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Chinese Martial Studies, Pop Culture Kung Fu, Reviews, Wing Chun

From the Archives: Spreading the Gospel of Kung Fu – Print Media and the Popularization of Wing Chun

Working class patrons of a stall selling sequentially illustrated martial arts novels. This 1948 AP photo illustrates the importance of heroic martial arts tales in southern China, even for individuals with limited literacy.

***For my current writing project I am spending some time reconsidering the spread of Wing Chun onto the global stage.  As part of that effort I have been rereading some of the earliest literature on the art to see exactly how it was portrayed, and how that fit into the later narratives that have emerged.  I should also say that I really enjoyed writing this series of posts.  I actually have a few more projects like these lined-up and ready to go once my schedule calms down.  In the mean time the final editing on my manuscript is forcing me to reconsider some of the questions that I addressed below.  Be sure to also check out parts II (which was especially popular with readers) and parts III of this series as well.***

Introduction

It is frequently and loudly asserted that one cannot learn Kung Fu from a book.  We are often told that the Chinese martial arts exist primarily as an oral tradition.  Little of value was written down, and the essence of an art can only be conveyed through direct contact between the teacher and a students.  All of this is true enough.  A dedicated and talented teacher is a virtual prerequisite for achieving any degree of mastery in the Chinese martial arts, at least for us mere mortals.  Yet if everyone knows that books are dispensable, why do we have so many of them?

Any examination of the subject will quickly show that for a supposedly oral culture, the Chinese martial arts have had quite a fixation with writing things downs.  Detailed manuals, historical legends, medical texts and even philosophical pondering have been published in great numbers by martial artists since at least the 1910s.  Some of my own research indicates that in Southern China the market for printed boxing material may be even older.

In truth the printed word has been critical to the spread of the martial arts in the modern era.  New styles of swordsmen novels (both in the 1920 and later in the 1950) helped to spread and romanticize martial culture.  Practical manuals allowed ideas and techniques to be dispersed across an expanding market.  Further the potential for advertising allowed for the emergence of truly national “martial arts brands.”  Various Jingwu and Guoshu groups even ended up publishing their own newsletters and weekly newspapers in the 1920s and 1930s.

While there is an undeniable element of oral and physical culture within the Chinese martial arts, the often overlooked truth is that it was the printed word that allowed them to become a mass phenomenon.  Print seems to have enabled the commodification and distribution of the martial arts in ways that we are only beginning to fully appreciate.  Without printed manuals, magazines and newspaper stories the 20th century development of the Chinese martial arts would have looked very different.

Nor was this a phenomenon that was confined to China proper.  Print was a critical vehicle that carried the traditional Chinese arts along the currents of a rapidly expanding global marketplace.  A limited number of western individuals had been lucky enough to come into contact with the Japanese and Chinese martial arts early in the 20th century, and a handful even made some attempts at bringing this knowledge back to their home country.

After WWII the number of servicemen and government employees who encountered the martial arts while stationed in Asia (and Taiwan in particular) began to grow.  Yet the Chinese martial arts could not become a widespread phenomenon in the west if there was no general knowledge of their existence and little demand for their instruction.  When thinking about the “Kung Fu Craze” of the 1970 we tend to concentrate on the contributions of cinema (Bruce Lee) and television (“Kung Fu” the TV series).  What is often forgotten is that there was a substantial period just prior to that when the Chinese fighting styles were built up and promoted to a growing body of martial arts aficionados through print.  Even after “Enter the Dragon” burst onto the international stage individuals still turned to books and magazine articles for basic discussions of what the Chinese martial arts were, practical advice on selecting a style and more in-depth discussions of the history and philosophy behind their newly discovered passions.  Martial arts publications did not cause the Bruce Lee phenomenon, but they certainly played a role in enabling it.

