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Chinese Martial Studies, Southern China, Wing Chun

How “Common Sense” Warps our Perceptions of Wing Chun and its Origins.

The folklore around a given style might provide a scaffolding to build more complex theories. Yet if these assumptions are never questioned “common sense” can obscure our view of the past.

We have an issue in the field of Chinese martial studies, and it tends to be more concentrated in the historical arguments.  Our problem is “common sense.”  It seems that in our discussions what “everyone says” quickly becomes “what no one ever critically examines.”

I think this must be at least partially a function of the fact that (in its current incarnation) the Chinese martial studies literature is pretty recent.  Nothing was written in China until the end of the Cultural Revolution and the truth is most of the really interesting stuff did not start to appear until the 1990s.  For those of you keeping score yes I am placing writers like Tang Hao, Xu Zhen, R. W. Smith and Don F. Draeger in an earlier period, prior to the emergence of martial studies as a modern academic discipline.  While they have all influenced the current conversation, and I hope to explore how later, they haven’t been able to contribute to the sorts of research that are emerging now.

As a young field we have not really had a lot of time to identify our biases and challenge them.  Not surprisingly today’s biases have a bad habit of becoming tomorrow’s “common sense.”  For instance, R. W. Smith just “knew” that there were no decent martial artists in all of Guangdong and Hong Kong, and he “knew” that Wing Chun was a an unsophisticated folk form with no substance to it.  (And its really evident that Bruce Lee rubbed him the wrong way).

How did he “know” all of this?  Because while he was stationed in Taiwan by the CIA, his informants and teachers (many of whom were refugees from Northern China), told him so.  Smith never really had much contact with the southern martial arts community.  Even today China remains a linguistically, geographically and ethnically segregated place.  And sadly on the few brief trips he took to explore the offerings of different areas (mostly of southern Taiwan) he never saw anything that he liked.  Once all of this was written up in Chinese Boxing (Kodansha International, 1974) it became “common sense” for a certain class of readers back home in the USA.

Now, to anyone actually familiar with Fujian and Guangdong, their martial history and culture, these opinions are simply non-sense.  Smith was uncritically reporting the biases of his informants.  And that’s ok.  The Chinese martial arts present an entire universe of possibilities.  It is literally impossible for one individual, even one as careful and precise as Smith, to be an expert in everything.

Chinese Boxing was one of the best sources on the modern Chinese martial arts available to the English speaking world for years after its release.  Even for students today it’s a valuable record of the first stages of the post-WWII globalization of Chinese martial arts.  It’s a snapshot of an important moment in history.  I still recommend that everyone who is interested in the modern history of the Chinese martial arts read this book.  But it also demonstrates the need to treat our sources critically, especially when they are presenting us with “common sense.”

Another place where one often hears this sort of “common sense” is in off-handed discussions of various styles.  Taiji is always a “soft” art,  Xingyi Quan is also “internal” but it is more “linear” in its attacks and of course we all know that Wing Chun is a “short range” art with “highly restricted” footwork.  I know that the last of these assertions is just wrong, yet I hear it repeated constantly, even by people who do Wing Chun.

In actual fact Wing Chun strives to be a complete art.  It tries to do everything.  Wing Chun is a single combat philosophy that cuts across the various domains of battle.  Yes it can do “inside boxing,” but it also has a sophisticated kicking system which is sometimes neglected in modern schools, especially if the Sifu running that school is only partially trained.

Modern pundits love to juxtapose “striking” and “grappling” arts.  Yet Wing Chun, the consummate striking art, actually encompasses a complete ground fighting system, complete with a battery of grabs, throws, chokes and holds.

Weapons are also integral to the Wing Chun system.  Once fully trained a student should be able to pick up any object ranging in size from a four inch knife to a nine foot pole and fight proficiently with it.  And if you actually believe that the style has “restricted” footwork it is probably because you have never seen two experts in Wing Chun fencing with swords, chasing each other around the floor, using the long flying steps taught only in the sword form.

What’s that?  You haven’t learned the sword form?  Well, that’s the root of our problem, and the ultimate source of a lot of the “common sense” that we hear in the west these days.  The truth is most Wing Chun instruction is mediocre at best.  Many students have never even seen the kicking system, let alone serious ground fighting or weapons work.  All they have seen is close range boxing out of bridged static positions.  And so the belief takes hold that this is what Wing Chun is really all about.

In reality that material is introduced at the beginning of the system because it’s the hardest to master.  It takes years to develop sensitivity in a bridge and to hone an intuitive sense of how to exploit it.  But since most people drop out after a few months (the more persistent ones last a year or two) this is all they ever see.  Even Bruce Lee stopped training in Wing Chun before seeing most of what the system actually had to offer.  He never had any formal training in Wing Chun kicking or stepping (in fact he never managed to finish his Chum Kiu instruction).  Naturally these were topics he was forced to tackle on his own when he began to develop Jeet Kune Do.  But that actually had nothing to do with shortcomings in the Wing Chun system and everything to do with his familiarity with it.

Further, the Wing Chun system seems to have developed an unnatural and unnecessary love of secrecy.  This esoteric impulse hides the dummy and weapons forms from many senior students, and even Sifus.  I suspect that this is fundamentally an economic behavior, an attempt to limit possible competition in the market place by one’s own students.  But the end result is that they just go out and teach anyway, but now they do so without actually understanding the totality of their art.  The end result is that there is a lot of mediocre Wing Chun out there and if that is all you have seen it is easy to mischaracterize this system.  Wing Chun is not a “short range” art any more than an automobile is reducible to being only a set or brakes, or a fuel pump.

The Hong Kong Skyline at night. Often we need to question the received wisdom before we can see the big picture.

Personal rant aside, where does this sort of “received” wisdom become a problem for students of martial studies?  When trying to understand where Wing Chun evolved many scholars (and I myself have something been guilty of this) focus on just one aspect of the art.  Because we all know that it’s a “short range” art, Wing Chun must have evolved to fight in tight spaces.  Like on a boat!  So the old story about the Red Boat opera revolutionaries must be true!

That is almost certainly specious reasoning.  Why?  Everyone in the Pearl River Delta spent a lot of time on boats.  Why? They were the only major mode of transport.  Of course there were always more Choy Li Fut and Hung Gar guys on those boats than Wing Chun students, and they don’t look like short range styles at all.  Hmm…?

In this case “common sense” seems to provide an answer to historical questions, but in fact it just reinforces our community biases and folklore.  Wing Chun is hardly the only art where this happens.  Research into other arts, particularly ones with a rich body of folklore such as Shaolin and Taiji also tend to fall victim to this sort of reasoning.  So the next time someone says “Everyone knows” make a mental note to go back and check that later.

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