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 Kung Fu Tea.  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?

3 Comments Add yours

  1. Grant Brown says:

    Dear Dr. Judkins,

    I enjoyed your review of this article, it reminded me of a dissertation written by my Wing Chun brother Edgar Johnson. I can’t remember the details of the argument any more but it compared the pedagogy of higher education, the US marine corps, and the milieu of our Wing Chun school in the late 90’s.

    I tend to lean towards Kennedy, Guo, and Henning’s camp in being a little dismissive towards the idea of religion being important to the practice of martial arts, but I think your point that from an anthropological perspective people choose to incorporate martial arts into their spiritual lives is valid and interesting.

    I’ve lived in Guangzhou now–on and off–for five years and one of the things that I notice is that with a few rare exceptions (my Chinese Wing Chun kung fu brothers meet for a meal and burn incense at a shrine to Lord Guan on the third day of the Chinese year) how much less philosophical and religious mainland Wing Chun practitioners tend to be. Where in my Midwestern town both students and outsiders would sometimes talk about the kung fu school as a semi-religious organization.

    I think that it may be the case because as an alien body of practice, kung fu exist outside of our western cultural framework and there for outside of the conventional matrix of social power and it’s associated checks and balances. Wing Chun in particular because of the way it is driven by abstract principles gives it’s practitioners a powerful and easily transferable set of tools for dissecting and acting upon problems in other aspects of their lives.


    Grant Brown

    1. benjudkins says:

      Thanks for stopping by and taking the time to leave such a thoughtful comment. If you don’t mind me asking, what brought you to Guangzhou and who do you study with?

      1. Grant Brown says:

        Dr. Judkins,

        Initially I went to Guangzhou to continue my Chinese studies after I had had finished my B.A. These days I’m a middle school teacher at an International school.

        In my first stint in GZ I studied with Chan Gwan Ling (Chen Jun Ling) as one of his public students. At that time he taught the conventional YKS Wing Chun curriculum to us while his formal disciples learned YKS WC and esoteric nei gung as well as some of his personal reinterpretations of the Wing Chun based on exchanges he had with other mainland Wing Chun stylists and various other southern styles. By the time I had returned to GZ–after getting my teaching license–he dispensed with the distinction and taught all his students his synthesis. He is a very interesting martial artist.

        Through him I was able to meet many interesting and talented Wing Chun practitioners including one of his later teachers, Pang Chao who was one of the early students of Sum Neng in the 1950’s. At the time I spoke very little Cantonese–not that I’m very good now–and had to rely on my kung fu brothers to digest the conversations people had with him. He told my kung fu brothers that in the 50’s Guangzhou Wing Chun was very different: the stances were wider, the bridges less on center, the back less rounded, the Sup Yi Sik hadn’t been organized yet, some of the now signature hands–like the high laan sao–weren’t in the style at all, other more antique hands were more common. Really interesting stuff for coming to terms with how much modern development Wing Chun has undergone.

        These days I study Bak Mei and maintain a few on going exchanges with a few Wing Chun players. If your curious about any thing else feel free to ask. Keeping secrets won’t help keep our art alive and thriving.

        Thank you for all the hard work you’ve put into this blog and into shining a light on the lives of the real people who created southern kung fu. They deserve a place along side all those Taoist priests and Buddhist monks.


        Grant Brown

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