts that have claimed that Wing Chun owes it compact nature to the fact that it was developed on a boat (or alternatively to fight on boats).  Of course not everything about the Wing Chun system (such as its weapons, either the three meter pole or the expansive footwork of the swords form) is really all that “compact” or well adapted to tight spaces.

The informants that Barbara Ward interviewed were all unanimous in declaring that martial arts training did not happen on the boats themselves.  Rather these skills were taught almost exclusively when the boat was moored and the crew was on dry land.  Why?  A quick look at the Ward’s reconstruction of the typical Red Boat reveals the reason.  There was simply no room to do anything other than sleep on these vessels.

Hallways were only a few feet wide and often had trunks along their edges reducing their actual width even more.  Stair wells were so narrow that individuals actually had to turn sideways to move up and down them.  And while there was open space on the fore deck and roof of the cabin (if the mast was raised) that area was typically occupied by the crew of the vessel.  In fact, Ward’s informants indicate that even basic performance and musical training happened exclusively on land.

Still, when you recall that these boats were essentially river barges rather than ocean going vessels, this actually makes a lot of sense.  They were never all that far away from the bank, and most of the trips between venues (where they might be tied up for three day or more) were not all that long.

Photograph of the bow of a model of an "Earth Boat" at the Foshan Museum included by Yeung in her thesis.  Source: Yeung p. 26.
Photograph of the bow of a model of an “Earth Boat” at the Foshan Museum included by Yeung in her thesis. Note the wooden dummy which is not present in Ward’s discussion.  Source: Yeung p. 26.

Conclusion: The evolving relationship between martial arts mythology and our understanding of Cantonese Opera.

While we know a number of details about the history and operation of the Red Boats, there are still some of things that we are less sure about.  One of the most surprising of these is why these vessels were actually called “Red Boats” at all.  Most causal readers would probably assume that they were so named because they were painted red.

Yet Professor Ward’s informants in the 1970s (all individuals who had seen or lived on these vessels) disputed that.  They claimed that in fact the boats looked much like any other river going ferry.  Some stated that the boats were so named because they displayed red banners and advertisements when coming into port.  Ward herself wonders whether this was an ironic or self-deprecating pun based on the fact that high status official vessels were also called “Red Boats.”  She also speculates on the various associations of the color red with different local secret societies but comes to no conclusions (see pages 249-250).

Unfortunately there is little agreement on the basic facts of the situation.  While early accounts claim that the boats were brown, later sources and even government museum replicas (dating from the 1990s and 2000s), state that the boats really were red.  For instance, the Opera Museum in Foshan is one of the few places where scholars can go for reliable information about the history and development of Cantonese regional opera.  Their scale model of an opera boat is quite clearly painted red and white.  In fact, when Yeung did her research in 2009-2010 it does not appear that any of the later sources she used indicated that the boats were not red.  Who should we believe?

One would think that this would be an easy point to resolve.  All we would need to do would be to find a photograph of a Red Boat in the 1920s or 1930s and look at it.  And one might suppose that given the enormous popularity of Cantonese opera that we would be easy.  Unfortunately this is not the case.

We have many pictures of the performers that these boats carried.  We even have photographs of costumes and musicians.  But we have yet to identify a single surviving photograph or painting of an actual pair of Red Boats.  I have tried to speak with as much confidence as my sources will allow, but this surprising ellipse is a useful reminder of just how spotty the historical record can be.  On a fundamental level we just don’t know how these boats were decorated, or if they were decorated at all.

In general the sources that Ward dealt with were more numerous and closer to the actual events than the ones that Yeung had access too.  As such I am inclined to believe that these vessels were “red” only in symbolic terms, and probably looked much like any other ferry to a casual observer.  Their genius lay in their social organization, not their advertising.  I must admit that I also like the idea of them displaying red banners when they arrived at their destination.  That seems very plausible.

Still, this is no longer the dominant image of these vessels in either operatic or martial arts circles.  It would appear that sometime between 1970 and 2000 the “Red Boats” literally became red in the public’s imagination.  So what changed?

I suspect that a big part of this shift had to do with who could claim to be an “expert” on this aspect of southern China’s cultural heritage.  Prior to 1970 if you wanted to know about the Red Boats one would simply go and interview someone who lived on them or frequented their shows.  Martial artists probably would not have been considered a very credible source of information, nor would many people be all that interested in catering to their tastes or vision of the past.

Of course this was prior to Bruce Lee, Jet Li and the “Kung Fu Craze” that swept Hong Kong and Mainland China in the late 1970s and 1980s.  Despite the best efforts of previous generations of reformers, the martial arts were always viewed as a marginal activity within Chinese society.  Ergo their close association with the opera and military, both of which were also seen as very marginal activities.  When most Chinese individuals imagined their past the martial arts did not play a huge role in it, and if they did it was not necessarily a glorious one.

In the 1980s all of this changed.  A much wider group of people were now willing to accept the martial arts as a legitimate tool for both enacting and understanding Chinese identity.  This had an immediate and profound effect on the contours of popular culture.  Suddenly things were interesting to consumers precisely because they had a connection to the martial arts.

Martial arts tourism also became a major industry which picked up steam throughout the 1980s and 1990s.  Municipalities and individual institutions found themselves competing in a new industry based on a rapidly evolving “memory” of what the past had been.  I suspect that as the cultural prestige of the southern Chinese martial arts rose, its teachers were increasingly seen as “experts” to be consulted on the history of area’s opera tradition.

After all, these performance traditions played a critical part in the lore of groups like Wing Chun.  Their stories were colorful and often full of solid nationalist themes.  And of course they were likely to be an economic boon to whatever geographic unit could lay claim to them.

All of which brings me back to the model of the literally “Red Boat” housed at the Foshan opera museum. Astute observers will notice that in addition to the red paint another addition has been made to the model that does not appear in any of Professor Ward’s accounts or her own reconstruction of the boats.  Relying on the museum replica Yeung (in 2010) reports that the bow of each Earth Boat featured a wooden dummy for the opera singers to practice their Kung Fu on.  Further, the training apparatus in question looks suspiciously like a modern Wing Chun dummy.

I have got to admit that I have some very mixed feelings about this.  As a Wing Chun practitioner I would actually love for this to be true.  Yet it is strange that in 1975 none of Ward’s sources remembered this detail.  However in our current decade (well after the rise of Bruce Lee and even Ip Man) suddenly local experts “remember” that the boats all had dummies on them.

Again, it is hard to know what to do with this.  We have one photograph that appears to show two individuals on a boat with a dummy, much like the one that Yeung reproduces.  But I have never been able to actually confirm in concrete terms the origins or provenance of that image.

Readers should also recall that there were other sorts of dummies that were used in southern China.  Should we really expect of a modern Wing Chun dummy in 1870?  Or even in 1920?  Why not a Choy Li Fut style training device?  During that period it was the most popular regional art.

Finally, looking at the measurements and recreation provided by Ward I actually have some doubts as to whether a dummy would actually have fit on the deck at all.  After all, she has a cannon mounted in the middle of the platform where the martial arts student would have to stand in order to use the dummy.

Ultimately I doubt that the Red Boats included training dummies of the sort imagined by the Foshan museum model.  I do not doubt that dummies were part of opera training.  They are an important part of a number of local martial arts systems and it is hard to think of a reason why opera students would not have used them.  Yet this training, like pretty much everything else, probably had to wait until the apprentices disembarked onto dry land.

I suspect that this may be a good example of how martial arts folklore has come to be projected back onto Chinese popular history in unexpected ways since the 1980s and 1990s.  Prior to this time there would be no reason to think of Wing Chun teachers as “experts” in the history of Cantonese opera.  But after that time their stories became critically important to the many tourists who descend on Foshan each year hoping to hear about Cantonese opera’s connection to Wing Chun.

Popular culture is not static.  It is a dynamic thing.  This means that our view of the past is always changing and evolving as well.  It is not hard to see this process unfurl in academic discussions of China’s history, but it is also happening in popular conversations about the past and its relationship with modern identity.

I do not want to dismiss this changing discourse about the nature of the Red Boats and their relationship with the martial arts.  I think that these two issues regarding the boats’ appearance are pretty informative in terms of understanding what many individuals are looking for in the Chinese martial arts today.  Still, it is necessary to bracket this process if you are instead interested in understanding the evolution of the martial arts in the Late Imperial or Republic periods.  If one is unaware of the influence of these modern stories on how the past imagined, then history quickly becomes tautology.

How do historical or cultural students guard against this tendency?  In general Yeung’s thesis is pretty good, but it is clear that she was not really all that well informed about the local martial arts (her emphasis is on the musical and performance side of opera).  This may have hampered her ability to judge the credibility of different sources.

At the end of the day relying on accounts and documents close to the source is our best strategy.  When there has been a discrepancy between Yeung and Ward I have tended to favor the later precisely because her sources are more numerous and credible.  The real danger that arises when speculating about the past in the absence of primary documents is that we cannot tell when our thinking starts to go offtrack.  When the historical record is silent it is just too easy to support almost any argument no matter how spurious.

I hope that this blog post will help to address some of these issues, at least with regards to the Red Boat Opera companies and their relationship to Wing Chun.  In recent years this motif has been used to advance a number of competing theories about where the system originated and why it evolved in the way that it did.

Most of these claims are probably spurious. The Red Boat period of the Cantonese opera is both later and shorter than most people recognize (really circa 1870-1938).  These companies appear to have been highly specialized economic units and unlikely to have been involved in the sorts of radical politics which later martial arts folklore seeks to link them too.  Lastly, while the Red Boats inhabited a dangerous world, they often relied on professional guards armed with modern weapons to protect their property and lives.  In that sense they were very much like any other travelers on the Pearl River at that point in time.

Nevertheless, I suspect that opera was linked to the development of a number of important styles in Southern China.  Competition between opera troops to showcase the newest and most exotic skills on stage helped to spread different styles throughout the region, and likely even acted as vector for new hand combat traditions to enter southern China in the first place.  In asking these questions about where exactly the “history” ends and modern “folklore” begins, I do not seek to discount the contribution of Cantonese opera.  Rather I would like to open a space where their actual accomplishments can be investigated and understood aside from their more recent reputation.


"Chinese Stage Shows." Cigarette Card.  Source: Digital Collections of the NY Public Library.
“Chinese Stage Shows.” Cigarette Card. Source: Digital Collections of the NY Public Library.


Essential Kung Fu Cinema (1): Fists of Fury

By Rob Argent

A Poster for Fists of Fury.
A Poster for Fists of Fury.

***I am very happy to welcome Rob Argent back to 功夫网.  Rob’s first guest post was a study of the martial arts in video games which he contributed to the 2013 Web Symposium on Chinese Martial Studies.  This post will be the first in an ongoing series reviewing some of the essential Kung Fu films which have helped to define the genera.  It is hard to overstate how important film has been to the global success of the traditional Chinese martial arts, and these posts will remind us of some of the critical steps along the way.****


Since the late nineteen twenties there has been an abundance of martial art related movies, ranging from outlandish fantasy (known in China as Wuxia), through gritty hard hitting drama to high concept action pieces. The majority of these have originated from either mainland China or Hong Kong, with the former generally focusing on historically orientated titles and the latter producing more modern, explosive fare. In this series I will be looking at a number of iconic Kung Fu films that, for one reason or another, had a significant effect on the way we watch martial arts on the cinema screen. Some of them are well known and have created certain expectations about the genre, while others are lesser known titles that have provided a different take on how to portray martial artists and their practices. However, all of them are based on Kung Fu first and foremost; different styles are on display, but Chinese martial arts are the centrepiece of each production. For the first part of this series I am writing about the 1972 Bruce Lee classic, Fist of Fury.

Plot Summary

Martial artist Chen Zhen (played by Bruce Lee) returns to his Shanghai training school to discover his master has recently passed away under suspicious circumstances. Facing aggression from a nearby Japanese school and little support from either the local authorities or his fellow students, Chen takes it on himself to confront the school’s enemies. Along the way, he uncovers the mystery of his teacher’s demise and falls into an unrelenting circle of violence.

Fists of Fury 2

Playing It Safe

Having established itself as a dominant movie style in both mainland China and Hong Kong through the thirties onwards, the martial arts film slowly started to incorporate a number of clichés and idioms that helped to define the genre but also threatened to leave it in a creative rut of sorts. The more commercially successful titles could get by on lean, bare bones plotting that was there to string together as many fight scenes as logically possible. Themes of loyalty and revenge were commonplace, as these would offer a quick and easy set up for a main character to justify numerous battles without compromising their moral core. On top of this, a personal vendetta storyline does not run the risk of taking on overly political tones, which would allow the film to be shown across China without running the risk of being heavily edited by censors, or banned from distribution. Xu Haofeng, the professor of the Beijing Film Academy and a writer on Wong Kar Wai’s recent Wing Chun centred film The Grandmasters, spoke out about this at the recent 2013 Busan International Film Festival Forum: “the martial arts films previously were always telling a very simple story – the revenge. The only factor that can absorb the audience is the splendid actions, which is the mainstream of Chinese martial films in the past 20 years.” His point cuts straight to the heart of the problem; whilst it is easy to loosely link together a number of expertly choreographed fight sequences, what is going to hold the audience’s attention whilst they’re waiting for the next exchange of blows?

This trend for streamlined story and emphasised action goes back to the sixties, when the genre really started to find its footing. The Chinese Cultural Revolution had suppressed the mainland film industry, only allowing a narrow scope for filmmakers to work in, and violent action stories were not on the list of acceptable subjects to base a movie on. On top of that, traditional national fighting styles were viewed as representative of the previous governments that the Communist Party had opposed; the last thing that the authorities wanted to see was a hero of the silver screen emerging victorious against his or her enemies through use of Kung Fu, a symbol of the old guard. Despite the popularity of such titles, the Chinese cinema goers faced losing their tales of escapism. As such, Hong Kong responded by producing a wealth of high kicking features that delivered what fight fans wanted to see, flooding the market with a seemingly endless supply of avenging angels and historical heroes, all of which were well versed in various forms of martial arts. There was an inexhaustible amount of young martial artists and actors eager to break through, and even veteran actors – such as Lo Wei, who was an experienced actor prior to directing and starring in Fist Of Fury amongst others – viewed the work as worthy of their time and effort.

