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

Introduction and Review

This is the second part of an extended article on Ip Man’s career in law enforcement, and the subsequent emphasis on “ambush” and “multiple attacker” scenarios that later developed in his lineage of Wing Chun.  See here for the first part of this post.  As always the best way to approach these multi-section posts would be to print them out and read them as a single extended article.

I also hope that this series of posts inspires readers to think more carefully about the nexus between the traditional Chinese martial arts and the government in Republican China.  The state was a major sponsor of the traditional martial arts.  This relationship was channeled through a variety of official organizations including the the Central Guoshu Institute, the educational system and numerous military and police academies.  While a valuable source of economic sponsorship these interaction also had an affect on the development and evolution of hand combat.  In some cases arts were applied to new and novel tactical problems, in others they were subjected to the regulation or corruption of the Nationalist party (GMD).  Students of Chinese martial studies should think carefully about the many ways that the state has impacted the martial arts.  Reviewing the development of Ip Man’s Wing Chun suggests one possible avenue for what that sort of interaction might look like.

Hand Combat as Conversation: Context, Nuance and Emphasis in the Chinese Martial Arts.

One way of looking at the various styles of hand combat that developed in China is to see them as part of a larger, ongoing conversation. Producing effective fighters was clearly important, but you do not really need a “martial art” to do that.  Militaries do it all the time.

No matter how tough you were when you were young, everyone grows old, and even martial artists suffer the ravages of time. Of course people continue to be interested in hand combat long after they are no longer 22 years old and in peak physical condition. But from that point forward studying principles and promoting a given fighting “style” takes on much more importance. It is this socially transmitted aspect that makes the “martial arts” distinct.  This makes them a community or a “social movement” in a way that Marine Corps “combatives” can never be.

Much of the meta-conversation that happens between the various martial styles is actually a disagreement about how you think a certain kind of fight is likely to unfold. Almost all styles, modern and traditional, have the same catalog of basic movements. There are strikes with the hands and feet, locks, throws and grappling. Weapons basically come in a limited number of sizes and configurations. At the end of the day there are really only so many ways in which the human body can move, and anyone who is in this business long enough will see all of them.

Any “complete martial art” has a variety of techniques to deal with each of these situations. Do not be fooled by the rhetoric. Taiji players can box, Wing Chun students can master long-range entry and even the most ardent jujitsu student knows how to throw a kick or two. It is not really the techniques that make these arts different so much as it is their basic assumptions about how they think a fight is likely to start, how they want to guide its progression, and what they believe will give them the best chances of winning. These are the fundamental questions that really differentiate the styles. It is differences of emphasis and opinion that give each art its unique visual aesthetic.

This is the actual reason why Wing Chun prefers to generate force through “leverage” whereas Taiji seems more interested in “angular momentum.”  Contrary to the assertions of many so-called experts that you find on the internet, it is not that one style is incapable of doing what the other does. Experienced Taiji players know all about leverage and can use it.  Advanced Wing Chun training shows you how to generate force with “angular momentum” in Biu Jee and the dummy. Where these arts actually differ is on what they believe the “entry” phase of a fight will look like, and the sorts of counter-attacks that will be needed.  This in turn dictates that both styles accentuate different ways of generating energy. What beginning students often take as statements of gospel truth (“Wing Chun is always…….”) are almost always matters of emphasis. When examined in broad social terms the Chinese martial arts are basically an ongoing conversation about hand-combat training.

One thing that the “Ip Man” branch of Wing Chun emphasizes is the possibility of multiple attackers scenarios. When modern teachers in this lineage discuss self-defense and the sorts of scenarios that concern them, an ambush by multiple attackers is always at the top of their list.  A great visual example of this can be found in the 2011 series Fight Quest.  In the second season of this show the hosts traveled to Hong Kong to shoot a documentary about modern Wing Chun training.

In an attempt to better explain and illustrate what Wing Chun was all about (and to create some good TV) one of the local instructors who served as their host for the crew staged a mock street ambush involving a dozen attackers trapping the star of the show in an alley.  His larger point was to demonstrate the sorts of tactical problems that are central to this style.  Much of modern Hong Kong style Wing Chun is actually built around these concerns, often in ways that are so subtle that they can easily be missed.