In no way do I wish to diminish the value of visual media in the post-Vietnam Kung Fu explosion.  Still, it is important to remember that there is another media market that also deserves careful consideration.  In this post I would like to quickly review and discuss two works (a book and a magazine article) that helped to introduce Wing Chun to the western, English speaking, world.  Both of these works predate the 1973 explosion of interest in Bruce Lee and the Chinese martial arts.  In part II of this post I will discuss two additional publications (both books) which emerged in the wake of the Kung Fu craze.

I hope to accomplish three things with this review.  The first, and most obvious goal, is to learn a little bit more about the spread and early history of Wing Chun in the western world.  Secondly, by looking at these works (and others like them) we may begin to gain a better understanding of the global expansion of the Chinese martial arts more generally. 

Lastly, we do not actually have a full record of all of the various pamphlets, books and articles published on the martial arts in late Qing and early Republic era China.  Authors like Kennedy and Guo have done an excellent job of discussing the later parts of this period, but the era from the 1870s-1911 is still not well understood.  Perhaps by looking at the relationship between print media and the martial arts in the modern era we will discover puzzles and research questions that might help guide our exploration of the past.

Period photos of Delza leading a small class at the UN.  Popular Mechanics, October 1960.

The Earliest Western Works on the Traditional Chinese Martial Arts

The Chinese martial arts seem to have been subjected to uneven media coverage and discussion in the western world.  For a few years after the Boxer Uprising (ca. 1900) nefarious martial artists and fanatical anti-western cultists seemed to dominate popular discussions of China.  While those stereotypes never fully died away (indeed, they actually proceeded the rebellion by at least 50 years) certain things did seem to fade from the public consciousness.  Popular publications from the 1940s and 1950s are full of references to Japanese Judo, yet there seems to be little remaining cultural memory in the west that there were ever martial artists in China at all.

Japanese Judo was widely recognized as a combat sport par excellence from WWII onward.  It became increasingly popular with returning GIs and young people after 1945 both in North America and in Europe.  In fact, if one reviews the magazine articles and ephemera on the martial arts that was available to the general public from the middle of the 1950s to the middle of the 1960s it is clear that Judo absolutely dominated the public consciousness of what the martial arts were and should be.  It is little wonder that this was the first Asian sport to be adopted by the Olympic Games.

This position of dominance was not to last.  I have always suspected that Judo may have been a victim of its own success.  It generated so much enthusiasm and popularized the martial arts so effectively within certain circles that it left individuals asking very understandable questions.  Is this all there is to the martial arts?  What about other forms of Jujitus?  How about serious sword training?  What about Karate?  And if so many of these arts publicly trace their roots back to China (something American martial artists in the 1960s were well aware of), why are there no Chinese martial arts teachers?

It is important to note that all of this is happening a decade or more prior to the explosion of interest in the Chinese martial arts that would be unleashed in 1973.  Yet contemporary publications (particularly Black Belt Magazine in America) make it clear that by the 1960s there was a general enthusiasm for new and exotic martial arts.  The growth of Karate and later Tae Kwon Do (often referred to as “Korean Karate” in the early publications) led this new movement.  But the Chinese styles also became a fashionable subject, particularly when they could be tied to the various “striking arts” that seemed to represent a viable stylistic alternative to Judo.

Sophia Delza was one of the first early pioneers of the Chinese martial arts in the USA.  A dance professor and Wu style Taiji Quan student who had studied in Communist occupied Shanghai, she actively attempted to popularize these methods of physical training through her ground breaking public demonstrations in the middle of the 1950s and with her 1961 book T’ai Chi Ch’uan: Mind and Body in Harmony, an ancient Chinese way of exercise to achieve health and tranquility. This volume was definitely the first English language publication on Taijiquan and it was probably the first book ever published on the Chinese martial arts in America.

Delza proved to be slightly ahead of her time.  General interest in the TCMA among judo and karate practitioners began to noticeably increase in the middle of the 1960s.  Initially this wave of interest was fed with magazine articles, and then Bruce Lee’s groundbreaking appearances in the “Green Hornet” and “Longstreet.”  After that more specialized publications on the Chinese martial arts started to come out.  Following the release of “Enter the Dragon” in 1973 the entire popular culture landscape changed for martial artists.  Finding publishers willing to take on these exotic projects became much less of an issue.  