Fists of Fury 3

The Arrival Of A Legend

Seemingly content with this production line approach to movies, things changed when Bruce Lee returned to Hong Kong following an unsuccessful attempt to break into the Hollywood movie industry. A few minor acting and fight choreography roles aside, his most recognisable work was as the black clad sidekick Kato in the hit US TV series The Green Hornet. Unaware of that series’ success in Asia, Lee was reluctant to leave America without securing a major role, but was eventually convinced to star in a number of films produced by Golden Harvest; at the time one of the most influential movie companies in the East, alongside the Shaw Brothers’ studio. Realising that he could boost his already considerable star power even more by being a big fish in (in his eyes) a small pond, this was Lee’s chance to demonstrate not only his on screen fighting prowess, but his acting skills and personal philosophies. Veteran director Lo Wei was quickly recruited to oversee the first of these films, replacing the previously assigned Ng Gar Seung, whilst Lee replaced lead actor James Tien. Opening to commercial and critical applause, The Big Boss announced that Hong Kong’s most prized export had returned to deliver the highest grossing film in the country’s history.

And yet, whilst it played to the typical martial arts picture strengths and stereotypes that viewers wanted, were it not for its cast it would not have stood out. A top of his game director and the biggest star possible had worked together to deliver a high quality production, but the hype alone ensured that its success was a given. Lee’s next film, released only a year later, would focus all of the requisite elements of the fight film into a stellar example of the genre that is both a fantastic introduction to the style and also a favourite for fans as well.

Vintage poster for the American release of Fists of Fury, originally produced for the Hong Kong market.
Vintage poster for the American release of Fists of Fury, originally produced for the Hong Kong market.

The Story

Opening with Chinese text displayed in an Andy Warhol-esque title sequence and backed by a Morricone/cowboy themed soundtrack, the film immediately shows its hand as an amalgamation of Eastern and Western ideas – this movie was aimed at every possible demographic in mind. Chinese viewers would enjoy the cultural pride that the script contains, Hong Kong audiences came to marvel at Bruce Lee’s ascending status, and Western audiences were catered for with its style and presentation. Indeed, the US title was originally The Chinese Connection, simply to cash in on The French Connection, the completely unrelated Gene Hackman movie released the year before. Over the years the title has changed numerous times, from Fist Of Fury to The Chinese Connection, to The Iron Hand and back to it’s original name.

Set in 1933, Lee stars as Chen Zhen, a student of real life Kung Fu master Huo Yuanjia, himself a Chinese folk hero due to his martial prowess and status as a devout defender of the Chinese national identity at a time when it was under threat from the combined influences of both Europe and Japan. Huo Yuanjia has featured in numerous period martial art films such as Jet Li’s Fearless; his Chin Woo Athletic Association upheld the teaching of traditional styles, and its reputation was so revered that even during the Cultural Revolution’s purging of the old fighting methods it was to survive, now renowned as a popular Wushu school. In the story however, Chen Zhen returns from his travels to discover his master recently deceased, interrupting the funeral in a dramatic, agonising manner. There are as many theories as to Huo’s death as there are Lee’s, which only adds to the poignancy of the scene. Lo Wei had chosen one of the more sensational beliefs, which is highlighted as the film unwinds. From this initial scene, Lee is given the chance to stretch his acting muscles, working through grief, anger, contrition – Chen is torn apart from the very beginning and spends the rest of the film reeling from the loss of his master, who would have been a significant father figure to him. In fact, the Kung Fu school is the only sort of family that Chen has, and his fellow students even say as much to him to help in his time of need.

Later on, he even gets to show his softer side in the few scenes that he shares with leading actress Nora Miao, where their relationship is slowly revealed more and more with each conversation that the characters have in private. And this is unusual for a film where the main appeal is in the fighting – whereas the majority of Kung Fu films’ scripts are focused on moving from one confrontation to the next as quickly and efficiently as possible, Fist Of Fury isn’t. Rather than rush through the events and risk poor characterisation or creating plot holes, it instead escalates the tension, holding back on battles like a thriller. Faced with a mocking, overly aggressive Japanese martial school trying to close down his master’s school, Chen plays a game of cat and mouse with them, slowly raising the stakes with each meeting – first a painfully fraught battle of words, next a brief yet explosive skirmish with its students, and so on until he inevitably uncovers the reason for his master’s death and who is responsible. The use of a murder mystery setting helps add to the overall feel of a production that takes from the crime/thriller genre whilst refining what fans of the fight movie wanted to see. Due to this, there aren’t as many clashes as in other movies, but is all the more satisfying for it.

Fists of Fury 4

Waging War

Drawing the viewer into the circle of violence by showing a strong, honourable man being seemingly dragged into a war that he doesn’t want, Lo Wei ensured that his script played on the cultural themes of the time, having his Japanese villains use the term “sick man of Asia” as an insult; a phrase that was used at the time that the film was set in. Also, being only six years before the outbreak of the Second World War, Chinese viewers knew that racial tension was at an all time high. Amidst all of this, Chen’s quest for vengeance takes him down an increasingly dark path, causing him to break the law and alienate not only foreigners and officials, but his own friends. Despite this, Lee’s charisma keeps us cheering him on. Whilst the other students do little to nothing to stop their Japanese nemesis, Chen struggles to accept their (and his master’s) theory of non-confrontation, when he has spent a lifetime training in martial arts. It’s rare that a martial arts film shows this side of a fighting style’s philosophy, as it normally reduces the number of on screen strikes and blows, but here we see Chen genuinely struggle to follow his teachings when all around him everything and everyone he cares for is under some sort of attack.

During the course of the film, the fight choreography uses a mix of differing Chinese and Japanese styles, not necessarily sticking to what the characters would have been using at the time. Plot wise the two opposing schools call for examples of Wing Chun from Huo’s students, whilst the Japanese school demonstrate a mix of Judo throws and holds, with Karate strikes. Using a modified take on his own personal philosophy towards combat – off screen he would go for the most efficient moves, on screen the best looking – Lee instead utilises techniques that look more cinematic than realistic. After all, his famous one inch punch wouldn’t impress most non-martial artists as much as a jumping sidekick combined with his legendary battle cry. Smooth blocking motions and lightning fast counter punches are the order of the day, with graceful series of spinning kicks (often aimed at head height) used to keep a fluid, dynamic feel to his movements.

Reaching its bloody conclusion, whereby Chen faces off against a Russian strongman and an armed Japanese sensei, the film ends with Chen having to pay for his crimes despite his apparent victory over, well, everyone who opposes him. We see him being repeatedly warned by his colleagues as well as Lo Wei’s detective, who try to help him see that his rampage will only end up hurting his family as much as his enemies, and his being punished for his actions is very typical of Chinese martial tales. Whilst this isn’t typically seen in Hollywood productions, Lee ends the film in a typically defiant way, both accepting his fate while going out in a dramatic, defiant way.

Fists of Fury 5

The Legacy

So, why have I chosen this particular Bruce Lee film to write about as opposed to his other works? Whilst The Big Boss, Way Of The Dragon, Enter The Dragon and Game Of Death all feature similar motifs (forced confrontation, revenge, justice), Fist Of Fury was the right production for the right time. Lee had already begun to establish his reputation as a fearsome martial artist and fight choreographer, and The Big Boss’ success meant that people were avidly awaiting this title. On top of that, the tense, streamlined script builds up anticipation of the fights as well as showing more rounded, fleshed out characters in contrast to two dimensional heroes and villains that tend to populate the genre. And even to this day the combat is hard hitting, thanks to its focus on small numbered hand to hand exchanges; the setting allows the story to ignore the threat of guns and also emphasizes why a fighter had to have good martial training in a day and age where violence was never far away.

Look at the other films around at the same time: Hong Kong was churning out a relentless number of high concept fight films, content to deliver functional stories that gave a sufficient pretense for as many scraps as they could. That way the immediate, distracting flash of action could distract the watcher from the plot holes, the lack of budget, or the poor acting. This foreshadows present day American (mainly Hollywood) business models in the film industry, making sure that there are few creative risks and large financial returns, which creates a rigid, overly conservative formula, and this is what Xu Haofeng is warning against even now. It’s easy to make a martial arts film, but its difficult to make a martial art film with drama, tension and artistic flair. Without the meteoric rise of Bruce Lee, and the resulting press attention that was bestowed on martial arts and their cinematic counterparts, audiences would have been inundated with second rate action titles that had no imagination and no respect for their viewers.

Fist Of Fury is the iconic Bruce Lee role, providing a pitch perfect definition of what to expect from his acting and fighting styles. Built to further his own approach to Kung Fu as well as enhance his own reputation (and it could well be argued that it is hard to draw the line between these two, as fans of Lee will acknowledge), this was also a leading light in the refinement of modern day martial arts films, moving on from the generic fare that was being offered up after years of indolence towards what is now expected of a quality action movie. Yes it could be argued that Enter The Dragon is bigger and more well known, and that Game Of Death is more intriguing due to the circumstances of its making, but for a perfect demonstration of spectacular fight orchestration and dramatic plotting, I’d vote for Chen Zhen’s tale of vengeance each and every time.


Rob Argent is a  freelance writer with a degree in English language and literature.  He has previously trained in Karate, Kickboxing and Muay Thai and he is currently studying Taiji Quan.  He lives in Birmingham, England with his two pet fish.


Cantonese Popular Culture and 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.  Source: Photo by Whitney Clayton, Author’s Personal Collection.


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.” Source: This is the author’s personal copy of a photograph that  is now in the public domain.

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.

The “Grand” Master: A Disenting View by Jon Nielson

****The first leg of my road trip is now complete.  I will not be back in my office for a couple of weeks but at this point I do have intermittent internet access.  One of the things that I found when I opened my Inbox was this review of the “Grandmaster” by my Sifu Jon Nielson.  It is addressed to his students and written specifically from a martial artists viewpoint.  The essay discusses many of the historical oddities of the film which one suspects are now likely to cause confusion as people imagine Ip Man’s life in the future.  With his permission I would like to post it here as it makes some important points about Ip Man’s actual biographical history that are often forgotten.

Obviously film critics without technical and historical commitments are likely to see this movie differently, but for many actual Wing Chun students this will be a valuable discussion.  Alas I have yet to see the film myself, but now that I am back in a more urban area I hope to take a look at it in the next few days.****

Ip Man as imagined by Wong Kar-wei.
Ip Man as imagined by Wong Kar-wei.

The Grandmaster: A Review

I saw Wong Kar Wai’s “The Grandmaster” on Friday, August 30th, and I’d like to share my thoughts on the movie.  I had high hopes for the movie, but I was terribly disappointed.  First of all, I don’t know for whom the film was produced.  It is a martial arts movie with several fight scenes, but those scenes are relatively short, and not exactly revealing.  The shots are something like those of the first two Batman movies in which you don’t see much but close-ups of arms moving or feet moving and a sudden strike that sends the other combatant flying an unbelievable distance, only to recover and keep fighting.  The film did showcase a number of Chinese martial arts, but only briefly.  Most of these contests were reduced to just that, some contrived contest that was not a fight, but was designed to test a specific skill.  The point I’m trying to make is that I don’t think the film was written to appeal to the serious martial artist.

Besides, the film had far too much romance for a martial artist to enjoy it.  I’m not exactly sure why they did this.  Maybe it was to justify the affair that Ip Man actually was involved in during his Hong Kong years.  However, the films romance doesn’t seem to appeal to the romance crowd either.  In the film, this affair was between Ip Man and a fictional character named Gong Er.  I suppose it all starts out well enough: Ip Man is married to a woman from his social class who understands him and cares for him, but he has a challenge match with Gong Yutian, the “grandmaster of the north,” in which he overcomes.  Gong’s daughter, Gong Er, wishes to restore the family honor and challenges Ip to another match.  He accepts and loses because he is a gentleman.  This loss wins him the girl’s affection.  However, circumstances interfere with their relationship.  They are finally reunited, but are unable to fulfill their relationship because, even though he is now free from his relationship, she has taken a vow never to marry or have children.  Furthermore, she has become addicted to opium, and eventually dies from this addiction.  It’s hardly a romance for the ages.

Jon Nielson of Wing Chun Hall in Salt Lake City.
Jon Nielson of Wing Chun Hall in Salt Lake City.

Furthermore, Gong Er’s character is based on a woman who did avenge her father’s death.  The woman was named Shi Jianqiao.  Her father worked for a warlord during the warlord period.  He was beheaded, and she vowed she would avenge him.  She waited until the warlord period ended, and then when the former warlord was leading a prayer service, she shot him three times.  She stayed and handed out pamphlets explaining her action and was eventually acquitted on the grounds that her avenging her father’s death was a justifiable act of filial piety.  See

My main complaint about the movie is that it perpetuates a mythical martial arts community that never existed, and simply serves to confuse people who wish to associate themselves with the Chinese martial arts today.  It begins with Gong Yutian explaining that he became a grandmaster by combining Ba-gua and Xing-Yi, and then challenging several other martial arts masters without losing a match, thereby uniting the northern martial arts community.  He then takes this association south and forms a branch of his community in Foshan.

When he considers himself too old to continue, he travels south again and accepts a challenge to establish the southern grandmaster, who turns out to be Ip Man.  He chooses a northern heir for his style, but that heir proves unworthy, to the point where he kills his master, Gong Yutian.  His daughter, Gong Er, vows vengeance and eventually kills him in a challenge match, thereby taking the rights of her father’s art back for the family.  In the meantime, Ip Man is continually challenged by a series of masters who want to test and strengthen his position as a grandmaster.  These masters become his friends in a kind of lose martial arts society.

Well, what really happened is that during the republic, a group of businessmen formed the Jin Wu association.  It became very popular in the north, and they wanted to form a branch in the south.  They sent a representative to Foshan, and he challenged the local martial artists.  Ip Man’s friends all recommended him, and he knocked the northerner out in under a minute.  That didn’t make him a grandmaster. He still had several seniors in the area.  It just made it hard for the Jin Wu association to put down roots in Foshan.  While Ip Man was alive, no one called him a grandmaster.  It was a posthumous honor given him by his students because of all of the work he did in teaching and spreading Wing Chun.  Ip Man was not great because some teacher said he was.  He was great because he spent a lot of time learning from a lot of people, perfecting his art, and spreading it to other people.  Probably what set him apart most was his ability to modernize the art because of his western education as opposed to a classical education, and he also emphasized turning practice into playing games.  Ip Man also never designated a successor.  Well, he wasn’t in a position to do so.  No one had made him the Wing Chun vessel, so he couldn’t do that to anyone else.  Anyway, that notion comes from a myth of the successors of Chan Buddhism.  Such a thing never really happened.  People follow teachers because they are good.  Ip Man was good, so people learned from him.

Another thing that bugged me about the movie was the contradiction between reasonable, practiced, disciplined control of your body and abandonment of will to fate.  Wong Kar Wai’s Ip Man says something to the effect of, “What we do with our hands and feet is under our control, but what happens outside of that is just fate.” Why would a martial artist say that?  I realize that this quote is from a villain, but in Bruce Lee’s “Enter the Dragon,” Master Han says, “We are men who create ourselves.” That’s the spirit of the martial arts, not blind submission to fate.

