Twin Chinese Pagodas in Singapore. Source: Wikimedia.
Twin Chinese Pagodas in Singapore. Source: Wikimedia.

(**Co-authorship credit for this post goes to my Sifu, Jon Nielson. This post grew out of a conversation that we had about the origins and implications of the Jo Fen almost one year ago.**)

Introduction: Defining Community in the Traditional Chinese Martial Arts


How does one define a social community? How are boundaries drawn between those who are within the group and those who fall outside of it? This is an important question for students of martial studies. Given that the various hand combat systems, both in the East and the West, invariably revolve around fighting, one might be forgiven for assuming the martial artists would be rather sullen and solitary creatures.

Yet just the opposite is true. Studying and teaching hand combat is an inescapably social behavior. As much as we love the myth of the lone hermit on a misty mountain top, the truth is, you cannot really learn to box, wrestle or fence by yourself. These skills must be demonstrated by one or more teachers and they need to be sharpened on a variety of opponents if they are to be of any actual use. We spend a lot of time discussing “self-creation,” but the type of knowledge that is conveyed in the martial arts is inescapably social.

The definition of “community” is particularly complex in the Chinese martial arts. There are a variety of different markers that are used to define those who are “like us.” To begin with, we have the style names. But these can only take us so far. It appears that many (most) fighting traditions did not even have names until sometime in the Qing dynasty. Style names are also notoriously slippery things. Homophones and puzzling variations in characters are common encountered. And it is all too easy for small arts to re-position themselves in the martial marketplace simply by modifying their name.

Creation narratives and a shared mythology is also a common marker of community. The story of the burning of the Shaolin temple unites all of the Hung Mun styles of Guangdong province. Likewise, many different Wing Chun lineages make use of the Red Boat Opera as a device to explain their origins. While the performance of individual sets may vary from one lineage to another, a sense of shared community is preserved by the fact that we revere the same “martial ancestors.”

Of course these myths are often borrowed and modified. Hung Gar traditions also discuss figures like Jee Shim and the Red Boat Opera companies. It seems likely that Wing Chun borrowed elements of these traditions, as well as the White Crane creation legend, when compiling its own mythic identity. Still, the creations myths are helpful because they can suggest both relationships and differences between various groups.

The nuanced mechanics of physical practice is another way in which the community is defined and regulated. Much of the unspoken knowledge and culture of the Chinese martial arts is passed directly from teacher to student as they “correct forms” and engage in either sparring or “sensitivity training.” This creation of a shared culture (and a set of expectations) through an unbroken line of physical contact going back to the founder is probably the single most important way in which the group is defined. This sort of physical transmission is essential in certain Taijiquan lineages that emphasize “push hands” training. Likewise, many other schools have similar exercises that convey their core culture in a direct, non-verbal, way.

As a Wing Chun student I do not really care how another practitioner spells the name of their art, or what stories they tell about the origins of their lineage. What I really want to know is “Do they chi sao?” and “How do they chi sao?” If the ways in which we train are mutually intelligible, and we can improve together, then on a very concrete level we are in the same community.

A traditional garden with a modern created within a modern city. Source: Wikimedia.
A traditional garden created within a modern city. Source: Wikimedia.

The Wing Chun Jo Fen and the Definition of Community.

There is another way in which communities are defined and expectations are cultivated. Rather than relying only on the intuitive and unspoken norms that arise in the course of training, most martial arts communities also propagate explicit rules. These codes of conduct, usually written, are supposed to govern life in the community. The number of rules and their content can vary immensely from one tradition to the next, but the basic impulse is widely shared.

Such formal lists are quite common in the martial arts of southern China. However, in my limited experience, they are often observed in the breech. Students know that they exist, but they don’t generally get discussed all that often. This seems to be particularly true in Wing Chun. Early in his teaching career in Hong Kong Ip Man propagated a set of nine rules, collectively referred to as the “Ving Tsun Jo Fen.” In the case of Ip Man’s list, they tended to be suggestions of what proper behavior should be rather than overly detailed admonitions or prohibitions. Nor, when reading the historical accounts from the 1950s and 1960s, is it always clear how the behavior of his young and unruly students related to these rules.

Still, the fact that the Jo Fen were given, and that they are now commonly reproduced and displayed in Wing Chun schools around the world, seems to indicates that we should give some thought to how these guidelines have been read and helped to shape the Wing Chun community. After all, these statements come as close to a formal philosophy of personal behavior as anything in the Ip Man lineage. And it is interesting to note that the Jo Fen describe not just proper behavior in the school, but within society as a whole. By explaining how a student should comport themselves in relation to the broader community, they offer valuable hints as to the social milieu that gave rise to the early Wing Chun community.

