Folklore in the Southern Chinese Martial Arts: A Means to Create Economic “Value” or to Construct Social “Values?”

(Photo Credit: Benjamin Judkins) Tao Te Ching, Chapter Thirty-three Knowing others is wisdom; Knowing the self is enlightenment. Mastering others requires force; Mastering the self needs strength. He who knows he has enough is rich. Perseverance is a sign of willpower. He who stays where he is endures. To die but not to perish is to be eternally present.
Lightening Struck Tree, 2012.  Source: Photo by Benjamin Judkins

I found that I could not analyze ritual symbols without studying them in a time series in relation to other “events,” for symbols are essentially involved in social process.  I came to see performance of ritual as distinct phases in the social process whereby groups become adjusted to internal changes and adapted to their external environment.  From this standpoint the ritual symbol becomes a factor in social action, a positive force in an active field.  The symbol becomes associated with human interests, purposes, ends, and means, whether these are explicitly formulated or have to be inferred from the observed behavior.  The structure and properties of a symbol become those of a dynamic entity, at least within its appropriate context of action.

Victor Turner. The Forest of Symbols: Aspects of Ndembu Ritual.  Cornell University Press.  1967.  pp. 19-20

 

Introduction

Blogging is an ephemeral pursuit.  It may be true that nothing ever disappears from the internet.  The medium itself has a remarkable ability to capture discrete snapshots of time. 

I can always look back through my archives and see where I have been.  I suppose that this blog can even be thought of as a journal of my intellectual growth over the last year.  But I rarely think all that much about a post after it has been published.  I have too many other projects to worry about, and what time I can devote to my blog needs to be channeled into the next essay, the next book review or the next special feature.  Sometimes it seems that I am being pulled into the future by my writing schedule.

It can come as something of a surprise when I stumble across a discussion of a half remembered post that I wrote in the past.  It is also very interesting to see how different readers respond to my ideas.  Many individuals are excited as to discover someone taking this approach to the martial arts as it confirms their own suspicions about much of the folklore and mythology of their style.  Yet other readers who are also interested in my ideas can seem somewhat conflicted.  Some of them even appear to be going through something that looks very much like a faith-crisis. 

Theses individuals have invested lots of psychological energy into the mindset and foundation mythology of their respective styles.  They have accepted these stories as historical fact (which is exactly how they are usually presented) and discovering challenges to these narratives can be deeply disorienting.  This is a powerful testament to the strength of martial arts communities and their ability to have a profound impact on the lives of their members.

So how do they do it?  How do they manage to both perpetuate themselves through so many different historical, cultural and economic environments, while at the same time advancing a set of unique cultural values?  While the martial arts appear to be timeless and unchanging, they actually show a remarkable degree of flexibility.  They have a proven track record of offering many things to many people, all while maintaining an image of ageless continuity.

There are few better places to look for answers to this question than Martial Arts in the Modern World, a volume of scholarly articles edited by Thomas A. Green and Joseph R. Svinth (Praeger Publishers, 2003).  Green is an Associate Professor of Anthropology at Texas A&M University.  Joseph Svinth is the editor of the Electronic Journals of Martial Arts and Sciences.  Together they edited the two volume Martial Arts of the World: An Encyclopedia of History and Innovation (ABC-Clio, 2010).  This last work is truly remarkable.  Not only is it a phenomenal resource for anyone looking for extensive reference materials and background discussions, but it really showcases the quality and versatility of Green and Svinth’s academic work.

Still, Martial Arts in the Modern World is far less expensive and easier for the average reader to get their hands on.  The collection of essays that it present are quite interesting in their own right.  Some are absolutely essential.  For instance, if you can only read one item on the history of the Chinese martial arts it should be Stanley Henning’s “Martial Arts in Chinese Physical Culture, 1865-1965” (pp. 13-37).  This is probably the best short treatment of the evolution of the modern Chinese martial arts that I have seen.  Collectively the volume paints an interesting picture of the nature of our increasingly globalized and interconnected world as understood through the lens of martial studies.