It seems that Zhiyi Zhang is always playing a woman who makes a foolish choice and ends up desperately sad.  In this movie, in order to win back her father’s art for her family, she makes a vow that she will never marry, have children or teach her father’s art.  There are plenty of stupid choices you can make, but why would you take something back for your family and then make sure there would never be any more of your family?  Why would you become the successor for the art and promise never to teach it?  That’s senseless.  I realize that there are probably plenty of people out there who are ready and willing to explain to me the Asian value behind this reasoning.  I don’t care.  It’s still stupid.  This kind of thing ruins Chinese cinema for me.  It was the same thing with the end of “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” and “House of Flying Daggers.” Furthermore, the films assertion that Gong Er could never have a place in the martial arts because she was a woman is ridiculous and self-contradictory.  First of all, several arts have boasted famous female practitioners, but most condemning is the fact that the first master that challenges Tony Leung’s Ip Man, the Ba-gua master, is a woman.  This is an unforgivable self-contradiction in their own move.

Ip Man as he actually existed during the Hong Kong years.
Ip Man as he actually existed during the Hong Kong years.

Then there were all of encounters between Ip Man and the other masters.  This made it seem that there was some kind of noble agreement between all of these masters.  Actually, the martial arts community is nothing like that.  Most people are viciously jealous of their art.  I have had a few encounters like this, but for the most part, people who come in to challenge are not open to new concepts.  We should be, but challenge matches are no way to bring about this type of camaraderie.  Actually, Ip Man was part of an inter-school martial arts association.  Here’s how it happened: when he moved to Hong Kong, several martial arts schools were causing trouble, and the police were cracking down on them.  Ip Man went to the police and worked with them, registering his students so that they wouldn’t cause trouble.  Then he went to different schools and convinced them to join him in this effort.  Eventually, they had a coalition of schools that were united in an effort to promote the reputation of the martial arts.  It was practical, not some clandestine meeting for an unsanctioned fight contest.

There were fights, though.  Leung Sheung and Wong Shun Leung, two of Ip Man’s early students fought with several champions from the various schools in Hong Kong and won, thus spreading the reputation of Wing Chun.  These were bloody and brutal events, not some noble contest where no one gets hurt and nothing gets broken.

“The Grandmaster” did have some visually stunning scenes, but that is not enough to recommend it.  If you want to see a good martial arts move, rent “Ip Man,” or watch it for free on Hulu.  I think it is the best martial arts movie ever made.  “Ip Man” also takes some historical liberties, but the motivation for fighting and the fight scenes are infinitely superior to those in “The Grandmaster.”

About the Author

Jon Nielson has practiced and taught Wing Chun for over thirty years.  He was first introduced to the art by Jerry Gardner in Salt Lake City, and has subsequently studied with Kenneth Chung, William Cheung, Eddie Chong, Malcolm Lee, Leung Ting and Ron Heimberger.  He currently works with Ip Ching and has had the opportunity to train with him on several occasions in Hong Kong.

Paul Bowman visits 功夫网 and helps us to see Beyond Bruce Lee.


Beyond Bruce Lee: Chasing the Dragon Through Film, Philosophy, and Popular Culture by Paul Bowman (Wallflower Press, 2013).
Beyond Bruce Lee: Chasing the Dragon Through Film, Philosophy, and Popular Culture by Paul Bowman (Wallflower Press, 2013).


July 20th is the 40th anniversary of the death of Bruce Lee.  Prof. Paul Bowman, an expert on both his life and cultural influence, has been kind enough to sit down with us to discuss Lee’s continuing significance.  It is almost impossible to study the history or sociology of the Asian fighting arts in the west without addressing Bruce Lee’s ongoing legacy.  Almost no one is better positioned to help guide us through this conversation than Paul Bowman.  He is a keen social observer and is breaking new ground in the field of martial studies.

Readers looking for a short introduction to his work might want to start with either this lecture or the following short article.


Kung Fu Tea (KFT): Can you take a moment to introduce yourself and explain how a Media and Communications Professor from the UK ended up writing three books on Bruce Lee?

Paul Bowman (PB):  I’d always loved martial arts. I did some Shotokan in my teens and Taekwondo and kickboxing in my early twenties. I worked as a doorman whilst doing my BA and my MA degrees and spent a lot of time with practitioners of Muay Thai, Jiu Jitsu, Judo, Goju Ryu, kickboxing and Fung Sao kung fu. When I did my MA in Cultural Studies, I remember I would always try to get my head around the most complex theoretical arguments about ‘culture’ – arguments about ‘cultural relations’, say, or ‘political antagonisms’ – by thinking in terms of two opponents. When I went on to do my PhD – again on a very theoretical and very ‘wordy’ subject (it focused on the question of which paradigm would be best for a ‘political’ or ‘politicized’ cultural studies, and it ultimately became this book) – I found myself more and more drawn to questions of ‘antagonism’ and ‘conflict’.

Derrida and deconstruction are all about violence, power, domination, subordination, exclusion, and so on. At the same time, in discussions with other academics, I would often find myself suggesting that Bruce Lee was a very important cultural figure in terms of questions and issues to do with postcolonialism, race, ethnicity, cultural-hybridity, multiculturalism, globalization, and so on. And I remember that people would laugh – they would actually laugh! – and scoff – at the suggestion that Bruce Lee could be deemed important in culture.

I concluded that academics didn’t know enough about Bruce Lee – didn’t have any idea about the significance and effects he had, as the first global Asian (Asian-American) action hero superstar. They had no idea about the changes his movies precipitated in popular culture and film and media the world over. (By and large, they still don’t: A couple of years ago, when a film company flew me to NYC to take part in what became I am Bruce Lee, I was in a bar chatting with two academics and the barman. One of the academics, a Chinese professor of religion, simply could not understand why anyone anywhere would want to make a film about this trivial action star. The old barman, on the other hand, knew exactly why Bruce Lee was so important, and he conveyed it all to the professor much more clearly and succinctly than I could have. He said: man, we all loved Bruce Lee, because he was not white and he could kick everybody’s ass! Needless to say, perhaps, the barman was black.)

The day I handed in my PhD, well over a decade ago, I took up T’ai Chi Ch’üan. This was the first Chinese martial art I’d ever studied, and it rocked my world. Shortly after, I added Choy Li Fut and then some Xing-Yi. I kept working on cultural and political theory, but you can see in my second book (Deconstructing Popular Culture) that I was starting to try to work out how to think and write about martial arts and popular culture. Chinese philosophy was becoming more and more interesting to me again – especially the connections I could sense between Taoism and deconstruction. And eventually it took over and I decided to try to write a book about martial arts.

Being trained in cultural theory, film theory and media theory, and having only limited cultural and practical experience of martial arts, I knew I could not write a history book, or an ethnographic or anthropological or sociological type of study. I simply didn’t know how. But I did know about film and popular culture. So I decided to try to use a study of Bruce Lee as my ‘way in’ to writing about martial arts and culture more generally.

For me it was a labour of love. The proposal was rejected by loads of publishers, so I went with the first one to show an interest. I was delighted to be given the chance to write such an eccentric sort of a book. I genuinely believed the book would sink without trace. So did everyone else! I remember colleagues – senior and junior – dismissing the book out of hand (before they’d read it, of course), thinking that it didn’t connect with anything ‘proper’ or ‘serious’. Again, I found myself arguing about why Bruce Lee did connect with serious and worthy issues in culture and even politics.

When it (Theorizing Bruce Lee) came out, I found it attracted quite a lot of interest – and not just from academics. Martial artists started contacting me. Teri Tom, for instance, the star student of Ted Wong, who was arguably Bruce Lee’s number one student, contacted me to say she enjoyed the book and thought that it was doing important work. Then various media started contacting me, and from all over the world, too, wanting interviews and articles and so on. Which was nice. But I also found that academics were asking me to write more about Bruce Lee. So much so that in the end I had enough new material for another book – which is the story of Beyond Bruce Lee, which came out recently.

In the meantime, I popped up in I am Bruce Lee, which I think is why Bruce Lee Enterprises asked me to be the author of the glossy biography of Bruce Lee that they wanted to do – which became The Treasures of Bruce Lee.

KFT: You have now dedicated a lot of years of your life and professional career to studying Bruce Lee.  How has your perception of him, both as an individual and cultural figure, changed over that time?

PB: Man, I think I must have thought and felt everything it is possible for a scholar and a fan to think and feel about Bruce Lee! I find him endlessly fascinating – which I think is always the way with your first ‘love’. You know, I was a boy when I first encountered Bruce Lee. I was reading the martial arts magazines as a teenager, and interacting with a wider community of practitioners from my 20s on. So I’ve encountered all the debates and all the controversies. At different times I’ve wholeheartedly bought into each of the very different ‘lessons’ of Bruce Lee (there is more than one ‘message’, depending on who you ask!); I’ve revered him for his genius and written him off as a one-trick pony; I’ve thought he was invincible within his size and weight category, and I’ve thought he was all show and talk with no substance. I’ve read diatribes against him and hagiographies worshiping and deifying him. So, as an academic, I’ve tried to stand back and take stock of these controversies and differences in order to try to make sense of why they arise and what that may mean. And I’ve enjoyed all of this – and even though I sometimes feel battle-weary, I am still surprised by the insights and positions that people have on matters relating to Bruce Lee.

Yesterday, for example, an advert for whisky came to light in my circle on Facebook. The advert is for the Chinese market and features a CGI enhanced Bruce Lee character, spouting elements of ‘Bruce Lee philosophy’ in order to sell whisky. Now, obviously, I felt compelled to comment on the link to this, and the next minute I was embroiled in discussions with people (including other people who have written books on Bruce Lee) who had opinions and information that had never occurred to me. So, yes, I’ve encountered and held many different positions on Bruce Lee, but the one thing that remains constant is my conviction that Bruce Lee is important. You can’t argue with this. Bruce Lee changed things. This is surely a large part of the reason why people keep picking up his image and using it for different ideological, cultural and economic purposes.

Prof. Paul Bowman.  Cardiff University, School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies.
Prof. Paul Bowman. Cardiff University, School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies.

KFT: Your most recent book is titled Beyond Bruce Lee.  What was your central message to the reader in choosing this title?  Why should we, both as an academic and martial arts community, be interested in looking beyond the edges of Lee’s life and career?  Can we do that without missing the man himself?

PB: If you can judge a book by its title (and I know I do this all too often!), I think I’m making two points with the title. The main title is Beyond Bruce Lee. With this I’m obviously saying ‘this book is different to Theorizing Bruce Lee!’ The subtitle is Chasing the Dragon through Film, Philosophy and Popular Culture. With this I’m trying to indicate what the ‘beyond’ might be: namely the contexts and intertextual connections, relations and associations between Bruce Lee and a whole host of other things. For obviously, Bruce Lee is more than one thing, with an impact in more than one context or realm of culture; so I’m running with ideas and connections about Bruce Lee, the way that ideas and connections about Bruce Lee run into and through culture.

And, yes, definitely, by doing this we miss ‘the man himself’. I didn’t know him. Did you? Yet we all think we did or do. But, really, we only have the texts – the films, the photos, the clips, the published notebooks, and so on. It is from these traces and disparate sources that we in a sense invent ‘the man himself’. – Those familiar with literary and cultural theory will see that my thinking here is very influenced by Roland Barthes.

KFT: Many discussions of Lee’s significance within the field of “cultural studies” tend to situate him quite strongly against the backdrop of the Vietnam War, nineteen sixties radicalism and the turn to towards consumer culture in the 1970s and 1980s.  That all is fascinating and yet, unlike so much from that era, Lee is still fashionable today.  My current students have only the foggiest idea what the Cold War was, let alone the nuances of radical racial and urban politics in the 1960s.  They lose no sleep over Vietnam.

Does the long-running nature of Lee’s fame challenge any of these theories of his rise?  And if they survive, how should we understand his continued presence in our current media and popular culture landscape?

PB: I think it’s generational. While there will doubtless be many people in the world who are still living under the cloud of the Vietnam War and ’60s politics on a day to day basis, you can’t expect everyone to do so. For a time the theme of the Vietnam War seemed to dominate American films. (Chuck Norris was always a Vietnam Veteran, wasn’t he?) But, like everything, it waned from public consciousness, and even cultural memory.

However, I think Bruce Lee is slightly different: he is not a trauma that you need to forget or to come to terms with. He is amazing to watch, and what Bruce Lee is able to do seems to be something that anyone could do with the right commitment to training their minds and bodies. So there’s a world of difference. Bruce Lee is a joy, a pleasure to behold. And the impact he had on the lives of kids and teenagers in the 1970s was not short-lived. People grew up in his wake, after having been blown away by Bruce Lee. So we are now living in a time when ‘the Bruce Lee Generation’ are fully mature and grown up, and producing their best works. I think we have been seeing this since the ’90s. This was the era of The Wutang Clan, The Beastie Boys, Tarantino, etc. The impact of Bruce Lee and other 1970s HK and Japanese films are palpable in their work.

Moreover, he’s present more and more in the fight choreography of Hollywood films. He’s still what people aspire to when they construct a fight scene. Listen to Jeff Imada discussing the fight choreography on the Bourne trilogy: he’s still citing Bruce Lee as an inspiration. Moreover, Imada himself is a case in point: a friend of Brandon Lee, trained by Dan Inosanto, Bruce Lee’s friend and senior student. The fruit never falls very far from the tree and after Bruce Lee died, Hollywood scrabbled around for actors and choreographers who could come up with anything close to what Lee could do. Inosanto was there. Other Jeet Kune Do students were there. Even today, fresh people not directly connected with but inspired both by the literal moves and by the ethos of Lee’s Jeet Kune Do keep appearing, such as Gusto Dieguez and Andy Norman, who devised the Keysi Fighting Method that was used in Batman Begins and other Hollywood films.

Dieguez was a student of escrima/kali who studied under Inosanto, before obscuring that relationship and making statements about Keysi coming directly and totally ‘from the street’ and not from an ‘institutional style’. (Sound familiar?) In other words, even when people do not ‘remember’ or ‘commemorate’ Bruce Lee, we are still living in the effects – the wake – of his impact. And in more than one realm: Film making and martial arts are only the main ones – or maybe they’re not even the main ones: they’re just the most visible.

Theorizing Bruce Lee:Film-Fantasy-Fighting-Philosophy by Paul Bowman (Rodophi, 2009).
Theorizing Bruce Lee:Film-Fantasy-Fighting-Philosophy by Paul Bowman (Rodophi, 2009).

KFT: In reading your work one of the things that intrigues me is your treatment of the twin problems of “orientalism” and “cultural appropriation.”  Clearly Bruce Lee’s legacy has been good for the martial arts on a commercial level, but has he been good for citizens of Asian descent living in the west? 