Before we delve into a discussion of the Jo Fen there are a couple of puzzles that need to be addressed. The first is their ultimate date of origin. It is known that Ip Man wrote down and displayed the basic set of rules that are used today in his school in Hong Kong during the 1950s. However, it is not clear if these rules were entirely his own creation or if some of them were inherited from an earlier instructor (Chan Wah Shun and Ng Chung So would both be good candidates). For reasons that we will discuss later I suspect that these rules are really a response to trends and pressures from the 1920s-1930s. Even if Ip Man first wrote them down in the 1950s, the Jo Fen appear to be a thoughtful response to a conversations that had been happening decades earlier.

The second paradox is how one should read the Jo Fen. This is a critical issue for Western Wing Chun students looking for guidance in living their art. For instance, when we are commanded to “Keep sacred the Martial Morality” (Wu De; Cantonese: Ma Dak) are we being sworn to uphold the marginal and criminal behavioral codes of the “Rivers and Lakes”? The individuals who inhabit these marginal social zones often have quite strong opinions on proper behavior under “Wu De,” and have even created an entire subaltern set of cultural values. Boretz does a great job of illustrating this worldview in his carefully crafted ethnography, Gods, Ghosts and Gangsters: Ritual Violence, Martial Arts, and Masculinity on the Margins of Chinese Society (University of Hawaii Press, 2010).

Yet Ip Man was a highly educated individual who clearly held Confucian values. During his younger life he was in no way a marginal figure. The circles that he moved in were quite different from those that Boretz described, and so were his cultural values. He had both a classical Chinese and Western education. He owned land and businesses. His personal values tended to be somewhat conservative and influenced by his Confucian education. So what exactly does such an individual really mean when he exhorts his students to remember “martial virtue?” This is probably not the martial morality of the Triads.

Nor does it seem to be the same as the revivalist ideals promoted by Jin Yong in his novels. These novels have dominated the popular discussion of Chinese martial values from the 1950s to the present. In fact, Jin Yong is probably the most widely read Chinese language author of the entire 20th century. While it seems likely that these books had an impact on the expectations of many of Ip Man’s younger students, the old master’s views on these matters were probably already set well before he started teaching in 1950.

In the west we tend to read these suggestions through our own cultural lens. Ron Heimberger, in my own lineage, once produced a small volume titled Ving Tsun Jo Fen: Expectations and Guidance from the Ving Tsun Tradition (Ving Tsun Ip Ching Athletic Foundation, 2006). It’s an interesting book to think about. The author makes a conscious attempt to bridge the two, at times very different, cultural traditions that are at play. Yet in the end his interpretations of the Jo Fen always seem to reflect a home-spun American ethical perspective rather than traditional Chinese culture. The author actually warns us that this will be the case in the introduction to his book. The central problem, as he saw it, was to make the Jo Fen meaningful to modern, English speaking students.

It is an interesting project, and on some level I suspect that this is the direction that we must go. Translation is always as much a cultural as a linguistic issue. But I suspect that such exercises are still missing something.

This suspicion brings us back to the central question of the post. How should we, as informed students, read the Jo Fen of Wing Chun, or any other southern martial art? How would these rules have been read by a student in either the 1930s or 1950s? What sorts of unstated frames and contexts, familiar to his own students but alien to modern western ones, was Ip Man relying on when he put these guidelines for living to paper?

To answer that question we are going to need compare this document to other (much better known) contemporaneous texts. This exercise will suggest some ways in which we might want to read the Wing Chun Jo Fen. It will also shed some light on how Ip Man understood the community he was trying to create, and the norms of behavior that he wished to codify.

A rainy day at the Ancestral Temple in Foshan. In the distance the old neighborhood behind the temple is being demolished to make way for a new urban development project. Ironically the new neighborhood is being designed to "look traditional" and capitalize on the area's important "history." Source: Whitney Clayton.
A rainy day at the Ancestral Temple in Foshan. In the distance the old neighborhood behind the temple is being demolished to make way for a new urban development project. Ironically the new neighborhood is being designed to “look traditional” and capitalize on the area’s important “history.” Source: Whitney Clayton.

Translating the Wing Chun Jo Fen

The original text of the Wing Chun Jo Fen still hangs at the Hong Kong Ving Tsun Athletic Association (VTAA). As such it is well attested. More difficult is settling on a suitable English translation. For our purposes I am providing two translations of the text below. I think it is useful to compare and contrast at least two different versions of the Jo Fen to get a better sense of what points the original is driving at. Neither translation attempts to be a pure mechanical rendering. Both translators made some editorial decisions in how they rendered the Jo Fen corresponding to their understanding of the meaning of the text.