For instance, the art’s narrow footwork, backwards leaning stance and emphasis on maintaining a wide field of vision are all things that originate from its concern with the idea that one might have to face more than one attacker. Its strategy of quickly disabling opponents, dislike of submission holds and emphasis on staying off the ground (even when it would be to your immediate advantage to take a weaker opponent down) all revolve around a single fear. The worry is that while you hold an opponent, or grapple with them on the ground, it will be impossible to see their compatriots who are about to smack you upside the head with a bar-stool.

At first glance this all makes good sense. Pretty much the only time that you are actually assured that there will not be multiple attackers is when you are in a boxing ring, and that is not actually the same sort of thing as “self-defense.” The very concept of “self-defense” implies ambush and the idea that one will most likely be fighting at a tactical disadvantage.  Your attacker will be larger than you, better armed, or there will simply be more of them.  Anyone who is serious about doing you harm is not going to stage a “fair fight.”

It is also critical to realize that most fights do not happen between isolated individuals in dark alleys. Instead they tend to happen in public places. Why? Because that is where the people are. And when fights break out they often involve entire groups of people. While any trained martial artist should be comfortable defending himself against a drunken idiot, one drunken idiot and half a dozen of his friends in the middle of a parking lot is a less pleasant scenario to contemplate. And it is disturbingly common. When teaching I have never really encountered anyone who did not think that planning for multiple attackers was a bad idea when I brought this up.

Still, there is something a little odd about Wing Chun’s emphasis on this subject. To begin with all sorts of traditional fighting styles from southern China care about self-defense and are equally aware of this possibility.  They certainly warn their students about it. But in general they did not think it was necessary to fundamentally restructure their art to meet this threat.

A typical Hung Gar, or even western boxing stance, with head forward and hands high might cost you some visibility, but it is probably a safer stance if you are sure that you are only facing a single opponent. As a Wing Chun guy it pains me to admit it, but its true. Under certain circumstances what other arts prefer to do really is effective. These guys are aware of the possibility of multiple attackers, but they have decided it is probably foolish to assume that every fight will go down this way. In fact, even other branches of Wing Chun do not share Ip Man’s interest in multiple attacker scenarios.

In some respects Jee Shim Wing Chun seems to have a lot more in common with Guangdong’s various schools of “Village Hung Gar” than it does Ip Man’s Wing Chun (and I mean that as a compliment).  Of course there are some problems that occur when we try to make detailed comparisons between styles.  Ip Man’s approach to Wing Chun has become so widespread that it probably has had an inevitable impact on these other lineages.  Some schools seem to have borrowed at least a few of his innovations and philosophy, while others are clearly reacting against him in their quest to find a more “authentic” branch of Wing Chun.

Ip Man and an early group of students in the 1950s.
Ip Man and an early group of students in the 1950s.  The life experience of his students in Hong Kong was very different from what he had seen in Foshan during the late 1930s and 1940s.

Self-Defense, Wing Chun and Youth Challenge Matches, 1950-1972

Nor is this something that can be explained by looking at the association between Wing Chun and youth violence in the Hong Kong period.  It is true that Wing Chun students were involved in a number of illicit “challenge matches” or street fights.  However these events always paired two fighters against one another and the spectators tended not to interfere in the contests. Brawls between schools did occasionally happen but these events were considered to be rare and they often ended up involving the police.

This is not to say that this period did not have an important impact on the development of Wing Chun. It certainly did. Period accounts from the 1950s and 1960s all indicate that Ip Man was willing to make changes to the art’s teaching methods and even forms in response to his student’s experiences on the streets. He also changed the way that the art was discussed. He did away with the traditional sayings and the abstract philosophy of the Five Elements and Eight Directions, which had traditionally been part of the art, and replaced them with simple discussions that would appeal to modern western educated high school and college students.