More generally, do you think Lee’s work, both in the film and the martial arts, has helped to promote a real encounter with Asian cultures, or has it simply replaced one stereotype (the Chinese as the “sick men of Asia”) with another (the myth of “oriental invincibility”).

PB: A lot of people think he did good things for the ‘image’ of Asians. He certainly transformed one image of Asians in the West. Others think that his films simply put another form of stereotype about Asians into circulation. However, I think things are slightly more complicated.

The term ‘orientalism’, as I use it, comes directly from the book of that title by Edward Said. In that book, Said argues against the negative effects of stereotypical images of the Middle East specifically and Asia generally. His point is that Western/European/American/Euro-American or Eurocentric discourse, history, art and popular culture all trade in fictions about the East: these are stereotypes; images that have little, if any connection to reality. What Said means are the kinds of simple fictions that allow people to think and speak through crass generalities, like “All Asians are like this…”, “All Arabs are like this…”, etc. You know, the kind of thinking which produces statements about “the Chinese mind”, as if there were only one, or about “the Japanese character”, as if the acts of certain fighter pilots was a genetic predisposition that all Japanese people share! … Anyway: a lot of types of cultural studies and Asian American studies and identity studies, etc., get pretty hung up and strung out about matters of ‘image’. They are anti-stereotype. And for good reason. But the arguments tend to descend into searches for ‘better images’ or ‘more true/accurate representations’.

For a lot of reasons, I think the debate hits some dead ends – or at least leads you to get really angry with Hollywood all the time. However, Said himself made an alternative suggestion: instead of thinking in terms of ‘images’, he proposed, we should think in terms of ‘narratives’. Narratives are not snapshots, and they allow for more subtlety and even complexity. Quite how this translates into practical matters of, say, tackling racism, is a matter to be worked out. And it’s complicated by the fact that every narrative involves at least one image, and every image attracts a narrative…

But I think it’s demonstrably true that the images and narratives about Asian martial arts attracted millions of people around the world to try these arts out. And this is my area of interest. Because even if you find that the instructor down at the local dojo, dojang or kwoon is white and knows nothing about Japan, Korea or China, I firmly believe that you are still having some kind of encounter with that other culture. A culture is not a person. The culture is ‘present’ in its embodiment, in it being encoded into the kata, the forms, the terms and concepts, in some way. So, even if what is happening is ‘cultural appropriation’ – even if white guys are ‘stealing’ or ‘abusing’ oriental arts – I still think that more is happening than simple abuse or theft.

Consider the likelihood that the thing that drives most people to a martial arts class is probably a combination of fear or desire plus a belief or hope derived from martial arts films that this thing could solve a problem or fill a gap. This here – the fantasy relationship with a false image – is nevertheless the start of an encounter or relationship with something real. It becomes a point of connection, or possible connection.

On an anecdotal level: when I visited Hong Kong, I wanted to try some Hong Kong Choy Li Fut. I was taught by a British guy, who was taught by a British guy. My contact was a British guy (via Facebook). He took me to the club where he trained. There I met and interacted with the Chinese Sifu, some Chinese people and other Europeans. I even learned some Cantonese. It was an amazing experience. If I’d have been able to stay longer, I would have learned much more Cantonese, very quickly. This was because we had a connection, a thing shared in common, a common interest and shared purpose. At the same time, when I met academics living in Hong Kong, they knew considerably less Cantonese than my kung fu contact. This is because they didn’t have a connection with the culture and the people. They taught in English. They dealt with people who came to them to learn. So that’s much less of an ‘authentic’ cultural encounter – or rather, it involves the tide going in a different direction.

So I think that cinematic kung fu in the 70s and even the commodification of martial arts thereafter was a great thing. I know that’s controversial. But I know I have a strong basis for justifying such a view, and I can defend it.

KFT: Over the last few years it is become quite fashionable to point to Bruce Lee as the “father of the mixed martial arts.”  What do you, as a student of cultural trends, make of this claim?  What does it tell us about the evolving nature of Lee’s image in the west?  Does it tell us anything at all about where MMA is at this moment in time?

PB: I think this is another instance of people reinventing Bruce Lee in their own image, or for their own ends. I think that Bruce Lee would have approved of MMA, because it claims to move away from formal style and into reality. However, he would have reminded everyone: MMA is a sport. Despite its own hype, it is a spectator sport with rules; rules that coax fighters towards the more dramatic and spectacular of moves and away from the slower, lower, more difficult to perceive grappling moves. So, yes and no. Yes, a bit; but in the end, no. There’s something of a Bruce Lee ethos in there. But it is a style of fighting, and a media style, at that. With no disrespect to MMA fighters – who could crush me at a stroke, I know – what they are training for is the ring, octagon or cage. And, as nasty, bloody and brutal as these contexts are, they are not ‘the street’ and they have artificial limitations imposed upon them.

Nevertheless, I personally think that MMA is a fascinating cultural phenomenon. It is a kind of deconstruction of styles. And in this, it is very Bruce Lee. Moreover, I am currently fascinated by the differences between ‘Western’ martial arts discourses, which are about working out in the present what works (or invention), regardless of origin or tradition, and ‘Eastern’ martial arts discourses, which are still all about style and school and lineage and tradition.

KFT: Ethnicity is a critical issue when considering Lee’s impact on western popular culture.  Many theorists have noted the immediate impact that Enter the Dragon had on African-American and urban media markets in the US.  Lee was single-handedly responsible for an explosion of interest in the martial arts that is still being felt today.

However, some critics have questioned the political value of all of this.  They note that these were communities with legitimate grievances.  In fact, these grievances had led to mass political action in the 1960s.  Yet martial arts practice, with its focus on self-cultivation and personal attainment, seems to have undercut the demand for greater community organization and radical political struggle.  What are your thoughts on this?  Was the “Kung Fu Craze” really a setback to progressive or radical political forces?

PB: I know the kind of arguments you mean. There are lots of ways one might answer this. I think I’ll answer it in two ways. First, theoretical; second by analogy. So, theoretical: This kind of question implies that we have an either/or situation. But, to cut to the chase, I think we have an and/and situation. Doing kung fu does not depoliticize you. You can do kung fu and work in politics. But the thrust of these arguments is that kung fu somehow sapped the political radicalism of the time and turned it into narcissism. Whilst I don’t disagree that martial arts were very quickly commodified and ‘existentialised’ (i.e., made to be ‘about’ finding your own ‘inner potentials’ and ‘inner peace’, and so on), I don’t agree that this meant sapping political energy.

I think that the situation is rather more that kung fu films resounded for certain constituencies – poor blacks and Hispanics in North America being one or two such constituencies. They also resounded for diasporic Chinese everywhere: in Jing Wu Men (Fist of Fury) Bruce Lee literally made the Japanese bullies ‘eat these words’ – the historical insult that China was ‘the sick man of Asia’. So the films resounded in different ways for different groups. And here comes the analogy: disco resounded in gay communities – indeed, disco arguably facilitated the coming together of gay communities. Did it sap their political energy? Or what about punk in 1970s Britain? Its talk of destruction and its general anger at the status quo resounded for the poor disenfranchised youth of the time. Did it depoliticize them? Not at all. – Interestingly, the anger of The Sex Pistols simply didn’t make any sense to US teens. But they still loved the music.

Treasures of Bruce Lee by Paul Bowman (Applause Theatre & Cinema Books, 2013).
Treasures of Bruce Lee by Paul Bowman (Applause Theatre & Cinema Books, 2013).

KFT: Bruce Lee was a true renaissance man.  Obviously he was an incredible athlete, but he was also a filmmaker, a family man and even a talented dancer.  Lee was also widely read and very interested in philosophy.  What do you see as significant in Lee’s philosophy when you examine it?  Has it had a real impact on the martial arts of the Western world?

PB: I see two or three strands to his philosophy. One is vaguely Taoist, another is vaguely countercultural, and another is about efficiency and experimentation. These don’t sit all that easily together, but in Lee’s writing, they work. What I mean by the Taoist style or impulse in Lee’s writing is summed up in his famous ‘be like water’ speech. But it is elsewhere too.

Now, he took this more or less directly from writers like Alan Watts, who were translating the lessons of Chinese and Japanese classics into English. So, in many respects, Lee is already working from a sort of ‘countercultural translation’ of Asian texts. But the point is, it’s already cross-cultural and both tapping into and feeding back into the countercultural ethos of the time and place he was living. Add to this Lee’s insistence on finding your own ‘way’ by experimenting and testing and not following leaders, and you might conclude that Lee was very of the 1960s zeitgeist. And I think that’s fair to say – and it’s no insult. He was a trailblazer, an innovator. And in terms of martial arts practice, yes, he really advocated what is now simply called ‘cross training’ – something that was radical at the time but that now seems natural.

But now the paradox: if Bruce Lee really does exemplify the zeitgeist, then can it really be said to be ‘him’ who is responsible, or is it not something about the times themselves? Where does the agency lie? What causes such tectonic changes in ethos, ideology and practice? What larger subterranean forces and process are at work? And what relationship with them does Bruce Lee’s work have? Cause or caused? These are questions, as you know, that some knowledge of history, political economy, globalization, international relations, technology, media and culture, and even academic philosophy can help to recast and to elucidate in remarkable ways.

KFT: One of the big enigmas for me is the disjoint between the Kung Fu fantasy that Lee projected on screen, and the Kung Fu fantasy (or perhaps vision) he attempted to live out in his own life.  Individuals of a Japanese ethnicity usually don’t fair to well in his films, yet some of closest friends in Seattle were Japanese.  His movies are stridently class conscious, yet he was perfectly comfortable working and socializing with the Hollywood elite.  When teaching the martial arts he stressed simplicity and directness, yet that was not what he choose to portray on screen.

 How should we as students of martial studies make sense of these opposing fantasies?

PB: Indeed, the Hong Kong films of Lee are strongly ethnonationalist. They were aimed at the Hong Kong market and they tapped into recent and ongoing historical events and traumas: the exploitation of workers, the recent wars between China and Japan, the plight of Chinese migrants in the diaspora. The first two films weren’t written by Lee. The third was, and in this one you see much more of his own universalist-egalitarian outlook – as in the scene where he tells the Chinese students of (Japanese) karate that it doesn’t matter what style you study as long as you ‘honestly express yourself’. So, Lee himself, I think, was not simply nationalist, in the way the Hong Kong films were.

When you translate everything over to California, it’s all recast. The ethnic and cultural politics and relations are completely different in the USA to Hong Kong and elsewhere in Asia. Think about the structure of American racism: all yellow people are just the same, just yellow people. So the context changes things. And then along comes the interest of Hollywood in the film that would become Enter the Dragon.

Now, the film had a pitch. Lee had a role to play. So he played a mystical monk. And this was a double-edged sword. It put Shaolin kung fu on the map, so to speak, but it introduced the stereotypes we were talking about earlier. Moreover, back in Hong Kong, the audiences hated the film, because although Lee was evidently meant to be playing a kind of 007, James Bond character, his role was received in Hong Kong as him playing a lackey of the British Imperialists!

I think everyone’s hopes and dreams about Bruce Lee are in a sense still organised by everything that Game of Death could have become. For in this film, as we know, Lee was fighting against styles as such, and in the name of a kind of universalist individualism.

KFT: I know that your book has only been out a short while, but what sort of reception has it received?  Has anything surprised you?

PB: It’s hard for me to tell what is a reaction to what: I have two books out on Bruce Lee in the year of the 40th anniversary of both his death and the release of Enter the Dragon, so I am getting lots of requests from media all over the place to comment. But most of these refer to my 2010 book, Theorizing Bruce Lee and the film I am Bruce Lee. But also, the publishers of The Treasures of Bruce Lee are proactive in publicising that particular book, so I think they are actively pushing my name out there.

Meanwhile, I think that the publishers of my academic book, Beyond Bruce Lee, are happily riding the wave, so to speak. But that’s the book I am most invested in. That’s the one I care about. I care about its reception. And, yes, I’m happy to say, I’ve heard good things from people about what they think of it. It has already had some good reviews. Even the critical comments about it have been pitched at a very high level, which shows that people are doing me the honour of actually reading it and thinking about it. So I’m very happy with that. Every writer wants to be read – at least, I do!

KFT: Let’s say that you were new to the subject of Bruce Lee and you wanted to get to know him a little better. What would you choose as the five essential books or articles on Lee’s life and significance?

PB: His own ‘Liberate Yourself from Classical Karate’ would be up there – so you might want to find one of those edited collections of Lee’s writings (although it’s also available online). The books of Lee’s writings are problematic in the extreme, but they contain real gems, and I have enjoyed them all in various ways. Then, I think you’d want at least two opposing takes on his Jeet Kune Do; so Dan Inosanto’s book on Jeet Kune Do, on the one hand, and Teri Tom’s book, The Straight Lead, on the other, would ‘complement’ or counterpoint each other well.  You’d also need a good ‘warts and all’ biography. My preference is for Davis Miller’s book, The Tao of Bruce Lee, and mainly because Miller is a truly great writer, who really conveys how exciting Lee was, and is – how amazing – and he doesn’t hide from the seamier sides of his life, or from the conjecture and evidence about his life and death.

As for number five, well, it depends where your interests lie: are you into film, or philosophy, or choreography, or cultural studies? You might want another biography to compare and contrast, or more on martial arts, or a bit of philosophy. For the lay reader and the non-academic, the Treasures book I just wrote is lovely because it is concise and is surrounded by so many amazing images and extras. But, really, with Bruce Lee, you want to watch him, don’t you, so why not just watch the films and documentaries like How Bruce Lee Changed the World?

Bruce Lee remains an important icon in Hong Kong, fueling demand for some sort of permanent museum.
Bruce Lee’s Statue in Hong Kong.  Source: Wikimedia.

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.”

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.

Vintage Japanese language poster for Bruce Lee as the Green Hornet.
Vintage Japanese language poster for Bruce Lee as the Green Hornet.

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.

The Story of Ip Man’s Wooden Dummy

Ip Man Wooden Dummy.bong. 1972

Introduction: A Very Brief History of the Wooden Dummy in the Southern Chinese Martial Arts.

I have been shopping for a new wooden dummy (Mook Yan Jong).  Obviously Wing Chun has a long and fruitful association with the wooden dummy, but this training tool is used throughout the southern Chinese martial arts.  Southern Mantis and Hung Gar boxers occasionally use the dummy, as do Choy Li Fut practitioners.  In fact, Choy Li Fut employs a great variety of somewhat more mechanical complex training tools.