The top line of text (marked SK) is a translation by Samuel Kwok, originally published in his book Mastering Wing Chun: the Keys to Ip Man’s Kung Fu published with Tony Massengill in 2007. Generally speaking this is my preferred translation. The second translation (marked RH) is taken from Ip Ching, Ron Heimberger and Eric Myers, Ving Tsun Jo Fen: Expectations and Guidance from the Ving Tsun Tradition published in 2006. This is also a clear translation with some interesting readings of the text. Together these two different approaches provide a comprehensive look at the original.

Figure 1: Ip Man’s Wing Chun Jo Fen

1. (SK) Remain disciplined – uphold yourself ethically as a martial artist
1. (RH) Discipline yourself to the Rules: Keep Sacred the Martial Morality

2. (SK) Practice courtesy and righteousness – serve the community and honor your family
2. (RH) Understand Propriety and Righteousness: Love your Country and Respect Your Parents

3. (SK) Love your fellow students or classmates – be united and avoid conflicts
3. (RH) Love Your Classmates: Enjoy Working Together as a Group

4. (SK) Limit your desires and pursuit of bodily pleasures – preserve the proper spirit
4. (RH) Control Your Desire: Stay Healthy

5. (SK) Train diligently and make it a habit – never let the skill leave your body
5. (RH) Work Hard and Keep Practicing: Never Let the Skill Leave Your Body

6. (SK) Learn to develop spiritual tranquility – abstain from arguments and fights
6. (RH) Learn How to Keep the Energy: Quit Inciting a Fighting Attitude.

7. (SK) Participate in society – be conservative, cultured and gentle in your manners
7. (RH) Always Deal with World Matters with a Kind Attitude that is Calm and Gentle.

8. (SK) Help the weak and the very young – use your martial skill for the good of humanity
8. (RH) Help the Elderly and the Children: Use the Martial Mind to Achieve “Yan”

9. (SK) Pass on the tradition – preserve the Chinese arts and its Rules of Conduct
9. (RH) Follow the Former Eight Rules: Hold to the Ancestors’ Rules Sincerely.



The Hung Sing Association: Three Exclusions and Ten Rules for Behavior


From the turn of the century to the late 1920s the single most important martial arts association in Foshan (the home of Wing Chun before Ip Man brought it to Hong Kong in 1949) was the Hung Sing Association. This school, originally established in the middle of the 19th century, taught Choy Li Fut, then the most popular and widespread martial art in the region.

By the 1920s the Hung Sing Association literally boasted dozens of branch locations and claimed thousands of members between its many schools and Lion Dance Associations. Foshan was a hot bed for martial arts development, and the local area boasted many competing styles. Yet in terms of sheer size, none of them could come close to competing with the Hung Sing Association.

Size was not Hung Sing’s only advantage. It was also the first (more or less) public martial arts school in the region. Established in the second half of the 19th century, many of the later schools modeled their public face and business plans on the successful example established by Choy Li Fut. As a result some of the specific norms of the Choy Li Fut school became quite widespread in the local marketplace. Other instructors either adopted these expectation, or they were forced to react against them. Wing Chun (which really started to expand in the 1920s and 1930s) was no exception. It emerged out of a dialogue that was dominated by these larger and more successful styles.

One can debate whether Hung Sing was really a “public” school. Late in the 19th century Chan Ngau Sing (an important leader in the history of the institution) established two doctrines. The first was the famous “Three Exclusions Policy” and the second was a ten point code of conduct.

The three exclusions appears to have been an attempt to bridge the symbolic world of secret societies with the more profitable aspects of commercial boxing instruction. Chan claimed that there were three classes of individuals he would not teach. These were high government officials, gangsters or local bullies and individuals without respectable employment. If one wished to join the school they had to be sponsored by an existing member, and their application had to be approved by the organization’s chairman (Chan himself). These exclusions were promoted as a way of ensuring the moral righteousness of the school.

The end result of this policy is that even though Hung Sing became a very large institution, it maintained the feel and appearance of an exclusive club. This was sheer marketing brilliance. But how “exclusive” were they?

It seems unlikely that any “high government officials” from Beijing would travel to Foshan only to petition a distinctly working-class martial arts school for admittance. While the first exclusion played to anti-government and anti-Manchu sentiment, it never really cost the school any students. One could tell a similar story about the second exclusion. The Triads already had their own much more exclusive secret societies and martial arts teachers. Aside from the Lion Dance Associations, it is not clear they ever actually had any interest in Hung Sing.