So what does the early publication record for Wing Chun look like?  When might an informed or curious martial arts student have first encountered this style?

Chances are good that such an individual (if living in North America) would have first seen Wing Chun mentioned in the pages of Black Belt Magazine during the late 1960s.  It wasn’t until March of 1965 that a Chinese martial artist was first featured on the cover of this important magazine (Wong Ark Yuey).  Shortly thereafter Dr. William C. C. Hu was tapped to start a regular column dealing with Chinese martial arts and culture.  Obviously much of this material focused on Taiji and more general history.

Bruce Lee made his first appearance in Black Belt (as part of a “round-table discussion”) in June of 1967.  He appeared on the cover of the magazine for the first time in November of that same year dressed as Kato from the “Green Hornet.”  While he mentioned his teacher Ip Man, he never specifically spoke about Wing Chun in that issue. 

Fans would not have to wait long to learn more about his style.  Black Belt  ran a follow up piece the next month.  This article featured more positive references to Ip Man, and the first discussions of both Wing Chun and Jeet Kune Do to appear in a nationally distributed format.

Cover of the February 1968 edition of Black Belt Magazine.  This issue contains the earliest detailed English language. discussion of the Wing Chun system that I have been able to locate.

On February of 1968 the Chinese martial arts were once again on the cover of Black Belt.  This time the discussion of Wing Chun would be much more substantive and explicit.  In fact, it is the earliest account of Wing Chun that we have in a major publication.

Discussion of the Chinese fighting styles pervades this entire issue of the magazine.  If you are interested in the social history of the TCMA in the west this is one source that is well worth looking at.  Be sure to start with the opening editorial.

Following along with the general history above, the author begins by noting the strong tide of emerging interest in the Chinese martial arts.  Yet his entire discussion of this phenomenon remains situated in the larger struggle between Karate and Judo.  In fact, one suspects that by the late 1960s the term “karate” had simply come to mean “the striking arts,” while Judo had come to dominate the popular imagination of what a grappling could be.  The entire discussion is actually somewhat interesting to consider from the vantage point of our current debates about MMA.

In this editorial Kung Fu is clearly seen as being part of the “striking camp.”  It is explicitly acknowledged as the forerunner of modern Karate and readers are informed that the issue’s main feature will examine the fate of these arts in “Red China today.”  We are also told that a number of tournament karate fighters, including Chuck Norris and Mike Stone, have been training with Bruce Lee.  As such we should expect to see some new strategies and techniques from Kung Fu emerging in the contact karate arena.  But never fear, even if you don’t have access to a personal Kung Fu coach, Ohara Books will soon be releasing a full line of new publications on the Chinese martial arts (including Wing Chun, Taijiquan and Bagua).

At its most basic level this “special issue” of Black Belt is really an infomercial designed to promote a new line of books published by the same individuals who owned the magazine.  Still, it is fascinating to note that by 1967 (when this issue would have gone into planning) there was enough interest in the Chinese martial arts to justify this sort of advertising push.

The “Green Hornet” ran on television from roughly September of 1966 to March of 1967.  It is likely that Lee’s role in the production helped to promote awareness of the Chinese martial arts among a more general audience.  Still, interest in these styles had been rising among established martial artists for some time.  I suspect that this may have been precisely why they latched on to the series (which did not turn out to be a hit with a broader audience and was canceled after a single season) in the first place.

The main article is just as revealing as the opening editorial.  It features a lengthy introduction that attempts to situate the Chinese fighting systems within the larger world of the martial arts and mainland China’s Communist ideology.  Neither efforts show a huge amount of familiarity with the underlying subject matter, thought the author (Anthony DeLeonardis) makes a game attempt. 

Perhaps the most interesting part of this initial discussion is the author’s analysis of the Communist Party’s new found enthusiasm for Wushu and Qigong in the late 1950s and early 1960s.  Oddly the article indicates little awareness of the Cultural Revolution, which had been in full swing for two years by the time of publication.  Ironically things went very badly for the Chinese traditional medicine and martial arts “sectors” during this period.  By 1968 both were being decimated.