Nor is the use of the dummy restricted to martial artists.  Wooden training devices have been used by military forces from time immemorial.  Sima Qian, the brilliant ancient historian, is the first individual to discuss the wooden dummy.  In Records of the Grand Historian (written between the 2nd and 1st centuries BCE) he mentions that Emperor Wu Yi of the Shang dynasty (circa 1200 BCE) made “Ou Ren” (a wooden human figure) that could be used for Shou Bo (bare handed fighting) practice.

Scholars debate how much weight to place on Sima Qian’s early histories, but for our purposes the details aren’t actually all that important.  Whether their attested use stretches back 2100 or 3200 years, wooden dummies have long been used in traditional Chinese combat training.

Nor has this use been restricted to the military.  In more recent centuries wooden dummies became a feature of southern Chinese popular culture.  Stories of the southern Shaolin temple included its hall of diabolical mechanical dummies that a student had to defeat in order to “graduate” and leave the temple.

Much of this lore was conveyed through popular novels, stories, street performances and of course opera.  Cantonese Opera troops attracted large crowds with feats of martial prowess and “military plays.”  This made it essential that they have tools for training martial artists.  Wooden dummies, very similar to the sort still used today, helped to train performers.  The Cantonese Opera Museum in Foshan even displays an antique dummy along with the other artifacts of the industry’s 19th century past.

As a side note, I have always found it interesting that in translating their signage the museum refers to these training devices as “instruments” rather than “dummies.”  Obviously there are lots of percussive instruments in traditional opera, and dummies make a very distinctive set of sounds when struck.  In my lineage of Wing Chun we count a “movement” of the dummy form as being completed when the dummy makes a sound rather than when the martial artists move a limb. I don’t think it requires all that imagination to see the “instrumental” quality in all of this.

Unfortunately we don’t have a lot of examples of really old dummies.  After all, these objects were made of wood and when planted in the ground they would eventually rot.  This must have been an issue in a climate as humid and wet as southern China.

A vintage dummy on display at the Cantonese Opera Museum in Foshan. Source: Museum Homepage.
A vintage dummy on display at the Cantonese Opera Museum in Foshan. Source:

The Foshan Period

Dummies likely started to disappear from the local landscape around the turn of the 20th century.  Opera was being displaced by other forms of entertainment and the martial arts were decidedly unpopular in the years following the boxer rebellion.  Luckily these swings have a habit of reversing themselves.

By the 1920s there was increased popular interest in the martial arts.  Part of this was the result of efforts by reformers (such as the Jingwu Association) to promote the traditional hand combat styles as a distinct form of unique Chinese physical culture.  However, the growth of the economy and the transformation of the traditional teaching structures into market-based public schools also helped the martial arts to gain a following in middle class and urban areas where they had traditionally been frowned upon.  As the southern Chinese martial arts grew more dummies were produced and put into place.

A Dai Jong or "Buried Dummy" outside of the Foshan Jingwu Association. Source: Source: Ip Ching and Ron Heimberger. Mook Yan Jong Sum Fat. 2004.
A Dai Jong or “Buried Dummy” outside of the Foshan Jingwu Association. Source: Source: Ip Ching and Ron Heimberger. Mook Yan Jong Sum Fat. 2004.

Most of these dummies were of a type now called Dai Jong (Ground Dummies, also sometimes referred to as “buried” or “dead” dummies).  They were constructed from a log or tree trunk that was anywhere from eight to ten feet long.  Generally speaking the lower three and half feet would be worked into a thick square and buried in a stone or cement lined pit in the ground.

The still round main-body of the dummy would sit about three inches above the ground.  This was enough room to allow shredded rattan strips to be slipped into the spaces between the square base of the dummy and the side of the pit.  Packing the area in this way supported the central pole in an upright position, but it also allowed for a little give and spring when the dummy was struck or pushed.

Occasionally I see accounts stating that small rocks are gravel were used to line the hole.  I am not sure how widespread that practice was.  It certainly could have been done, and it would have provided a much firmer body.  Nevertheless, the resulting dummy would not have had much movement.

All of the surviving dummies of the pre-1940s era, including both the example at the Opera Museum and the Jingwu Hall in Foshan, are of this type.  The picture of the example at Jingwu is quite interesting because it clearly shows how the main body is reduced to a square cut, and how that is positioned in a hole in the ground.

Dai Jongs are still commonly seen in a number of places.  They are encountered in Guangdong province and appear to be fairly common in Vietnam, where at least some of them have been given a more exaggerated swinging motion.   Given the construction of the traditional one story home in southern China they could be planted either indoors or in an outdoor training area.

Pan Nam demonstrates the wooden dummy form. Source: Leung Ting, 2004.
Pan Nam demonstrates the wooden dummy form. Source: Leung Ting.  Roots and Branches of Wing Tsun. 2003.

The preceding series of pictures, taken by Leung Ting and published in his book Roots and Branches of Wing Tsun, show Hak Min Nam (often called by his nickname Pan Nam, b. 1911- d. 1996) working a Dai Jong that has planted in his study.  This is a good real life example of the sort of indoor dummy which Donny Yen is seen working in the first Ip Man movie.  Master Kwok Fu, one of Ip Man’s original Foshan students, planted his dummy outdoors (presumably sometime after the Cultural Revolution) and was still teaching students on it in the 1990s.

Source: This photograph is on display at the Ip Man Tong in Foshan.
Source: This photograph is on display at the Ip Man Tong in Foshan.

This is the sort of dummy that Ip Man would have learned the form on.  Obviously Chan Wah Shun and Ng Chung So would have used this sort of device, and it’s likely that Ip Man owned one as well.  In general traditional buried dummies seem to be larger than the latter sort, both in terms of their height and diameter.  This greater size might help them survive longer when buried in the ground and exposed to the elements.  It seems that most telephone poles in the US are good for 10-15 years and it is likely that this is how long a Dai Jong could have lasted as well.

Interestingly all of the early dummies seem to have relatively thick offset arms (rather than the parallel arms that are more commonly associated with the Ip Man lineage today) and smaller legs.  However, they seem to have roughly the same proportions as modern dummies.  In both cases the top arm of the dummy sits at about the level of the user’s shoulder.

Donny Yen reprises his role as Ip Man.
Donny Yen reprises his role as Ip Man.

Hong Kong Period: Ip Man Invents the Modern Wing Chun Dummy

While Ip Man probably owned a dummy in Foshan, our story does not really begin to get interesting until we reach the 1950s.  In 1949 Ip Man and a daughter fled to Macau and then Hong Kong in anticipation of the Communist conquest of Guangdong.  After a number of years of KMT sponsored anti-Communist campaigns it was probably no longer safe for him given his prior employment as the leader of a local police unit.  After spending a few months in Hong Kong Ip Man decided to take up the title of Sifu and become a professional martial arts teacher.

Of course there were a number of complications.  To begin with, he did not have a dummy.  More to the point he had yet to establish a local reputation, a pool of stable students or a location for a permanent school.  Ip Man would spend the first few years of his teaching career addressing each of these problems.

Yet by the middle of the 1950s things were looking up.  Ip was building a larger group of more advanced students and it was now time to consider installing a dummy so that their training could progress.  In fact he was already showing some his students sections of the dummy form which they were practicing like any other set.  In Wing Chun parlance this is called “using the air dummy.”  While good for a quick review, it is no substitute for the geometric discipline of the real thing.

Life in Hong Kong was very different from Foshan.  To begin with, people tended to live in tall apartment buildings, rather than in one story dwellings with flagstone floors.  And outdoor space was extremely limited in the city, just as it is today.

Our best source of information on the development of modern dummies within the Wing Chun clan during the Hong Kong era is Ip Ching and Ron Heimberger’s (2004) volume Mook Yan Jong Sum FatWhile this can be a difficult book to get a hold of, it has been a great help is assembling the following account.  Sometime in the mid-1950s Ip Man approached a carpenter and friend named Fung Shek.  He explained his basic problem and talked about what he wanted in a dummy.  He then commissioned Fung to devise some means for constructing a mounting system for a portable dummy (Ip Man moved frequently during this period) that could be used indoors.

Fung Sheks first dummy, owned by Ip Man, now on display at the Ip Man Tong in Foshan. Source: Ip Ching and Ron Heimberger. Mook Yan Jong Sum Fat. 2004.
Fung Sheks first dummy, owned by Ip Man, now on display at the Ip Man Tong in Foshan. Source: Ip Ching and Ron Heimberger. Mook Yan Jong Sum Fat. 2004.

There are any number of ways to mount a dummy, but Fung’s idea was both simple and innovative.  Rather than supporting the dummy at its base (the traditional method) he instead hung the jong on wooden slats that passed directly through the body.  The thin slats acted as springs.  By moving the supporting structure up the body, where most of the form was actually performed, the feel of the dummy was substantially changed.

Most Dai Jongs had a limited rocking motion, if they moved at all.  The new Gua Jong (Live Dummy) was different. It all had to do with the placement and strength of the slats.  When a student engaged the arms or leg of the dummy they were in effect loading a spring which would throw the dummy back forward in a more lifelike way the moment the pressure was released.

In effect a Gua Jong offers a degree of feedback on your movements that you simply could not get from a buried dummy.  Given that this instrument is often used as a sort of “silent training partner” every ounce of feedback you can squeeze out of it is valuable.  For instance, in Wing Chun students want to punch towards the opponent’s “center line.”  If you do that with a dummy, from practically any forward facing angle, you will force the body back onto the slats and then the recoil will return the dummy to its initial position.  But if your lines of attack are off and you are punching across the front of the dummy, or simply pushing at its arm, its body will slide along the rails, retreating from your incomplete strike.  Again, this is critical because it provides instant feedback to the students on the sorts of subtle pressures that must be “felt” to be understood.

Together Ip Man and Fung Shek fine-tuned the new creation.  The basic idea was sound but it took a bit of experimentation to work out exactly what sort of slats and mounting system yielded the best results.  The final product was a truly custom, and innovative, dummy for the young Hong Kong Wing Chun clan.

Fung Shek delivered his prototype to Ip Man in 1956.  While Ip Man worked with a number of different dummies over the years (as he moved from one school to the next) he always kept the Fung Shek creation with him.  It was his preferred dummy to set up in a school, and eventually in his own home.  In fact, this is the same dummy that used in the now famous series of photographs taken by Tang Sang in 1967.  It was always his personal jong.  It can now been seen on display in the Ip Man Tong in Foshan.

Some of Ip Man’s more senior students were starting to branch off and open their own schools in the second half of the 1950s.  Fung Shek, with his new indoor mounting system, was the sole source for dummies in this early period.  Unfortunately he does not seem to have been very prolific and we do not have many examples of his work.

In reality he was never actually produced that many jongs.  Ip Ching estimates that he only produced 10-12 dummies between the late 1950s and the early 1960s when he stopped taking orders.

Bruce Lee working an early Gua Jong, circa 1960.
Bruce Lee working an early Gua Jong, circa 1960.

One possible example of his work might be seen in this well-known Bruce Lee photograph, taken sometime in early 1960.  He was working at Ruby Chow’s restaurant and practiced Wing Chun in his spare time.  In a letter to Hawkins Cheung (still in Hong Kong) dated May 1960 he mentions that he is having a dummy shipped to him.  He probably placed the order sometime in 1959.

This is an interesting photo as it’s a very early example of the new Gua Jong type.  Obviously the dummy is not mounted at the correct height.  That can probably be forgiven as Bruce’s material circumstances were far from ideal and he didn’t really have much control of his physical environment at the time.  But apart from that the dummy looks remarkably similar to Ip Man’s.  The body may be a bit more svelte, and its “head” is shorter and more compact.  One wonders if that was an intentional choice given the realities of transpacific shipping in the 1950s.

If this jong was made by Fung Shek (and that is an open question that needs more research) it would have been one of his last.  The carpenter’s son was killed in a car accident.  He interpreted this tragedy as retribution by the local gods for his involvement with the Wing Chun clan.

Many of the younger members of Ip Man’s school in the middle of the 1950s were basically angry young men who were frequently involved in neighborhood fights.  In this context Fung came to see his own creation as a device that was used to aid bullies in better intimidating and hurting others.  He vowed to never make another dummy and he stuck to that pledge.

Ho Leun standing to the left of Ip Man. Source: Ip Ching and Ron Heimberger. Mook Yan Jong Sum Fat. 2004.
Ho Leun standing to the left of Ip Man. Source: Ip Ching and Ron Heimberger. Mook Yan Jong Sum Fat. 2004.

While Ip Man had the dummy he needed, others were not so fortunate.  The Wing Chun clan was expanding rapidly in the early 1960s and Fung’s retirement could not have come at a worse time.

From 1958-1962 Ip Man taught at the Shek Kep Mai school, and for some reason (either a lack of advanced students or a lack of space) he was never able to set his dummy up.  In 1962 he moved his school to its Castle Peak Road location, and the dummy was brought out of storage and reinstalled by Ip Ching (who had recently been reunited with his father) and a group of other students.

Unfortunately this location did not last long.  1963 saw Ip Man looking for a new school piece of property.  Luckily he ran into an old friend from Foshan named Ho Leun.  Ho had always wanted to study Wing Chun but had never had the chance.  In 1963 he owned the Tai Sang Restaurant which had a mostly empty warehouse above it.  He offered the space to Ip Man who accepted it as a new location for his school.

Unexpectedly Fung Shek’s dummy had to go back into storage.  It seems that Ho Leun was mechanically minded and something of a handy man.  He had been thinking about his own dummy designs and when Ip Man arrived he found one already installed.

Ho wanted to add additional degrees of realism to the dummy, and so he included an element of mechanical movement.  It was designed so that the arms could move in and out.  After a period of experimentation it was determined that it was difficult for Wing Chun students to practice their “sticking energy” with this design.  Ho Leun then went back to a more conventional, all wood dummy, but he continued to experiment with the mounting system.

Where Fung Shek had used wooden slats as springs, Ho favored metal car springs.  These could actually be attached to the wall and adjusted to provide just the right amount of resistance.  He later took his designs and went into production.  He made dummies for the Wing Chun Community from 1969-1973 before emigrating to Canada.

Ip Man never seemed to settle in one place for long and in 1964 (about a year and half later) he moved into a small apartment on Tung Choi Street.  The Fung Shek dummy was once again taken out of storage and installed by the front door where it was used by both him and his son Ip Ching.  This was where Koo Sang was able to study the jong in some detail.

Koo Sang. Source: Ip Ching and Ron Heimberger. Mook Yan Jong Sum Fat. 2004.
Koo Sang. Source: Ip Ching and Ron Heimberger. Mook Yan Jong Sum Fat. 2004.

Koo Sang is an important individual in the history of the modern Wing Chun clan.  While a few people had made small numbers of dummies it was never enough to cover the growing demand.  Further, it is simply impossible to teach the Wing Chun system without access to a dummy.

