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 phrase “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.
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?