Lastly, Chan Ngau Sing was running a commercial school. Students had to pay for their tuition either in cash or in bags of rice. Of course not all of southern China’s economy was fully monetized at this point. The only individuals who would be able to pay these fees would be the semi-skilled artisans who worked in Foshan’s workshops. The Hung Sing Association acted as a place where workers could network, find out about new jobs and create a rudimentary social safety net.

This was the real genius of the “Three Exclusions” policy. While outwardly elitist, all the policy actually did was make the association more appealing to its primary market demographic, young semi-skilled workers in Foshan. For that reason I have always treated Hung Sing as the areas first true public martial arts school. It showed that public commercial teaching was possible and in that way Hung Sing really altered the development of the southern Chinese martial arts. It is not hard to understand how this school was able to create expectations of what a “real” martial art should look like which later teachers would have to deal with.

Where do we find authenticity? In the city or the garden? Source: Wikimedia.
Where do we find authenticity? In the city or the garden? Source: Wikimedia.

Figure 2: Chan Ngau Sing’s Ten point code of behavior for the Foshan Hung Sing Association

Three Exclusions

  • Refusal to teach government officials.
  • Refusal to teach local bullies (gangsters?)
  • Must have respectable employment.

Ten Points

  1. Seek the approval of your master in all things relative to the school.
  2. Practice hard daily.
  3. Fight to win (but do not fight by choice).
  4. Be moderate in sexual behavior.
  5. Eat healthily.
  6. Develop strength through endurance (to build a foundation and the ability to jump).
  7. Never back down from an enemy.
  8. Practice breathing exercises.
  9. Make the sounds (“Yik” for punches, “Wah” for tiger claws, “Tik” for kicks).
  10. Through practice you cannot be bullied.

Chan also introduced a ten point list of rules that became standard in the local branches of the Hung Sing Association. My translation of this list (and the Three Exclusions) comes from Ma Zineng’s Foshan Wu Shu Wen Hua (2001). Comparing this set of rules to Ip Man’s Jo Fen reveals some interesting parallels.

It quickly becomes apparent that the Wing Chun Jo Fen are modeled directly on Chan’s Ten Rules. Note for instance that a number of Ip Man’s rules not only appear to be based on Hung Sing, but are in a similar place in the list. For instance, the admonition against sexual excess (seen as damaging to one’s martial virtue) appears in the fourth slot on both lists. Likewise both lists begin with an appeal to authority and obedience.

The creation of these written behavioral codes is yet another area where Hung Sing was able to exercise its first mover advantage and shape the development of other regional styles. I suspect that Hung Sing’s code was a reflection of earlier Qing era guild practice, but that is a topic for a different post. It seems entirely likely that arts like Wing Chun adopted explicit sets of behavioral guidelines (separate from the amorphous concept of Wu De) precisely because Hung Sing had already done so. This is what martial consumers had come to expect.

However, there are also some equally interesting differences between our two different codes of behavior. Ip Man was not just copying the Ten Rules. He was responding to them. This can be seen as an attempt to differentiate Wing Chun students from the martial environment around them, and more carefully define how they should deal with society as whole. As such the Jo Fen are an important witness to the creation of the early Wing Chun community.

The first major point of difference is that the facade of the “Three Exclusions” has been done away with. Ip Man basically taught whoever showed up to his classes and put forward no pretense that his was anything but a public commercial school. He did not exclude government officials or ethnic Manchus. In fact, later in his career Ip Man went out of his way to introduce Wing Chun to ranking civil servants and police officials.

It is often said with great certainty that Ip Man never taught foreigners, and so that could be treated as his own “exclusion.” Still, I have a hard time knowing what to make of this statement. Foreigners were not exactly knocking down his door demanding to be taught in the early 1950s, so it is unlikely that he actually turned anyone away for strictly racial reasons. Further, we know that Ip Man had no trouble working with individuals of mixed descent, such as Leung Ting or Bruce Lee. Rumors to the contrary, he does not appear to have been a racial purist.

Instead we see that Ip Man took on and encouraged a very wide range of students. He taught men and women, experienced martial artists and teens. Nor did he ever promote the idea that the Wing Chun clan operated as some sort of secret society. One of the remarkable things about his Hong Kong career was how truly open it was.

Comparing Ip Man’s list to Chan’s earlier effort also reveals his attitude toward excess or ornamentation. For instance, Ip Man simply drops “rule ten” all together. Looking back at the original list its clear that this “rule” is not really a point of ethical behavior so much as it’s a promise of the reward that one might expect from hard work. Of course life has a way of being unfair, and ignoring such promises.