Koo took careful measurements of Fung Shek’s original jong and he replicated these in his own work.  While Fung and Ho had relatively short manufacturing careers Koo proved to be both much more successful and stable.  Compared to his predecessors he produced a huge number of dummies over a period of decades.  In fact, he didn’t retire form from the Wing Chun dummy business until the 1990s.

Not only did he make a lot of dummies, but he made them very well.  In fact, in some Wing Chun circles today Koo Sang’s dummies are still the standard by which all others are judged.


As I mentioned at the start of this post I am currently in the market for a dummy.  It comes as no surprise then that I have been doing quite a bit of thinking about what is currently out there.  Nor have my reflections been limited to questions of quality and price, though those are obviously important considerations.  Some of my concerns are a bit more on the “philosophical” side.

Traditionally there were only two types of dummies available to Wing Chun students.  Almost everyone (and by extension almost every school) favored the Gua Jong design.  If you are were going to have a buried dummy you needed at least three things 1) suitable outdoor space 2) mad carpentry skills because no one was going to build one of those for you 3) a real obsession with historical “authenticity.”

Now there is another option.  A number of firms are currently offering a “pillar and sleeve” freestanding dummy design.  The bodies of these dummies are between five and six feet tall and they have a long rectangular opening carved out of their bottom which sits over a post mounted on some sort of platform.  Alternatively the body of the dummy itself might be treated as the “post” and its set into a metal cup that acts as the sleeve.  The entire thing can then be attached to the floor.

An example of a free standing wooden dummy produced by by Ulti-mate in the UK. This firm also has a full line of traditional hanging jongs. Source:
An example of a free standing wooden dummy produced by by Ulti-mate in the UK. This firm also has a full line of traditional hanging jongs. Source:

It is interesting to consider why these freestanding designs are appearing now.  They have some obvious advantages.  They take up less room, and individuals who rent might not be able to attach a Fung Shek style mounting system to the studs of walls that they do not own.  One is also freer to move around these dummies as there are no slats (or walls) to get in the way.  Lastly, many post and sleeve dummies are relatively portable compared to Fung Shek’s design (which itself was a big improvement over a buried dummy half the size of a telephone pole).

These are all compelling arguments.  Yet I wonder if there isn’t something else going into this mix as well.  The recent Ip Man movies presented a compelling view of the past.  Some aspects of this vision are simply inaccurate.  The real life Ip Man was an eccentric and humorous Kung Fu anti-hero.  That has not stopped inventive script writers and movie producers from re-imagining him as a full blown superhero of Chinese nationalism.

Further, the real Ip Man vastly preferred his hanging dummy to anything else that he had worked with.  Yet one of the single most compelling moments of the entire series of films happens in the introduction to the very first movie where Donny Yen is seen working a gorgeous replica of a Dai Jong planted right in the middle of a sumptuously decorated living room.

Wing Chun people spend a lot of time thinking about dummies, and that image was hypnotic.  The idea of a stand-alone dummy that can be part of your life, rather than part of your garage, is likewise compelling.  And thanks to low cost mechanical routing you can now get that same effect without having to explain to your significant other why there is a concrete lined hole in the living room floor.

In short, there are a lot of rational reasons to prefer a modern standalone dummy, particularly if you are on a budget.  Yet I wonder to what degree our collective re-imagination of the past has worked its way into our subconscious preferences for dummy designs.  Why bother being Ip Man circa 1955 when you can now imagine yourself as Ip Man circa 1925 instead?

Ip Man demonstrating the wooden dummy form. Photograph was taken in 1967 by Tang Sang and is currently the property of Ip Ching.
Ip Man demonstrating the wooden dummy form. Photograph was taken in 1967 by Tang Sang and is currently the property of Ip Ching.

Still, “authenticity” can be a slippery thing.  Never having used a Dai Jong it is hard to say for certain, but I suspect that a properly weighted “pillar and sleeve” dummy would both look and feel a little more like a buried instrument.  On the other hand, Wing Chun has always had a utilitarian streak to it, and it is hard to deny the benefits of the more active “living dummy.”

So here is something to think about.  Almost all of the best dummies produced in the world today are modeled directly on jongs that Koo Sang built for leading Wing Chun students.  These in turn are almost exact copies of the very first prototype that Fung Shek made.  That means that Ip Man’s innovative indoor dummy design is the literal blueprint for almost every hanging jong in the world today.  We can go even further than that.  Ip Man and Fung Shek are the co-creators of the modern wooden dummy seen throughout the Southern Chinese martial arts.

This is not what Ip Man is ever remembered for.  It never comes up in conversations about Wing Chun.  It is simply an incidental aspect of his very fruitful career.  It may also be an “authentic” element of the modern Wing Chun heritage that is worth making some sacrifices to hang on to.

Ming Tales of Female Warriors: Searching for the Origins of Yim Wing Chun and Ng Moy.

A painting of Hua Mulan.
A painting of Hua Mulan.

I propose to speak on fairy-stories, though I am aware that this is a rash adventure.  Faerie is a perilous land, and in it are pitfalls for the unwary and dungeons for the overbold.  And overbold I may be accounted, for though I have been a lover of fairy-stories since I learned to read, and have at times thought about them, I have not studied them professionally.  I have been hardly more than a wandering explorer (or trespasser) in the land, full of Wonder but not of information.

                   J.R.R.Tolkien. “On Fairy Stories.” 1939.


These are the words with which J.R.R. Tolkien, the distinguished author and professor of English, began the 1939 Andrew Lang Lecture at the University of St. Andrews.  The entire essay is well worth reading.  Tolkien had devoted considerable thought to the growth and evolution of stories and he was well aware that they take on a life of their own.  If we were to substitute the words “martial arts mythology” for “fairy stories,” the preceding quote sums up many of my feelings toward the subject at hand.

The early Republic of China period generated an enormous body of new martial arts folklore.  As a community we are still identifying, contemplating and digesting a lot of this material.  Some critics, upon learning that the wine they drink is not of the vintage that they first assumed, are prone to dismiss the entire exercise as a fraud.  They wish to get as far back into the “authentic martial arts” as they can and often see the relatively late Republic period as one of hucksters “diluting the arts.”  Yet in most instances the wine actually tasted pretty good before anyone stopped to take a closer look at the label.

Herein lies our dilemma.  Many of the elements of the traditional arts that are the most popular today, generating the most excitement with audiences in both the east and the west, are not the ancient and “authentic” material, but rather the later innovations of the 1920s and 1930s.  If we were to simply throw out everything that was “new” and return to some arbitrarily dictated “golden age” (1800, 1600, 1100, 500…….) we would not just discard a lot of recent marketing, but also much of what attracts people to the traditional Chinese martial arts in the first place.

Consider for example the Wing Chun creation myth.  Wing Chun is one of Southern China’s more recent boxing styles.  Its mythology claims that the arts dates back to the 1720s at the earliest, whereas most hand combat schools prefer to situate their genesis at an even earlier point in China’s long history.

Almost all of these claims are massively exaggerated.  Yet ironically the order of the points on the timeline is approximately correct.  Wing Chun is a younger art.  Its first organization probably dates to the middle of the 19th century and it was later reformed in the Republic period.

This relative newness has done nothing to prevent the art from generating a rich body of folklore.  Its mythology even has some interesting and unique features.  For instance, students often marveled that Wing Chun is one of the few martial arts from China to be “invented by a woman.”

Nor does this association with the feminine principal appear to be some sort of fluke.  Both the creator of the art (Ng Moy, a survivor of the destruction of Shaolin) and her student, (Yim Wing Chun, who was forced to fight a challenge match to prevent a forced marriage) were women.  It was only in the third generation that male students entered the art.

The gender of these two individuals had a profound effect on the development of Wing Chun.  Ng Moy began with the standard Shaolin arts, but after becoming a recluse in South West China she had a vision of a crane fighting a snake.  Only after this revelation was she able to combine both evasive movements and structured direct attacks in a way that would allow a smaller fighter, like a woman, to overcome a much larger and stronger opponent.

Of course Ng Moy was a master of the martial arts.  Her abilities are the stuff of legend.  The real question was whether this system could be taught to a new student, one without any physical advantage or extensive training in the martial arts?

Inigo Westmeier's Dragon Girls.
Inigo Westmeier’s Dragon Girls.

The story of Yim Wing Chun provides us with the perfect proof of concept.  The older woman takes the young daughter of a tofu merchant to her mountain retreat where she initiates her into the mysteries of her art.  Upon descending from the mountain the young girl promptly proves that a smaller person can defeat a much larger opponent by employing the proper principals and structures.  Fittingly it was Yim Wing Chun who gave her name to the art.

Modern Wing Chun students still love this story.  I have provided only the briefest outline of it above, but it is rich in meaning and symbolism.  It is amazing how much understanding a thoughtful reader can pull out of it.

The only problem is that this myth is generally read as a historical account.  In fact it is a piece of literature.  I say literature, rather than folklore, quite intentionally.  This is not the sort of thing that evolved over a long period of time, at least not in its present form.

Rather, some individual, probably working in the 1930s, sat down and appropriated certain stock characters from Wuxia martial arts novels that had been recently published in the area, possibly combined them with older traditions from the White Crane or Hung Gar clan, added in what might be an authentic (or partially-authentic) genealogical name list, and consciously composed the story that we have today.   I have already discussed the details of this process (particularly as they apply to the evolution of the character Ng Moy) elsewhere.

Nevertheless, this story was not created in a vacuum.  If it was it would be easy for students of Chinese martial studies to ignore it.  One could simply write it off as a flight of fancy or as a particularly effective advertising gambit.

I do not think that this would be very wise in the present case.  To begin with, it is an interesting (and fairly sophisticated) example of the sort of storytelling that was starting to go on all over the hand combat community.  The martial art story telling tradition was not new.  There had been a vibrant market in cheaply printed martial arts novels throughout the late Qing.  But it was usually authors and publishers who generated the mythology.  Martial artists seem to have been more concerned with their military, law enforcement, operatic or criminal careers.

As the nature of the economy changed in the early 20th century the creation of public commercial hand combat schools became a possibility.  Each of these newly created institutions discovered that they needed the sort of historical authenticity that can only be provided by a really compelling backstory.  Schools from earlier periods in Chinese may have had their own backstories as well, but most of the ones that we possess now date from the early years of the 20th century, or just a little earlier.

Other things changed beyond the sheer volume of stories that were published.  New types of characters emerged.  One of the most interesting things about the Republic period literature was the sudden proliferation of female heroes in these stories.

Traditionally wuxia novels, like the martial arts themselves, had been a male dominated domain.  It is true that there are occasional references to female knights-errant in some of the older works.  There is even a female hero in the classic novel Water Margin.  But these figures were very much the exception that proved the rule.

Very rarely did women appear in older martial stories and when they were mentioned it was almost never in a heroic capacity.  Instead they were often used as a malignant plot device to give the hero a chance to “restore the proper social order.”

All of this begins to change in the Republic period.  Certain reform movements (most notably Jingwu) began to actively teach and cultivate female martial artists, giving them an increased prominence in society.  But even before that there was an explosion of female characters in martial arts stories.  These characters manage to break out of the stereotyped roles of “virgin-martyr” and “femme fatale” and become actual heroines.  They also appeared in a wide range of stories, from the comic to the historic and even the tragic.

This literary trend should be remembered when reading the story of Yim Wing Chun and Ng Moy.  There are certainly older stories of female warriors, but these two characters were imagined and put to paper at the height of the popular interest in martial arts heroines.  The very fact that the Wing Chun creation narrative focuses so closely on a pair of female warriors, and is so self-conscious in its discussion of how a smaller and weaker “female” body could defeat a stronger and larger “male” one, is yet another piece of circumstantial evidence that we are dealing with a literary creation of the early-mid Republic of China period.

The thing that I find most interesting about all of this, and which most discussions tend to ignore, is that a story which was explicitly composed to address the tastes and needs of individuals in Southern China in the 1930s can continue to speak so strongly to individuals on the other side of the world today.  That is a remarkable achievement and one to be admired.

Martial arts fiction is actually much more complicated than something like wine, which simply improves with age.  It is like a gourmet soup.  It has many ingredients, some of which blend imperceptibly together, while others stand out providing high notes and a sense of depth.  To the uniformed it may look as though the chef simply pours everything into the pot and stirs, but there is usually some very important selection that goes into a good receipt, or story.

Is it possible to look at these stories and guess what ingredients went into them?  Can we understand how the 1920s narratives of female warriors were constructed and why they struck such a cord with audiences?  Certain large elements within the Wing Chun narrative are easily identified, though it is hard to ascertain what their original form was before they went into the pot.

The female creator of Yong Chun White Crane can be seen in both the later stories of Ng Moy and Yim Wing Chun.  Further, the Cantonese Opera Singers with their ill-fated rebellion is easily distinguished.

Professor Tolkien at Oxford University.  Incidentally this is what an academic office is supposed to look like!
Professor Tolkien at Oxford University. Incidentally this is what an academic office is supposed to look like!

But what else can we detect floating in the broth?  What sorts of ideas about female warriors were common in popular culture and why did they start to rise to the top at the end of the Qing dynasty?    In the same essay that I quoted earlier Tolkien warns that such an enterprise is difficult and possibly not as profitable as it might be hoped:

 “…with regard to fairy stories, I feel that it is more interesting, and also in its way more difficult, to consider what they are, what they have become for us, and what values the long alchemic processes of time have produced in them. In Dasent’s words I would say: ‘We must be satisfied with the soup that is set before us, and not desire to see the bones of the ox out of which it has been boiled.’”

In both literary and ethnographic terms his advice is sound.  Once we have separated our dinner into its various components it will no longer be “soup.”  In the quest for the bones we will have lost some of the emergent properties that made these stories so powerful and interesting to us in the first place.  Still, to the historian bones can be a useful thing.

Tang Saier: Buddha Mother and Rebel Warlord

David Robinson, in his book on Ming social history (Bandits, Eunuchs and the Son of Heaven, Hawaii UP, 2001), argues quite convincingly that we have generally underestimated the importance of violence in daily life during even relatively peaceful eras of dynastic history.   China’s history was literally written by Confucian scholars who saw the word in deeply ideological terms.  They sought to promote a certain vision of the past so as to guide the decisions of rulers in the future.  In their narrative violence is a tragic aberration, or the result of social disorder in either society or the court.

Robinson instead argued that violence was a regular feature of daily life in late imperial China.  The government and the military were chronically underfunded and understaffed.  Without the cooperation of local “men of action” it was impossible to accomplish any task from clearing the road of bandits to collecting tax payments.  There was an actual “economy of violence” that stretched through all levels of society, from the highest eunuchs at the court down to village thugs.  This market in violence was just as complicated, and essential to the good governance of the kingdom, as any other aspect of the economy.