This project is also interesting in that it has deliberately attempted to present its central theoretical arguments in ways that are accessible to a general audience.  The Introduction and first chapter (“Sense in Nonsense: The Role of Folk History in the Martial Arts” pp. 1-13) are particularly strong in this regard.  Both essays are by Prof. Green.  They are also exactly the sort of thing that you might want to recommend to a friend or colleague who is starting to think about the martial arts in a more academically rigorous way.  Jargon has been kept to a minimum, but the important ideas and big picture are still there.  They might also be just the thing to help a training partner or friend through that faith crisis once they figure out that the myth of the Shaolin temple is probably just that, a story.

 

Pumpkins being shipped to an auction in Philadelphia, 2013.  Source: Photo by Tara Judkins.
Pumpkins being shipped to an auction in Philadelphia, 2013. Source: Photo by Tara Judkins.

Individual and Social Level Theories of Chinese Martial Folklore

The first two chapters of this volume are so good precisely because of their brief, direct and transparent nature.  These qualities are what make them such a good introduction to the field of martial studies.  They point out to the curious academic that a close look at the martial arts may tell them something about the global environment that they did not expect.  To the layman they suggest that a deeper understanding of the background of their practice is not only possible but potentially enlightening.

Still, this brevity comes at the cost of detail.  Specifically Green lays out an ambitious theoretical agenda in his introduction, yet he approaches these same questions from a slightly different perspective in his own contributions to the volume.  I think we can learn a little more about his project by looking at both halves of this argument and attempting to reconcile them in slightly more explicit terms. 

Victor Turner’s essential insight, that symbols, whether myths, legends or rituals, represent a moment in a longer ongoing process of social change and evolution will hopefully help to tie things together.  It should also remind us to see the martial arts themselves as a process that is manifest in time and social structure.  While it is in their nature to claim to be static, and some elements of their physical performance can even be relatively stable over long periods of time, we should avoid the temptation to reify them.


Green lays out the broader aims of his collected volume in the “Introductory” essay of the volume.  His vision is well argued and compelling.  In fact I suspect it might even convince a couple of fence-sitters to get on Amazon and order a copy of the book.  As such I quote from it at some length below:

One of our themes is that martial arts are social tools.  That is, they serve means other than individual fitness, self-defense, or self-improvement.  We support the thesis by noting that martial arts history is almost infinitely malleable, more often invented than faithfully recorded, made-up rather than passed down.  Such manipulation is not unique to martial arts histories.  However, while the cliché claims that the winners write history, the truth is that the losers write histories too, and how we interpret what happened may be of greater ultimate consequence than what actually happened.

The reasons for such manipulation should be clear.  As Richard Bowman has observed, “History is dangerous to authority because it hold up a mirror in which reflections of the past shine on present events” (personal communications, July 2002)….Most of the stories in this book show that the martial arts are what James C. Scott calls “Weapons of the Weak” (1985).  That is, they are tools used by the dominated to get the upper hand, if only in the world of narrative.  The youth outwitted bullies; the elderly master turned the tables on an ambitious underling; the people fought tyrants….

Put another way, this book does not present martial arts as carvings in stone, but as reflections in mirrors.  The goal of this chapter is offer some insight into what is seen in those mirror, and why.” (Introduction, xi-xiii).

 

This is bracing stuff.  And it is also a pretty good summery of the collective conclusions of the various authors included in this volume.  A number of the essays look extensively at the varieties of “invented traditions” that one finds in the martial arts, from the true place of Zen in the history of Japanese Archery to the paradoxical descent of the very real southern Chinese martial arts from the entirely fictional southern Shaolin temple.

The growth of these legends is all the more perplexing as the historical events that they reference are never all that remote, either geographically or temporally speaking.  What is really significant is that so few individuals within these associations ever choose to undertake anything like a scientific investigation of these claims.  Green even goes so far as to question whether it is possible to be a member of a community while questioning its fundamental truth claims.