This is actually an important process to consider as Ip Man was actually pretty conservative. He liked to dress and speak like a Confucian intellectual of a previous generation. In no way was he reforming his art simply for a love of “modernization.” Instead he wanted Wing Chun to be brutally effective, and he wanted other figures in the martial arts world to be forced to acknowledge his accomplishments.

Yet for the most part his students rarely encountered multiple attacker encounters. Instead they spilled most of their blood in a series of underground fights called “bimo.” These impromptu events would usually only be planned a few days or a week in advance. Fighters from various schools would meet secretly in basements, roof tops or allies and fight in prearranged bouts until one contestant submitted or was incapacitated. There were few if any rules limiting what fighters could do, but the events were far from chaotic. Each fight had a judge, seconds to attend the fighters between “rounds” and was arranged by a teenaged promoter. One suspects that truancy and illegal gambling were also part of the bimo youth subculture.

Individuals were occasionally badly hurt in these bouts, but interestingly I have never come across a confirmed account of an actual death.  Regardless, the police viewed the entire institution as patently illegal and a violation of multiple laws.  Martial artists in America today spend a lot of time ignoring and apologizing for the dark underbelly of youth culture in Hong Kong and its very real relationship with the martial arts.  This revisionist tendency is one of the main factors contributing to our systematic misunderstanding of the arts that arose during this time period.

One of the dangers with bimo was that with no formal oversight and an excess of youthful enthusiasm the violence it generated could occasionally spin out of control. This might happen if a pattern of repeated injuries or humiliations led to spiral of retaliations and escalating violence that might envelop an entire school.

Ip Man clearly benefited from the reputation of his students in the bimo sub-culture, but these unregulated challenge matches also caused him headaches.  I am aware of at least two incidents in the 1950s when it became necessary to hold talks with other local martial arts clans (White Crane and Choy Li Fut) to smooth over problems created by his younger, less disciplined students.

This was the dominant sort of violence that Ip Man’s students faced in the 1950s and 1960s. They were not spending a lot of time defending themselves from street crime (though that probably happened from time to time), nor were Wing Chun students involved in large scale conflicts against the Triads or the government.  Instead, Ip Man’s students generally went out looking for trouble, and they found it in the semi-structured bimo youth sub-culture that dominated the era.

This is a very different situation from what one might have found in Foshan in the 1920s or 1930s. Challenge matches between students and instructors did happen during this period.  Ip Man himself fought in two such matches have have been documented.  One occurred 1918 and another during the Second Sino-Japanese War when he began to formally teach.  But these occasional challenges were pretty different from the bimo matches of Hong Kong.

The big problem that martial artists in Foshan faced were not actually formal challenges.  Instead it was the massive levels of organized crime, rampant street level violence, corrupt police and a rapidly escalating civil war that provided the drama of the period.  Further complicating matters was the fact that the Triads, police, military, Nationalists and Communists all made use of local martial arts schools to advance their own agendas.  Ambush, kidnapping and death were all a lot more common in this arena than they were in even the worst Hong Kong neighborhoods of the 1960s.

I suspect that if we want to understand Wing Chun’s interest in multiple attacker scenarios we need to cast our gaze further back in time and ask about Ip Man’s earlier career in the 1930s and 1940s. As a law enforcement officer he would have understood the realities of violence on a level that his teenage students a decade later would have found incomprehensible.

As I have argued in other posts, for many of Ip Man’s students in Hong Kong, the martial arts were fundamentally about social performance, reputation and networking. But by the time Ip Man started to teach in 1950 he was a veteran of the devastating civil war that ultimately claimed the Republic of China.  If I had to guess he probably saw the martial arts as about survival.

But what exactly was he trying to survive?  Being ambushed by multiple armed attackers who intend to kill you means almost certain death. There are very few ways that a lone individual can survive these scenarios if they are genuinely surprised and their attackers do not make some sort of horrific mistake.  Assassinations in the 1930s and 1940s used favored guns, knives, grenades and very large improved explosives.  If a group was determined to kill you chances were they would eventually pull it off.  No martial arts system could protect you from these sorts of threats.