The author also attempted to argue that criticism of the TCMA as flowery or ineffective are misplaced.  He notes that martial artists from a variety of styles focus on forms training, and in the case of the Chinese martial arts true sparing might be “too dangerous” to allow.  Still, he points to the long history of “challenge fighting” within the Chinese hand combat community as proof of their seriousness.

The article then proceeds to present nine one page illustrated discussions of various Chinese fighting styles.  The second of these is dedicated to Wing Chun.

The description of the Wing Chun system starts off by mentioning Yim Wing Chun and the female origins of the style.  It then introduces chi-sao (sticky hands) which is described through contrasts with Taiji’s push hands.  While brief the discussion employs a number of concepts that are representative of Wing Chun’s training philosophy.  Lastly it ends with a photograph and nod to Ip Man.  In fact, he gets the only photo in this section of the article.

The actual text bears a striking resemblance to James Yim Lee’s book on Wing Chun that would be published by Ohara press in 1972.  One wonders if either he or (more likely) Bruce Lee had a hand in filling out this discussion.

As one might expect the brief discussion leaves one wanting more, but that was the point of the exercise.  Each of these snippets was just as much about building demand for the new line of soon to be released publications as it was about informing readers of what was happening in “Red China.”  In fact, no Wing Chun (or very little), was happening in mainland China at this point in time.  The Communist party had not been in favor of the art to begin with.  And after the start of the Cultural Revolution openly practicing any traditional fighting system in an urban area was extremely ill advised.

Still, we have gone some way towards addressing the first question outlined in the introduction to this post.  Any practicing martial artist with a subscription to Black Belt (which was the publication of record for the American martial arts community in the 1960s) would have heard about Wing Chun by the fall of 1967 or the spring of 1968.  Bruce Lee, who had been cultivating his contacts with the editors and staff of Black Belt, was probably key to the early exposure that the art enjoyed in this magazine.  But at the same time he appears to have been riding a larger wave of growing popular interest in the Chinese martial arts going back to at least the late 1950s and early 1960s.

Of course his own fame would massively accelerate and reshape these trends.  But that had not happened yet.  The years of 1967-1968 are interesting as Lee had managed to achieve a certain amount of celebrity status among individual who were already interested in the martial arts.  And many of these same practitioners were already looking for something exotic and new.  Yet Lee was not yet a household name in North America or Europe.

Early Wing Chun Books

Magazines tended to be at the leading edge of the publishing industry.  It is easier to get short articles placed in monthly publications than to create an entire book from the ground up.  That is the reason why these sorts of resources are so important when researching social histories.  They tend to be leading indicators.

Nevertheless, once the magazine industry hit on a successful topic, the book publishers were never far behind.  In 1969 Rolf Clausnitzer and Greco Wong published the first book on Wing Chun Kung Fu to appear outside of China.  This book is very interesting because of its early date.  Again, at the time of its publication Bruce Lee was a known quantity to many martial artists, but the Kung Fu Craze of the 1970s was still three years off.  Ip Man was still alive (though he had recently slowed down his teaching schedule) and his most important students were all still relatively young and active.

Clausnitzer and Wong (1969).  Source: Amazon.com.

Wing-Chun Kung-Fu: Chinese self-defence methods (London: Paul H. Crompton, 1969) can be a challenging book to find.  It was published in the UK and that’s where I ended up finding my copy.  While a number of examples of this little volume did end up making it to North America, they tend to be relatively rare and to command a high price.  Still, if you are interested in the early social history of the art, it is worth the time and the effort to locate a copy.

Wing-Chun Kung-Fu contrasts nicely with the foregoing Black Belt articles.  It was widely distributed in a popular periodical and aimed at individuals who probably had never heard of the art before.  Clausnitzer and Wong’s project, coming just one year later, was a vastly more detailed and substantive work.  However, it was only aimed at a small audience, those individuals who were already looking for a source on Kung Fu and who may have even been familiar with Wing Chun.  There were fewer copies of this book in circulation, but they were also targeting a more specific audience.