The strength of these claims strongly suggests that a larger social or cultural mechanism is at work.  In his Introduction Green tips his hat at the role of individual greed and creativity in all of this.  Current teachers increase the monetary value of their schools by claiming a distinguished heritage, and so it is not hard to understand why some individuals might fabricate stories about the illustrious origins of their particular school of boxing.  Still, there is something more going on here.

As Green declares right at the very start of his Introduction, the martial arts are at heart a “social tool.”  Ultimately they are about more than individual attainment, or even individual enrichment.  They continue to exist and have meaning precisely because they empower certain social groups, and even society as a whole.  In short, the social functions that these arts serve surpass the individual motives of the athletes and entrepreneurs who promote them.

His repeated references to the James C.  Scott’s seminal work on storytelling as a form of social competition, conflict and resistance is truly instructive here.  One does not have to listen to Triad lore and accounts of the destruction of the Shaolin Temple in Southern Chinese boxing schools for too long to conclude that these legends contain a powerful social critique.

But what is it?  That we must “overthrow the Qing and restore the Ming?”  If so why were these stories so popular in the 1930s, a generation after the disappearance of the Empire?  Or in modern American schools where most students have only the foggiest idea of who the Qing even were? 

The telling of the story has become a ritual, but not a static one.  As Victor Turner would remind us, it can only be understood as a discrete moment in a larger ongoing social process.  These symbols grow, evolve and take on new meanings.  While there are certain archetypal similarities in all of these variations, as Green points out, the actual factual details of an account can vary quite a bit from one story-teller to the next.

This suggests an essential question that still needs to be resolved.  The easiest way to understand these variations in details is by looking at the individual experiences, tastes and even economic motivations of the individual storytellers.  We have already explored this idea in our investigation of the surprisingly frequent discovery of “lost lineages” in the southern Chinese martial arts.  These alternate historical traditions seem to have as much to do with market differentiation and advertising as anything else.

Green suggests much the same thing.  His chapter “Sense in Nonsense” expands on many of the ideas that he introduced in the comparatively brief introduction to the volume.  He starts by describing some of the basic characteristics of legends and notes that they serve important social functions.  According to the anthropologist Charles Hudson they provide “a fundamental means for interpreting and organizing behavior.  Hudson furthermore notes that a group’s belief system is consistent with current conditions and the group’s folk history.  The past is thus constructed as a means to understand the present.” (p. 3)


Again, this is fundamentally a social level explanation of the role of folklore in the maintenance of a social system.  In that sense it fits in rather nicely with the more “functionalist” line of reasoning seen in the Introduction.  But after that the chapter seems to switch gears.

Or more precisely, it switches levels of analysis.  Where as most of the preceding discussion had focused on the functioning of social groups, when attempting to explain the mechanics by which innovation and evolution in folklore traditions actually happens, Green looks instead at the motivations of individual actors.

This is particularly clear in his discussion of how “History is Transmitted” and “How Folklore is Used.”  Consider the following:

Folklore accounts of a martial arts system’s origins invariably seek to bring honor to the system and its founder.  Either as individuals or as members of an esoteric tradition, people within this system were capable of extraordinary accomplishments, and therefore, modern lineage holders profit from the halo effect.

To serve this ends, storytellers sometimes appropriate traditional narrative motifs.  Examples include legends of the Shaolin Temple in Henan.  The Temple is a widely accepted reference point, and traditional narratives linking systems to this point of origin are used to provide pedigrees for systems whose real origins have become obscured over time.  In other cases, martial arts folk histories reflect the desire of modern practitioners to establish credibility through association with a legendary past.  In these cases, ties to historical traditions may be claimed simply to appropriate the fame of the Temple for non-traditional systems.” (pp. 5-6)

 

Famous events or places, well known parables (such as a vision of a crane fighting a snake) and even narratives of collective resistance can be appropriated by individuals who are looking to increase the credibility, and hence monetary and social value, of their fighting system.  Green goes one to look at a number of examples from each of these categories.  Each of these examples bears the unmistakable imprint of individual agency and advantage.