It should come as no surprise then to learn that the sphere of women often intersected with the economy of violence.  The Venn-diagram of China was simply not big enough to keep these two massive cultural areas from intersecting.  Then as now women were often victims of violence.  But at other times they were actually independent agents in these destructive cycles.

Consider for instance the social upheaval caused by the Yongle Emperor (1360-1424).  Hongwu, the first Emperor of the Ming dynasty, left a complicated succession situation at the time of his death.  After his first son preceded him, the Emperor decided that the throne should go to his primary grandson (reign title Jianwen), rather than his own next inline surviving son.  The younger, militarily minded, son of Hongwu would not let this slight pass, especially when Jianwen started to eliminate his powerful siblings.  After a successful military campaign Yongle was able to oust his nephew and capture both the capital and the throne for himself.

Unfortunately it was easier to capture the physical space occupied by the capital than the hearts and mind of its inhabitants.  Many important officials flatly refused to serve the new Emperor, and were murdered (along with their families) as a result.  In an attempt to consolidate his legitimacy, and address long standing tactical problems, Yongle ordered that the capital be moved north to Beijing.

This was easier said than done.  The city had been devastated by disease and disaster.  It needed to be rebuilt.  New walls and a grand palace (the Forbidden City) had to be constructed.  Nor could this be done in an economic vacuum.  Other northern economic and population centers also had to be upgraded to shelter and service the new capital.  Even the Grand Canal had to be restored.

This was a massively expensive undertaking.  To finance it the tax role needed to be restored and massive amounts of waste-land had to be reclaimed and tilled.  Huge numbers of workers were necessary to carry out all of these tasks.  Labor was the one item the one item that the Yongle Emperor had in relative abundance.  Nevertheless, tapping those reserves turned out to be more expensive than he imagined.

In order to carry out the various rebuilding projects large numbers of peasants from poverty stricken, and notoriously rebellious, Shandong province were pushed into government labor corvees.  These demands upset the economic and social situation in the area, leading the normal banditry and millennial movements to morph into something much more dangerous, open rebellion.

A painting depicting Tang Saier opposing the troops of the Yongle Emperor.
A painting depicting Tang Saier opposing the troops of the Yongle Emperor.

One of the critical leaders of this movement was Tang Saier, a woman.  Along with her husband she was successful in leading a group of rebels in the capture of a number of walled cities in Shandong starting in 1420.  In each case the imperial representatives were murdered and her band gained more followers.  Eventually she commanded a rebel army that numbered in the tens of thousands.

Tang Saier used what social roles were available to her in crafting her public political personality.  On the one hand he posed as a self-styled female knight-errant.  Like other warriors from this mold she was seen as fighting both against injustice and for the establishment of the proper social order.  And by all account she was an active and successful military leader.

Prof. Victoria Cass has pointed out that there was also another aspect to her persona.  She was widely seen as a religious adept.  As the de facto “god-mother” of the area’s White Lotus movement she was expected to display the signs of mystical (and even magical) attainment.  Stories circulated that enemy weapons could not harm her, or that she had come into possession of her martial skills when she found an arcane text and a magical sword in a mountain cave.  Some claimed that she was chosen by the Primal Mother of the Nine Heavens, the problematic patron saint of female mystics, recluses and warriors.  Others, including her troops, called her “Mother Buddha.”

This mixing of the martial and magical is typical for millennial uprisings in northern China.  The same basic patterns will reemerge in the rebellions of the late 19th century.  However, Prof. Cass points out that the thematic mixing of the mystic and martial archetypes was much more common in female warriors and military leaders than male ones.  To their followers these miracles were signs that the leader was a true adept who followed the dictates of heaven.  To the state they were evidence of dangerous sorcery and a threat to the established social order that went well beyond the purely military potential of such groups.

The Yongle Emperor may have been particularly vulnerable to the challenge posed by a movement like Tang Saier’s.  Clearly he would have remembered that his own grandfather used his leadership of a millennial army to seize control of the state and establish his own dynasty.  Further, Yongle was moving the capital to the north at a time when his legitimacy was still a sore spot.  He showed little restraint in crushing the new rebellion in Shandong.

What happened next was remarkable.  The imperial army was able to destroy the poorly armed, fed and trained rebels.  Yet after an extensive search they failed to catch Tang Saier.

Obviously the first rule of fighting a messianic figure is not to let her get away, thereby establishing expectations of an imminent return backed by heavenly armies.  In a symbolic sense the legitimacy of the Yongle Emperor’s reigns was based on his ability to find and punish dangerous heterodox leaders who threatened the kingdom with chaos.  This is what it meant to be the “Son of Heaven.”  Yet in this case the search yielded nothing.

The Emperor was incensed and decided (reasonably) that the only way that Tang Saier could evade imperial justice for so long was if someone was hiding her.  Of course there were not that many bases of independent power in the poorer regions of northern China.  The gentry in the area was weak, and most of the big rebel bands had just been crushed.  That left the temples and monasteries, institutions which the state viewed as potentially problematic at the best of times.  It would have been all too easy for Tang Saier to blend into the poorly regulated local religious landscape as either a Daoist or Buddhist adept.

The Emperor’s agents turned their attention to the area’s religious institutions.  On imperial orders the region’s entire population of nuns (both Buddhist and Daoist) was put under arrest and brought to the new capital for questioning.   It was illegal to take up a religious vocation without a license from the government.  These were highly regulated and generally only given to the educated and orthodox.  One can only assume that a huge number of “unofficial” Buddhists and Daoists clergy were returned to the tax role, as well as the land owned by their temples and sanctuaries.  This sweep of the local religious landscape would have been a great help to the Emperor’s efforts to establish de facto social control over northern China.

The one thing it did not accomplish was locating Tang Saier.  Like the later “Elders of Shaolin” and Ng Moy, she successfully evaded the imperial dragnet and was never heard from again.  This was a major embarrassment for the government.  An individual bandit warlord or rebel might evade capture and no one outside of the effected region would really know or care.  But the move against Shandong’s religious community was an event on such a massive scale that it could not be kept secret.  Now everyone knew who Tang Saier was, and they knew that she had gotten away.

The wife of a Chinese general circa 1810.  Notice that both she and her female attendant are armed.  Source: Digital Collections of the New York Public Library.
The wife of a Chinese general circa 1810. Notice that both she and her female attendant are armed. Source: Digital Collections of the New York Public Library.

The Literary After-life of Tang Saier

There is a lot we do not know about Tang Saier.  It turns out that much of what we know about the birth, death and lives of important rebel leaders is glean from imperial records.  These in turn reflect interrogation and trial documents as well official reports.  Given that she was never captured we actually don’t have a clear idea of when she was born or died.

This lack of basic biographical facts has not stopped a rich literature, some political, but most fictional, from springing up around her.  The Ming vilified her as a witch and sorcerer.  Qing historians reevaluated her legacy, and Republic and later Communist historians noted that she fought against what amounted to legalized slavery.

Tang proved to be too charismatic and mysterious a figure to ever disappear from popular discussions, either at the level of local folklore (where she is still remembered) or in the more elite literature.  Ironically an “outsider” like the rebel Tang Saier became the perfect vehicle for a certain group of 18th century Ming loyalists to criticize the political and social conventions of their day.

The first (surviving) novel about Tang Saier was published in 1711 by Lu Xiong.  Lu was highly educated but on the orders of his father (a Ming loyalist) he never sat for the imperial exams, and instead became a physician.  Apparently Lu shared many of his father’s political views and he employed Tang’s criticism of the Yongle Emperor as a screen to comments on much more recent events without running afoul of the censors.

His novel, titled Nuxain Waishi (The Unofficial History of the Female Immortal), was shared widely in manuscript form before it was published and it had many admirers.  The first edition appears to have been fairly successfully.  Unfortunately, the novel was closely tied to a critique of events in the opening years of the 18th century, and as such it was not widely read by succeeding generations, except perhaps by those with an interest in martial arts fiction.  The sweeping nature of its heterodox claims may have also impacted its popularity.  For more on this work and its reception see The Sword or the Needle: The Female Knight Errant (Xia) in Traditional Chinese Narrative by Roland Altenburger (Peter Lang Publishing, 2009).

Perhaps the lasting contribution of this work was its discussion of gender.  Altenburger notes that the novel seems to totally uproot traditional hierarchies and this includes extolling the martial virtues and potential of Yin, or female energies, while at the same time “deflating” male figures and archetypes.  In previous novels female swordsman succeeded only by becoming, in effect, “honorary men.”  Yet that is not the strategy of the heaven-sent protagonist of Nuxain Waishi.  This fictionalized version of Tang represents the Yin energies of the moon and she embraces them to use them to their full advantage.

This choice raises a pressing question.  How can a smaller weaker female body triumph in the intensely physical realm of the knight-errant, where one is expected to meet you enemy not just through strategy (long seen as the strong suit of female warriors) but also through force of arms?  For Lu the answer was clear.  Tang was renown as a female Daoist adept, so the answer must be magic.

While somewhat jarring to modern readers I think this move makes a lot of sense.  The Yin forces of corruption and chaos had always been feared on the battlefield.  As late as the end of the 19th century military leaders in China had attempted to co-opt Yin magic and turn it to their own ends.  It was entirely in keeping with character for Lu to endow his heroine with these same abilities.

Nuxain Waishi may have had a limited readership, but many of its themes went on to influence other, more important novels.   Altenburger notes a number of intertextual dependencies between it and Xianxia Wu Huajian (Five Flower Swords of the Immortal Knights, 1900).  This novel, published under the pseudonym “The Shanghai Sword Freak” by Sun Jiazhen, had a much deeper impact on the development of the modern martial arts novel.

Sales of the initial publication were quite good.  It was so popular that in the early Republic era many authors wrote unauthorized “sequels” hoping to cash in on its success.  In fact, so many people were profiting from the work that its real author actually decided to get in on the act and write a sequel of his own which he had never originally intended to produce.  In this way Sun’s initial story spawned an entire group of novels.  This body of literature, all of which was connected to the memory of Tang Saier, helped to popularize the idea of the female knight errant and set the stage for its the subsequent explosion in the popular consciousness.

Like other authors before him, Sun was forced to ask where exactly a female martial artist would receive her skill or strength from.  Sadly none of these story tellers were actually connected with the real martial arts, so once again magic seemed like a plausible answer.  But this magic had to be different from that employed in the 1711 novel.

In the earlier story Tang was reimagined as a heavily emissary.  She was an embodied immortal sent to protect the legitimate Ming emperor from his corrupt uncle.  But in Flower Sword the plot is more complicated.  A group of immortals are sent to convey their skills, but they must recruit human disciples who are responsible for fighting the battles of this world.  Ultimately the story develops a gender balanced cast of characters. But how do these fully-human females survive in their new calling?

This time it is Daoist alchemy that is specifically invoked.  Human male martial artists recruited by the brotherhood need no physical augmentation to learn the superhuman techniques of the immortals.  Female recruits, however, are given a pill made through alchemical processes.  It strengthens them and hardens their bodies, as well as replacing their bones with light.  Still, the process leaves them in essence female.  They are not so much endowed with Yang properties as made capable of defending themselves through their Yin powers.  They must also master their boxing skills the old fashioned way, through practice.

Of course this sort of flashy external alchemy allows for exciting plots and tense confrontations between good and evil.  Yet at the same time that this is coming out Sun Lutang is starting to publish his own martial philosophy, now available to the middle class reading public.  In these works he too claims that a combination of martial arts and Daoist practices could renew health and promote longevity.  However for Sun the alchemical furnace that powers this transformation is the internal one.  It goes without saying that his ideas were the more reasonable ones, but ultimately it was the thriller wuxia novels that sold more copies.


Chinese post card showing a young girl studying a sword routine as her teacher looks on.
Chinese post card showing a young girl studying a sword routine as her teacher looks on.


Tolkien’s initial warnings should be carefully considered.  It is a difficult and dangerous thing to take a living story and try to understand where it came from.  Difficult because in the process of writing, information is not just conveyed, it is twisted, molded and combined in irrevocable ways.  Once you have made the ox into a soup there is no way to reconstruct the draft animal or to understand its place in an early agrarian society.  The exercise is dangerous as stories are written for a reason, and in breaking them down into a series of interconnected parts we are prone to miss the emergent properties of the system as a whole.  Those were, after all, what attracted most readers or listeners in the first place.

Still, we have learned some important facts about the evolution of Chinese popular culture.  It is certainly true that the motif of the female martial artists exploded in popularity in the early Republic period.  We cannot analyze and understand the Wing Chun creation myth, or many other modern hand combat legends, if we divorce them from this setting.

Yet we have also discovered that this motif has much deeper roots in Chinese literature and culture.  It is possible to find stories of important female warriors in practically every period of Chinese history.  For the sake of brevity I restricted the current essay to an examination of a single figure from the Ming dynasty, but this exercise could be repeated any number of times.

Tang Saier is interesting to us for a number of reasons.  Obviously the story of a female religious adept turned warrior has many echoes in the folklore of the southern Chinese martial arts.  Her evasion of the Yongle Emperor’s attempts to reassert control over the temples and arrest the nuns even prefigures the development of literary figures like Ng Moy in important ways.

Yet what is really remarkable is the relative ease with which we can trace the development of stories based on her life and their subsequent incorporation into modern literature.  It may not be possible to identify all of the source material behind the Wing Chun creation myth, but stories like this one certainly helped to give it flavor.

Of course one central question remains unanswered.  We have now seen how the idea of the female knight-errant exploded in Republic era popular literature, but why did this trend emerge in the first place?  And what relationship, if any, did it have to the transformation of China’s traditional hand combat systems?  We will pursue these questions in a future post.

Sugong: Nick Hurst Explores South East Asia’s Shaolin Kung Fu Tradition.


Nick Hust.  Sugong: The Life of a Shaolin Grandmaster. Sports Books. 2012. pp. 291.

Introduction: Summer Reading for Chinese Martial Artists

It is that time of year again.  It is the season when literally everyone I know packs a bag, prints out a boarding pass and heads out in search of the nirvana that is “summer vacation.”  Yeah, I mostly hang out with other academics.  And who can blame them.  The pay is not that great, so it is critical to make the most of the “perks” of the job.  And if the Dean calls, remember, you are out of the country doing “research.”

In reality a distressing amount of research actually will be done by the end of the summer.  But everyone takes a few weeks off, and what you really need is a good book.  Something that is well written, engaging and refreshing.  You want something that addresses the Chinese martial arts, but does so in a way that will recharge your batteries, let you see things from a slightly different perspective and inspire you to come out swinging when it is time to get back to the research.