If the ultimate purpose of the Black Belt issue was to promote a new line of instructional books, Clausnitzer and Wong seem to be promoting the art of Wing Chun itself.  I like this book for a number of reasons.  Many of the discussions are good, the photography is clear and the authors went to some lengths to describe Wing Chun as a social system as well as a technical one.  In addition to the normal discussions of the forms and “defensive applications” that you might expect to find in a book like this, they also recorded the earliest contemporaneous discussions of what a typical Wing Chun class in Hong Kong was like, Ip Man’s unique personality and why he believed that it was imperative that Wing Chun be taught as a “modern” art.

Clearly the authors were aware that change was in the air, and they wanted Wing Chun to be part of this new movement within the martial arts community.  Further, they seem to have come to the conclusion that the best way to promote the art was to outline it in simple terms and let other people discover its effectiveness for themselves.  This actually makes the book easy to read and less jarring than much of the highly self-promotional literature that would be produced in the coming decades.

Both of the books co-authors have had interesting martial arts careers in their own right.  Rolf Clausnitzer appears to be the primary author of the volume.  I have never been able to find a complete biography for him but apparently he was familiar with Hong Kong.  At various points in the volume he mentions meeting Ip Man in person in 1960 and he studied intensively with Wong Shun Leung in 1964.  In fact, he was Wong’s first foreign student.  Clausnitzer also mentions that his brother Frank was a classmate of Bruce Lee’s at St. Francis Xavier College.  He also seems to be aware of a number of stories and accounts of William Cheung’s early days in Australia.

After returning to the UK he continued his studies with Wong Wai Cheung (Greco Wong).  Wong in turn was the first student and training partner of Moy Yat, an important early missionary of the Wing Chun gospel who we will be hearing more about in the second part of this post.  Wong can be seen throughout the extensive photography that illustrates this book.

The outline of the volume proceeds as follows.  After a brief introduction to Chinese Kung Fu the authors discuss the basic nature of Wing Chun training and the outline of a typical class (circa 1969).  It would begin with forms practice, move on to applications and punching drills, and then finally sparring or “chi-sao.”  They note that warm-up exercises or formal calisthenics were rarely part of Kung Fu training and don’t seem to have played much of a role in contemporary Wing Chun schools.


After that they move on to a historical outline of the art.  They repeat the story of Yim Wing Chun with some historical reservations given the lack of evidence for the account and wide variability in how it is told.  The authors do not dwell on the history but rather move on to a discussion of “Wing Chun Today.”  This begins with a brief account of meeting Ip Man (whom Clausnitzer found to be calm and cheerful) in 1960 and his attitudes towards Kung Fu and Wing Chun training.

“Originally from Kwangtung province he migrated to Hong Kong where he still resides.  An outspoken man, Yip Man regards Wing Chun as a modern form of Kung Fu, i.e. as a style of boxing highly relevant to modern fighting conditions.  Although not decrying the undoubted abilities of gifted individuals in other systems he nevertheless feels that many of their techniques are beyond the capabilities of ordinary students.  Their very complexity requires years if not decades to master and hence greatly reduced their practical value in the context of our fast-moving society where time is such a vital factor.   Wing Chun on the other hand is an art of which an effective working knowledge can be picked up in a much shorter time than is possible in other systems.  It is highly realistic, highly logical and economical, and able to hold its own against any other style or system of unarmed combat.” P. 10.

I quoted this section of the original text as I think it bears repeating.  The memory of Ip Man has been appropriated by so many individuals seeking to promote so many visions of the art that I think his original thoughts (to the extent that we know them) are in danger of being lost.  This is about the best short discussion of Ip Man and his approach to Wing Chun that I have seen.  It is all the more remarkable for being made contemporaneously, when Ip Man himself was still alive and active in the leadership of his Kung Fu clan.