Yet in the concluding section of his essay he returns once again to the overwhelmingly social nature of this process.  Alluding to Eric Hobsbawm and Terrance Ranger’s discussion of “invented tradition” (1983) he notes that these stories generally tend to establish a degree of social cohesion and common identity.  They suggest ways in which students should respond to common social problems, and in their stronger manifestations they may even result in a new “world view” and shared value system.  This is precisely why institutions like the military are interested in the martial arts in the first place.

Yet this all seems to beg the essential question.  Why should this be so?  Why should we have any expectations that the stories that are created, modified and perpetuated by individuals seeking to advance their own career’s should have, on balance, a positive social effect?  How do we as students of martial studies connect these individual level expectations with the social outcomes described by more functionalist approaches to the problem?

 

Jelly for sale in Naples NY, 2013.  Source: Photo by Tara Judkins.
Jelly and Jams for sale in Naples NY, 2013. Source: Photo by Tara Judkins.

The Wing Chun Mythos and Limits of Creativity

The most obvious solution to our dilemma would be to discover that there are strict limits to the sorts of stories that can be told in a given social system.  Consider again the earlier reference to the idea that (following James C. Scott) the martial arts are essentially “weapons of the weak.”  In truth many martial artists in late 19th and early 20th century China were disenfranchised, semi-literate individuals facing an uncertain economic and political future.  It doesn’t take a lot of creativity to see how the myth of national liberation embedded within the narrative of the Shaolin Temple might help to empower members of marginal communities.  There is no mystery when individuals tell stories that promote their own interests and preferred vision of the future.

Yet what is often forgotten is that there were also a large number of martial arts practitioners in China that did not fall anywhere near Scott’s definition of “the weak.”  The Imperial military trained and employed more martial artists than anyone else in China.  Likewise landowners would employ martial artist to collect rents and taxes from tenants.  In the 20th century factory owners in southern China often employed martial artists to manage “labor relations” and “settle disputes” within the workforce.  More often than not these individuals actually did settle disputes through negotiations, but their martial backgrounds were clearly intended to be intimidating and “un-level” the playing field.

The martial arts were not just weapons of the weak.  Sometime they were the tools of the strong.  Police officers, pawn shop guards, strike breakers and local thugs controlled by business and political parties were all likely to identify as martial artists.  As Robinson reminds us, the political economy of violence was a critical aspect of traditional Chinese society, and it contained many players on many levels.

Following the logic of James C. Scott one might expect that these two different groups of martial artists, organized along economic and social lines, might tell different sorts of stories about the origins and nature of their fighting systems.  Indeed, that is precisely what Scott found in his own fieldwork.  South East Asian landlords systematically supported a different body of folklore than the impoverished peasants.

The situation in southern China defies these expectations.  When looking at Foshan it is clear that economic class was an important cleavage within the local martial arts community.  For instance, the largest school in the region was Choy Li Fut’s Hung Sing Association.  This group was overwhelming working class in its orientation and it catered almost exclusively to the needs of semi-skilled and unskilled workers in the local handicraft industries.

Wing Chun was very different.  Ip Man’s relatively privileged background was the rule and not the exception.  A quick survey of Wing Chun students in the early 20th century turns up the children of landlords, retail business, pawnshop and factory owners in surprising quantities.  Why would these individuals study the martial arts?  It would simply be naive to ignore the economic implications of all of this in a town that was riven by economic competition and sometimes violent conflict (see the violence surrounding the 1925 Hong Kong Strike as an example).

Nevertheless, the thing that I find most remarkable in terms of our current discussion is that all of the local martial arts groups essentially share the same creation narrative.  Every Cantonese speaking martial arts clan in southern China, almost without exception, shares some version of the Shaolin Temple destruction myth which Green mentions in his essay.  The destruction of Shaolin plays a critical role in the folklore of both Choy Li Fut and Wing Chun.

Now this is not to say the stories are identical in their details.  The Wing Chun myth focuses on the creative genius of two females, making it somewhat unique among the regional styles.  Likewise is seems to downplay the revolutionary overtones that often accompany martial arts and Triad lore.  But it does not go so far as to totally eliminate them.  They are still very much present.