The one book you must read this summer is Sugong: The Life of a Shaolin Grandmaster by Nick Hurst (Sporting Books, 2012).  This volume has gotten some good press and I have even linked to a couple of positive reviews of it in previous posts.  Still, I haven’t really heard it discussed among the martial artists that I work with and talk to.  That is a shame because Hurst’s narrative has a lot to offer the Chinese martial arts community, and he has wrapped it all up in an attractive and easy to read package.

Nick Hurst, author of Sugong.
Nick Hurst, author of Sugong.

Sugong: Exploring the life of a Shaolin Grandmaster.

As regular readers know, most of the books that I review here at 功夫网 are decidedly scholarly in their manner and intended audience.  I have a hard time detaching myself from that mode of analysis.  Still, it has never been the case that only books by University Presses are worth reading.  In fact, keeping up with the commercial literature is especially important if you write on the martial arts because, at heart, what we study really is part of modern “popular culture.”

There are three things that we need when thinking about martial arts studies.  The first two are the most basic.  We need theories of how the martial arts evolve and function in society, and we need data to test those stories.  Sugong doesn’t really concern itself with the big theoretical questions.  That is just as well, there are a lot of other authors who specialize in that sort of thing.

What Sugong brings to the table is a truly gripping narrative that is absolutely packed with careful social observation, interviews and ethnographic analysis.  This is the sort of data that can only come from a painstakingly researched study of a small number of careers and schools in a given time and space.  Hurst offers the sort of highly granular observation and information that comes only from tightly focused studies.

If you are interested in how the monastic fighting monk tradition evolved in the modern era, if you are curious about the traditional Chinese martial arts in South East Asia, if you have questions about how the martial arts relate to identity and marginality, you will find this volume to be an incredibly rich source of data.  If you want to see how these large scale issues actually play themselves out in the lives of a handful of martial artists in the post-WWII period, this book is indispensable.

Truth be told, we in the field of Chinese martial studies, need more books like Sugong.  We just don’t have a large enough body of carefully written case studies, and few of the ones that we do have are this enjoyable to read.

In literary terms Hurst’s work is somewhat difficult to classify.  It is part biography, part memoir of a beloved teacher, part Kung Fu travelogue and part social history.  To make these various strains fit together Hurst made a number of interesting editorial decisions.  I think that he wisely allowed the “travelogue” aspect of his work serve as a thin framing mechanism for exploring the story’s social history, rather than actually attempting to make himself the hero of the volume.

Further, Hurst appears to have been pulled between two different goals.  On the one hand he attempts to let his primary source tell his own story in his own voice.  This is a very valuable exercise.  But on the other hand Hurst also appears to be drawn towards a more classical mode writing history, based on “the facts” and drawing on archival resources.  One might call this the “warts and all” mode of biographical history.

What emerged from this dual process was a remarkably nuanced portrait of at least two generations of Chinese Shaolin instructors in South East Asia.  Hurst presented a detailed personality sketch of his protagonists that did not attempt to hide their faults or shortcomings.  Yet at the same time they were contextualized and presented in such a way that it was still possible for the reader to understand how they could inspire such fierce devotion from their students.

Of course there is more to the exercise than simply presenting interesting observations and developing reliable character sketches.  The third thing that we really need any good book on the Chinese martial arts to do is to answer the “so what” question.  Why should readers care?  Why should martial artists today invest themselves in learning about the lives of individuals that they will never meet, in countries that most of us will never have a chance to visit?

Too often we seem content to languish in our myths.  In one sense there is nothing wrong with the story of the burning of the Shaolin temple.  Many people find it deeply inspiring.  It has a certain emotional power behind it.  But rarely do we stop to ask more serious and socially grounded questions about what it all means.  Why exactly do some monks, but not others (most), study martial arts?  What does this actually tell us about the martial arts themselves, and the role that they can play in the life of a community?

This is an area where Hurst really excels.  He shows us not one, but three or four (depending on how you split them) different aspects of how “Shaolin” training has happened, inside and outside of real temples with real monks and their apprentices.  In one instance we see monks (in Fujian) who teach martial arts to students as part of a more general education program at their temple.  In short, they teach martial arts to local students for the same reason that they teach literacy, because they are paid to do so by the local community.

In another instance we see a different martial monk being recruited by a local temple committee because their sanctuary has been taken over by squatters.  He is not expected to kick these individuals out with his bare hands, but as a “martial monk” he is expected to have expertise in dealing with these sorts of situations, as well as negotiating with the local government, police and triads.

These are remarkable portraits.  What emerges from these stories, and many others that I do not have the space to recount here, was how much traditional martial arts training was meant to be an education.  It may not have been a conventional education of the sort that we readily imagine in the west today.  But it was an education nonetheless.  It gave young adults the tools they needed to negotiate difficulties in society and to become community leaders.  Over and over again in Hurst’s narratives we see martial artists being called on to settle local disputes not with their hands, but through negotiations.

This is precisely why we should care about the Chinese martial arts in general and Hurst’s book in particular.  These systems have always been about more than combat.  They have played an important part in the political economy of traditional Chinese communities for hundreds of years.  Further, this is an aspect of community leadership or management that we have tended to overlook.  Our fantasies about Kung Fu fighting Buddhist monks have led us to neglect some much more interesting questions about how these monks interacted economically and socially with the community around them, and what role the martial arts actually played in all of this.

Sugong reminds us that these are interesting questions.  Further, it demonstrates that martial arts masters have continued to play a unique, if often overlooked, role in the life of the local community well into the post-WWII period.

Nick Hurst training with Queck Chong Tze, his "Sugong" or "Grandmaster" in the Hokkien dialect.
Nick Hurst training with Queck Chong Tze, his “Sugong” or “Grandmaster” in the Hokkien dialect.

Conclusion: Perfect Summer Reading for Kung Fu Geeks.

On a certain level I wish that Hurst had focused solely on the social history when writing this volume.  That is clearly the aspect of his work that I am the most drawn to.  Still, one of the things that gives his work punch is its page-turning narrative structure and easy reading style.  One cannot help but conclude that this is the perfect beach-book for Kung Fu geeks and students of Chinese martial studies alike.

I suspect that come fall, this work could also be used in a university classroom.  Undergraduate students in particular would likely respond well to the text.  It could easily be used to illustrate any number of theoretical arguments about the Chinese martial arts.  Further, the data that Hurst presents would probably be very helpful for students looking for arguments or topics for research papers.  Best of all, the characters in this book are so vividly written that they are likely to stick with students long after most of the more theoretical class material has been forgotten.

Sugong is an impressive work, especially when one considers that this was the author’s first book and first martial arts related research project.  There are a lot of other topics out there that could use a similar treatment.  Hopefully Hurst will consider following this volume up with another study in the same vein.

Click here to read 功夫网’s exclusive interview with Nick Hurst where he discusses the process of researching and writing Sugong.

From the Archives: Spiritual Kung Fu – Can Wing Chun be a Secular Religion?

Taiji being demonstrated at the famous Wudang Temple, spiritual home of the Taoist arts.  Notice they wear the long hair of Taoist Adepts.
Taiji being demonstrated at the famous Wudang Temple, spiritual home of the Taoist arts. Notice they wear the long hair of Taoist Adepts.


This article was first posted on August 3rd, 2012, making it one of the very first things I ever wrote for 功夫网.  It was also my first review of an academic article, and my first attempt to deal with the question of spirituality and religion in the Chinese martial arts.  This is an important subject, one that I have returned to in a number of different places.

As I attempted to point out in this piece, such questions are not merely of academic interest.  While important for thinking about the nature and the origins of the traditional Chinese martial arts, they also have a substantial impact on how these fighting systems are taught and transmitted in the modern era.  Enjoy!

George Jennings, David Brown and Andrew Sparkes. “It can be a Religion if you Want: Wing Chun Kung Fu as a Secular Religion.” Ethnography.  11(4). 2010. pp. 533-557.

I have been meaning to read this paper for some time and I am glad to be reviewing it now.  This article is based on six years of ethnographic research by George Jennings on the Wing Chun school in the UK where he practices.  Jennings was interested in the number of students that view their practice of Wing Chun as some sort of religious vocation or ethical/spiritual pursuit.  In the paper he, his dissertation adviser (also a Wing Chun practitioner) and an outside co-author (the only non-martial artist on the research team) confront the question of whether there is an inherent connection between the Chinese martial arts and religion (or at minimum “spirituality”).  They apply a somewhat Durkheimian approach to the structure of the Wing Chun community (religious experience is an effervescent expression of community cohesion), and draw on the idea of the development of the “Wing Chun habitus” (a shared community of experience and meaning) through a chain of direct body-to-body teaching to argue that in fact the martial arts do function as a sort of secular religion for many people who practice them.

The paper has some weaknesses.  To begin with, there is scant evidence of six years of intensive ethnographic study.  Its “thick description” just isn’t very thick at all.  In fact, the paper reads like technical exercises in theoretical analysis augmented with two or three expert interviews.  It is certainly not what I expected from something that billed itself as an ethnography.  I really hope that there is a book coming out in the future that demonstrates how accepting Wing Chun as a secular religion has impacted the lives of its practitioners on more than a rhetorical level.  Even a deep ethnographic analysis of the life of a Wing Chun community would be an interesting read.  That is not what this article gives us.

Further, I am not sure how really useful I find the category “secular religion.”  From time to time I teach an upper-level class on religion in International Politics.  One of the first things we do is to read through Pals’ Eight Theories of Religion and I ask the class to generate a working definition of religion that will cover the major cases included in the syllabus.  Every semester it becomes quickly apparent (even to a group of undergraduates) that a working definition of religion in the social sciences should not revolve around God, the divine or the supernatural in the first place as there are some important human religions that don’t include any of these things.  In fact, a couple of these non-deistic religions (Confucianism and Buddhism) are central to the field of Chinese martial studies.  So rather than going to all of the work of creating a special category which can only be confused with “civil religions” or something else, I would have simply asked the readers to broaden their definitions of what constitutes a “real” religion and move on with minimal comment.

These objections notwithstanding, I did enjoy the paper and would recommend it.  I think it has much to contribute to various current discussions.   It is especially timely as both Kennedy and Guo and Henning have spilled a lot of ink in the last decade arguing that there is no connection between the Chinese martial arts and religion or spirituality at all.  This article presents a gentle and much needed reminder that in fact things are rarely so black and white.

Henning and Kennedy are certainly correct that historically speaking there was not much connection between orthodox Buddhism or Taoism and the Chinese martial arts.  Then again, I am not sure that the modern understanding of the “martial arts” is even all that meaningful in China prior to about 1830.  At any rate, all of those legends of wandering rebel monks notwithstanding, Buddhism did not contribute much to the development of Chinese martial arts.  Even at Shaolin, where there were groups of monks who did practice martial arts in the Ming and Qing eras, there is no evidence that there was anything particularly religious about their approach to the military arts or that they considered them to have spiritual value.  So all of this discussion of Buddhist and Taoist “martial arts” is just myth-making, a product of the early 20th century rush to publish Swordsmen novels….

And yet, there are a lot of anthropologists doing ethnography on Chinese martial arts schools, both in China and the west, and they keep reporting a lot of authentic spirituality around them.  The new “common sense” typified by Henning and others is also undercut when one looks at certain historical sources.  Esherick did a great job presenting evidence on the nature of different rebel groups before and during the Boxer Uprising (see his classic study Origins of the Boxer Uprising.)  Time and again he documents violent millennial societies using martial arts schools as front organizations and recruitment mechanisms.

So while there is no reason to believe that large national religious organizations were involved with the martial arts in China the same way that they were in Japan, it is also going a bit far to say that there is no authentic spirituality to be found in the Chinese folk arts, either in the past or present.  I think the great value of Jennings et al. is that they provide a middle-road and demonstrate how cultural and psychological factors might lead individuals to find spiritual value in a martial community even when that is not their primary purpose.

And that brings me to my last observation about this paper.  While it may be possible to simply find spirituality randomly, that is clearly not what happened at the “Church Kwoon” under “Sifu Bridges.”  (Following ethnographic protocol the researchers hide the names of their sources behind pseudonyms.)  In fact, the Sifu in this study actually changed certain things about his school to create a more spiritual atmosphere.  It wasn’t a lot, but he did attempt to meet the orientalist expectation of his students while forthrightly acknowledging that what he was doing (installing a Buddhist shrine at the front of the room, awarding colored sashes etc.) was not strictly necessary to teach the Wing Chun system or to train competent fighters (see page 542).  These things were added as they met the students’ need for a self-transformational narrative and they made the school more commercially successful.  In other words, these things are not actually part of the authentic Wing Chun habitus, at least not the branch of it passed on by Ip Man.  They are additions that were made once that habitus came to the west to meet our expectations of what an “authentic” Chinese martial art should look like.

A Buddhist sanctuary dedicated to Guan Yin in Foshan, the home of Wing Chun Boxing.  While Ip Man never had a Buddhist shrine in his school museums to both him and Wong Fei Hung (prominent Foshan Hung Gar practitioner) are located in the ground of Foshan Ancestral Temple.

We know quite a lot about Ip Man’s Wing Chun School in Hong Kong in the 1950s.  While Ip Man was an educated and refined individual in the Confucian tradition (and according to his student Chu Shong Tin he even enjoyed playing the part of the Confucian gentleman) there was no obvious Confucian element to his boxing.  He never regarded what he taught as a spiritual practice.  Nor did Ip Man have a Buddhist altar in his school.  It goes without saying that he did not award colored sashes to students (something done only by the Japanese arts at that point in time).  And he certainly did not make promotions contingent on his students “ethical” as well as physical characteristics. In Ip Man’s school promotion (to the limited extent that the concept even existed) was basically contingent on how much time one had put in and whether you could continue to make the tuition payments.

Taking off my hat as an academic student of Chinese martial studies, and speaking as a Wing Chun practitioner myself, I have to say, these things bother me.  They bother me precisely because they are an addition to the Wing Chun habitus.  Finding spiritual value in an art is one thing.  I am in favor of people finding spiritual satisfaction in the minutia of their daily lives.  But seeking to create it out of nothing and then teaching these “traditions” to your students crosses a line.  Specifically, it creates a new and artificial division within the community.  Ironically this is exactly the opposite of how religion is supposed to function, at least according to Durkheim.

Still, every lineage and school changes something.  It is necessary for survival.  After all, none of us are living in Hong Kong in the 1950s.  So given that the “Wing Chun Habitus” is never identical to what Ip Man taught, or to what is taught elsewhere, how do we actually define and recognize the Wing Chun family?  Is it still Wing Chun once it becomes spiritual Kung Fu?   And how should we think about the question of spirituality in the Chinese martial arts more generally?

If you would like to read more about spirituality in the traditional martial arts see: Does Wing Chun Need a “Spiritual” Center?  Is it Confucianism?

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