However, teams that were planning on assassinating you were not nearly as scary as those who wanted to capture and interrogate you.  Ip Man would have known this from first-hand experience because that is the sort of work that plain clothes detectives were involved in on  a daily basis.  Fortunately these sorts of teams had to operate covertly and they could not just go around tossing grenades and bombs. This would have given a martial artist a chance to spot the trap in its initial stages, to confound one more team members, and to attempt to flee. When Ip Man thought about applying his martial arts to the problem of “staying alive,” he probably gave considerable thought to these scenarios.

Of course this entire topic is highly speculative. Its ultimately impossible to know what is going on inside anyone’s head. Further, Ip Man made a point of saying as little as possible about these sorts of experiences when he was alive. Therefore researchers are left to speculate as to how is life experience influenced the development of his martial art.

Ip Man and his student Detective Tang Sang.  In the final years of his life Ip Man began to teach Wing Chun in a detectives club in Hong Kong.  Detective, Tang Sang, an important and controversial figure became his student.  Tang Sang helped to create the Hong Kong Chinese Kung Fu Association which sought to both promote the martial arts and improve their image among the general populace.
Ip Man and his student Detective Tang Sang. In the final years of his life Ip Man began to teach Wing Chun in a detectives club in Hong Kong. Detective Tang Sang, an important and controversial figure, became his student. Tang Sang helped to create the Hong Kong Chinese Kung Fu Association which sought to both promote the martial arts and improve their image among the general populace.  Unknown Photographer.  This imaged was republished in the “Ip Man Tong guidebook” that is sold at the Ip Man Tong Museum in Foshan.

Conclusion: Examining the personal nexus between politics, conflict and the development of the martial arts.

One of the things that we can say with absolute certainty is that Ip Man reformed Wing Chun and adapted it in ways that facilitated its success and spread in modern urban environments.  This was something that was remarked on by a number of Ip Man’s students (Jiu Wan), his children (Ip Chun and Ip Ching), and even by the Master himself.  We know that he drew on his own life experience as a martial artist and interactions with students when making these decisions.  It seems likely that his experience in law enforcement would have played an important role in how he understood the potential and limitations of the martial arts.

The tactical problems that faced Ip Man’s students in Hong Kong cannot really explain Wing Chun’s single minded focus on multiple attacker scenarios. Few fights involving Wing Chun practitioners in this period appear to have involved ambushes by multiple opponents or even a real “self-defense” component. Truth be told, the bimo fights of the 1950s have more in common with modern MMA bouts than they do actual “self-defense.”

It seems to have been Ip Man’s own experiences in Foshan that shaped his views of what was critical in a self-defense art. His training as a detective, who needed to be familiar with the various tactics by which suspects could be captured in public without raising an alarm, would have alerted him to the danger that these scenarios posed. Further, unlike a simple assassination attempt or bombing, these were attacks that a martial artist could actually prepare for.

Other martial arts in the areas are certainly aware of the possibility of multiple attacker scenarios, and even have their own tactics for dealing with these events. However, they have generally resisted Wing Chun’s assumption that this is the basic fear that defines most self-defense scenarios. While we will never know with certainty, it seem plausible to assume that Ip Man’s exposure to a certain set of police tactics colored the subsequent development of his art.

Of course this process was not unique to Ip Man. During the 1930s the Chinese martial arts were highly politicized and many hand combat instructors received some level of government patronage. Perhaps they were part of the Central Guoshu Institute, led a militia unit, taught at a military academy or worked as a police officer. This nexus between the personal involvement with the government, political conflict and the development of the martial arts is a rich area. There can be no doubt that state involvement helped to shape the development of the modern Chinese martial arts in the 1930s and 1940s. Some of these effects may have been very broad, on the level of general policy. In other cases the interaction between any given hand combat instructor and some political institution may have led to very specific technical changes within an art. Students of Chinese martial studies would benefit greatly by closely examining the many ways that the state intersected with the market for martial arts instruction.

If you enjoyed this article you might also want to read: “The Wing Chun Jo Fen: Norms and the Creation of a Southern Chinese Martial Arts Community.”