This may have been a contradiction with concrete implications for the life and career of Ip Man.  Like many individuals of his generation he was determined to not repeat the mistakes of the 1920s and 1930s.  This seems to have colored the way that he approached the martial arts in the Hong Kong period, both in his embrace of a certain modernizing reforms and his understanding of the proper relationship between the martial arts clan and the community.

But one of his constant problems in the late 1950s and 1960s was his own student body.  This group of (often angry) young men had grown up under imperialism.  They were looking for both a better defined identity as well as security.  Not surprisingly they were attracted to the “tradition” of the martial arts and their promises of empowerment. 

While Ip Man was busy rejecting stories of mysterious “wandering monks” and amazing “qi powers” they were looking for meaning in the myths of the Shaolin Temple and traditional modes of “martial virtue.”  Nor were these stories ideologically or socially neutral.  Instead they reflected the social norms of those groups that had first created them.  None of these things were all that helpful to Ip Man and his vision of what the martial arts should be in the “modern world” of the 1960s.  They didn’t even comport particularly well with his political or social views.

So why didn’t Ip Man simply refuse to tell the Shaolin creation story.  Why didn’t he make a cleaner break with an interpretation of “martial valor” that was not in keeping with his interests?  Why didn’t he simply say the art started with Leung Jan, or make up his own creation story?

I doubt any of these strategies would actually have been possible.  He had to have a creation story because his students would have demanded one.  Further, by telling the Shaolin story what Ip Man was really doing was identifying himself as part of the southern Chinese martial arts community.  This was something that was important to him, and the Shaolin Temple was one of the critical ways in which the border of that community was defined in the popular imagination.

Ip Man could modify the way he told the story to suit his own aims, just as Green suggests.  He could play up some elements and ignored others.  But at the end of the day he would never really be able to control these symbols.  They were too common.  They were part of the lingua franca of popular culture.  Popular novelists like Jin Yong were doing more to frame discussions of “martial valor” and Shaolin than any martial arts teacher of the period.

Yes individual teachers are free to invent tradition, but they cannot do so just as they please.  As Green notes in his essay they are forced to draw from a stock of common symbols that they did not invent.  And they must use story telling patterns and conventions that are effective and wide spread.  In truth the entire process has a strong conservative bias.  The only stories that will be really effective are those that the audience wants to hear.  And even if you try to tell a new story, they are still most likely to interpret it in ways that are meaningful to them.  Teachers and storytellers can create narratives, but they cannot dictate meaning.

A one room school, still in use, in the Conewango Valley, 2012.  Source: Photo by Benjamin Judkins
A one room school, still in use, in the Conewango Valley, 2012. Source: Photo by Benjamin Judkins

 

Conclusion

Tradition and social structure both serve to limit innovation in the realm of folklore.  I suspect that this is actually vital to our current discussion.  These twin forces are the invisible hand that shapes new narratives in such a way that they tend to serve the needs of social groups rather than being purely destructive or exploitative.  The mythology of the martial arts opens a space for creative play (to borrow another idea from Victor Turner), but it remains a bounded form of exploration.  The pantomime only becomes a reality when it serves some social purpose and is accepted by the community as such.

This then returns our attention to the opening quote.  As I (an outsider) understand it, Victor Turner was part of the first generation of anthropologists to warn against the reification of culture.  Green likewise warns us against accepting the martial arts as a static reality with a single meaning.  If we were to think of the martial arts as a symbolic system, with both an enacted body of ritual and mythology, both authors would agree that the meanings it generates are flexible and open to innovation.  Yet when we look at the dilemmas facing reformers and innovators it becomes clear that these systems function not just to promote economic value for the individual, but to advance and promote community values as a whole.

This is precisely what makes the folklore of the martial arts so interesting.  These stories are more than just bad history.  They are a critical window into the popular culture of a given time and place.  By tracking how these stories evolve and spread we can begin to understand something important about the challenges facing different social groups and how they have responded to them.

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