The book next turns to a discussion of the “Main Theories and Principals Behind Wing Chun.”  I find the use of the word “principals” interesting.  Over the years it has become somewhat axiomatic that Wing Chun is a “principal based art,” rather than one founded on techniques.  Of course substantial differences remain as to what these principal are. 

So far as I am aware this is the first extended print discussion of the “Principals of Wing Chun.”  Briefly these are; straight line punches, simultaneous attack and defense, attack rather than defend wherever possible and always move forward rather than retreat (forward pressure as a strategic concept).  I have seen other concepts added to this list over the years, but these basic ideas always seem to be present.

Next the authors review stances and shifting, Siu Lim Tao (with photographs included in an appendix at the end of the book), single sticking hand, double sticking hand and the lap sau (warding off hand) drill.  The explanations are brief and only cover the basic exercise.  The rest of the volume is dedicated to two man defensive drills, including some kicking.

Overall this book provided the reader with a surprisingly good introduction to Wing Chun.  It is challenging to be the first example of anything in your field.  When you consider the overall quality of information on the Chinese martial arts that was available to the public in the 1960s, it is hard to see this book as anything other than a gem.

Not only did they clearly illustrate many of the basics, this book managed to convey something of the “feel” or essence of Wing Chun.  It captured the idea that this was a modern adaptation of an ancient art.  I suspect that this dynamic tension between the ancient and modern really appealed to a lot of potential students in the global market place.  As I have argued elsewhere, Wing Chun was well positioned to take advantage of both Bruce Lee fame and Ip Man’s modernist leanings.

In that light the following reflection on the social attitudes within the Hong Kong Wing Chun clan, made in 1969, seem almost prophetic.

“An interesting characteristic common to most practitioners of Wing Chun lies in their relatively liberal attitude to the question of teaching the art to foreigners.  They are still very selective when it comes to accepting individuals students, but compared with the traditional Kung Fu men they are remarkably open and frank about the art.  If any one Chinese style of boxing is destined to become the first to gain popularity among foreigners, more likely than not it will be Wing Chun.” p. 12.

Conclusion

This concludes the first part of our discussion on early Wing Chun publications.  We have seen that Wing Chun was starting to make regular appearances in the specialty press by the late 1960s.  Bruce Lee’s fame among practicing martial artists helped to promote the style within the traditional combat market. 

Still, all of this was happening within the larger context of a community in flux.  As Judo lost ground to Karate in the 1960s a critical space was opened for experimentation and exploration within the western martial arts community.  It seems that both Bruce Lee in America and Clausnitzer and Wong in the UK sensed this opening and moved to take advantage of it.  Lee helped to increase recognition of the style within the broader martial arts community, while Clausnitzer and Wong argued that Wing Chun was the Chinese martial art best adapted to the modern western world.

It is impossible to really understand either of these publications (or their authors) in isolation.  Both are the product of a global community in which certain types of cultural trade are accelerating.  Clausnitzer and Wong focus on the transnational spread of a very specific form of physical culture to enlarge their personal community.  Black Belt seems to be more interested in promoting a diffuse identification with Chinese martial culture to increase demand for a new line of instructional publications.  The commercialization of Wing Chun through print media in the late 1960s is critical to its subsequent spread throughout the martial arts community.

In a sense this is no different than what was happening to the other Chinese styles (such as Taiji Quan) at the same point in time.  A market demand must be cultivated among potential students (i.e., consumers) before any sort of real cultural engagement can happen.  That necessitates the building of a “martial brand.”  The expansion of print publications were critical to this process prior to the 1973 explosion of interest in the Chinese martial arts.  Nor did all of these publications target the same audience or have the same goals.

In part II of this post we will explore how this process changes (and what remains the same) as we enter the Kung Fu craze of the 1970s.

Bruce Lee's first apearance (of many) on the cover of Black Belt Magazine.  October, 1967.

oOo

If you enjoyed this essay: Click here for Part II of this series or Click here for Part III of this series.

oOo

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