A number of Ip Man’s other points appear to be direct responses to the more popular and widely known rules of the Hung Sing Association. Where they mandate strength training in the sixth entry (“Develop strength through endurance-to build a foundation and the ability to jump”) he characteristically emphasizes the importance of softness and internal training (“Learn How to Keep the Energy: Quit Inciting a Fighting Attitude “). While Chan’s list seems bellicose and is geared towards maintaining the reputation of the school (“Never back down from an enemy”) Ip Man insists that his students engage constructively with the community as a whole, and not just other martial artists (“Participate in society – be conservative, cultured and gentle in your manners”). Both lists end with a charge to pass on the unique norms and codes of recognition that define their respective communities (“Yik” for punches, “Wah” for tiger claws, “Tik” for kicks” vs. “Pass on the tradition – preserve the Chinese arts and its Rules of Conduct”).

I suspect that Ip Man was intimately familiar with Chan Ngau Sing code of conduct, made famous in the region by the Hung Sing Association. Looking at the both the structure and the content of the Jo Fen it appears to have been a topic that he had given some thought to. His definition of the ideal martial community is in many ways different from that advanced Chan, but it also appears to be a response to it.

Chan’s list is mostly concerned with questions of behavior and recognition within the world of martial artists. It reflects the pugnacious attitudes that are typically associated with southern Chinese martial artists. In contrast Ip Man’s is outward looking. His main concern is how the martial artist finds his place in society. A return to traditional Confucian values is seen as the key to maintaining harmony not just within the clan, but with the broader community as a whole.

The historic Tin Hua (Mazu) Temple is Xuwen County, Guangdong.
The historic Tin Hua (Mazu) Temple is Xuwen County, Guangdong.

Reading the Wing Chun Jo Fen as a Philosophical and Ethical Statement


The creation of the Jo Fen may have been a creative exercise undertaken by Ip Man sometime in the 1950s. While some of these rules or perspectives may have been inherited from previous teachers, the list as it exists now is probably Ip Man’s project. Yet that vision of community did not emerge in a vacuum. No vision of society ever does.

Instead the Jo Fen emerged out of a dialogue with other groups and norms. The strength and popularity of the Hung Sing Association in the early 20th century forced other local martial artists to follow its lead in terms of business practices and probably to conform to certain expectations.  Yet it also created a set of structures that they could react against in an attempt to claim their own vision of martial virtue. The very existence of the Jo Fen shows that both of these tendencies were alive and well in the Wing Chun community, and that they continued to be an important force up through at least the 1950s.

Our review has also revealed that Ip Man thought deeply on the question of social identity and was quite concerned with the question of how a martial artist (or a group of them) should interact with society. Rather than simply reverting to the ideas of “martial virtue” seen in contemporary fiction or in the subaltern world of “rivers and lakes,” he turned to his Confucian education. There he found core values that could support the type of community he was attempting to build.

It is not uncommon to find Wing Chun students searching for the “deep philosophy” that underlies their art. Some people do this in an attempt to build a better synthesis of the fighting system. Other individuals are more interested in building a secure foundation for their ethical or spiritual lives. The myth of the Shaolin temple, as well as the claim that Wing Chun is somehow a “Buddhist art” leads some people to investigate the Dharma. Others seem drawn more to Daoism after encountering ideas like the “five elements” or the “eight directions” in a Wing Chun class.

Clearly there is much to be gained from a deep study of either Buddhism or Daoism. Nevertheless, I suspect that this might be over-thinking the problem. If one feels called to study the Dharma, by all means, go and do it. Yet this is not necessary to understand Wing Chun, its origins or the nature of its social community.

Instead I would propose that individuals looking for the deeper meaning in the art start by seriously studying the Jo Fen. This short document was the only formal statement that Ip Man ever gave us on his beliefs about the philosophical basis of his art. It lays out in some detail a code of behavior that regulates not just the internal life of the school, but also how a “hero” can relate to society as a whole in such a way that their actions promotes peace and harmony rather than violence and disorder. This is probably the great motivating question of martial ethics.

Reading the Jo Fen it is clear that Ip Man’s vision of the art was influenced much more by Confucianism than either Buddhism or Daoism. Further, each of the short rules in his list can be unpacked and examined in some detail once you have an appropriate body of thought to situate it within. When discussing his father’s beliefs Ip Chun has argued that the Confucian classic titled “The Doctrine of the Mean” would probably be a great place to start. After studying and thinking about the Jo Fen I am inclined to agree with him. If we start by reading it as a response to texts and ideas that were in circulation at the time (rather than seeing it simply as a nine point list) the true depth of his arguments become apparent.


If you found this post interesting you might also want to read: “Ip Man and the Roots of Wing Chun’s “Multiple Attacker” Principle.”