The academic life has a sense of seasonality. In a world dedicated to the creation and multiplication of identical, homogeneous and interchangeable units of “work,” this is increasingly rare. I think that it is safe to say that most teachers look forward to the summer as a time to catch up on their writing, and more importantly, reading. The production of articles, lectures, seminars and chapters depends on the steady consumption of literature, and yet in the crush of the semester most of us have very little time for reading.
Over the last few weeks I have found myself working my way through the pile of books and articles that I previously had set aside for later review. Most of this material, such as Antony’s monograph of piracy in the South China Sea, is resolutely academic in nature and directly related to my own research. Yet every once in a while something a little lighter manages to emerge at the top of the pile.
Alberto Biraghi recently published a short memoir of his initial introduction to the Hung Gar system in Hong Kong where he studied at the school of Chan Hon Chung between 1977 and the middle of the 1980s. Titled, Hung Ga Story: Me and Master Chan Hon Chung this small work (just under 100 printed pages) is published by Blue Vision, part of Practical Hung Kyun.
This volume is a member of the growing genera of martial arts travelogues. Anchored by works as Angry White Pajamas, American Shaolin and Sugong such personalized accounts of western encounters with the martial arts (and Asian culture more generally) seem to be enjoying something of a moment. Such stories offer writers all of the traditional opportunities that one expects to find in a good travelers tale. Yet this particular school of books also seems to tap into the need for a more detailed discussion of the nature, origin, history or simply the atmosphere of these communities.
This genre seems to be strongly marked with a sense of nostalgia. Even though most of these works were written quite recently and reference events that happened in the last few decades, they all emphasize the “closing of an era.” The community surrounding the Shaolin Temple which Matthew Polly first encountered when visiting the region is now only a memory. From Japan to South East Asia, authors paint a picture of communities in flux.
In some sense this reflects both the nature of personal reflection (our lives only seem to acquire meaning in retrospect) as well as the nascent orientalist assumptions of the audience. Readers are consistently drawn to stories of the “exotic East” and they seem to respond the most strongly to images in which that vision is slowly receding from view. Perhaps this is enough to allow us to maintain our faith in the existence of a genuine wisdom tradition while simultaneously distancing ourselves from the messy reality of contemporary Chinese events and attitudes.
Of course the other possibility is that the world that these authors are describing really is vanishing in a sense that moves beyond the simple generational churn that one expects in every new decade. This has increasingly become an issue in contemporary discussions of the martial arts in China. The Cultural Revolution did immeasurable harm to countless styles. Nor does it appear that the boom of interest seen in the 1980s and 1990s will be returning any time soon.
Traditional hand combat fared better in Taiwan and Hong Kong, both of which received large numbers of expatriate martial artists. Some of these masters were able to build impressive organizations which helped to transmit their styles both to the west and back to mainland China. Still, this more modern period of martial arts history doesn’t receive the same attention that older debates about events in the Ming and Qing dynasty do.
This is a shame as individuals who directly witnessed these trends (and their families) are often still alive. This provides us with an excellent opportunity to gather interviews, records and artifacts on a critical era in modern martial arts history. Further, a better sense of perspective on our immediate past might be very helpful in understanding the current state, or future prospects, of the Chinese martial arts.
These were the sorts of questions that motivated me when I first approached Alberto Biraghi’s memoir. I should state at the outset that while I am deeply interested in the southern Chinese martial arts, I am not a student of Hung Gar. As such I am not well situated to address the technical aspect of his discussion, nor do I wish to venture into any of the questions of lineage and politics that seem go along with all of these styles.
Obviously long time students of Hung Gar may find these questions to be a very stimulating aspect of this work. But my concerns were social in nature. How did the author describe the training environment in a typical Kung Fu school in Hong Kong during the 1970s? How did this institution function? What were the students like? What was the essential nature of this community?
Meeting Master Chan Hon Chung
It would be unfair of me to ask this work to bear too much weight. Clearly Biraghi was not writing with an academic audience in mind, nor did he travel to Hong Kong in the hopes of completing ethnographic research. In fact, the great value of this work lies in the fact that he appears to have been a fairly typical (if dedicated) “Kung Fu tourist,” but one who has the good fortune to be able to give a first-hand account of events in an important Hung Gar school in the 1970s.
The work itself is brief and the text moves along at a surprisingly fast pace. The book is split into a number of topical (roughly chronological) chapters few of which are more than three pages in length. As such the author’s story is told through a series of brief interludes rather than extended meditations. The end result is something of a page-turner as readers will find themselves drawn from one section to the next without putting the volume down. In fact, this would be great “beach book” and it can be completed in an afternoon.
The quality of the writing is a bit uneven most likely because the author is a native Italian speaker. On the one hand Biraghi actually manages to paint a fairly vivid picture of life in the school. He tells us about the little shops that sold Kung Fu gear, the ubiquitous tea houses in which so much of the city’s social life happened, and even the area’s exceptionally robust cockroaches which thrive in the near tropical environment.
At the same time sections of this book could have used more consistent editing. One also wishes that he would slow down in places and really reflect on what it all meant. His story revolves very much around the recounting of events, and not their comparison or analysis.
Still, I was surprised by the amount of good observational data in this book. Biraghi managed to capture the nature and tenor of Chan Hon Chung’s school quite well. He adroitly describes the fact that this individual was not simply the master of a form of southern Kung Fu, but was also an economic and social force within the local landscape. His school did not just train disciples, but it also created a surprisingly robust network of students and businesses.
One of the questions that I have spent a lot of time thinking about over the last few years is whether and how traditional Kung Fun schools were able to contribute to the creation of “social capital” within southern Chinese civil society. Social capital refers to the bonds of trust and reciprocity that make cooperative action (not enforced by either the government or economic markets) possible. When civil society has abundant reserves of social capital, political and economic institutions tend to function more smoothly. Society is better able to address its problems and conflict is reduced. Having too little social capital can lead to a number of problems in these same areas.
Obviously Biraghi was not attempting to address these questions as he discussed Chan’s relationship with his students, and the network of “Kung Fu Brothers” that he found himself enmeshed within. Still, it was hard not to notice how an organization like Chan’s helped to build bonds of reciprocity both within his immediate school but also throughout the local community.
Biraghi’s memoir touches (often in very brief or oblique ways) on a number of other issues as well. In it we see how rising real estate prices helped to destabilize and geographically displace all sorts of economic and social interest as Hong Kong became more prosperous. Anyone who has looked at the history of the city’s martial arts community can attest to just how important the real estate market can be. Likewise his discussion of the events surrounding Chan’s declining health (he implies that he suffered from some sort of dementia) and eventual death are also interesting. While not subjects that are normally discussed within martial arts circles (where such suggestions are often seen as very disrespectful), anthropologist and sociologists have long contended that understanding such moments of crisis within a community reveals critical information about the nature and function of the social units in question.
Most of the author’s discussion was focused on the big events of his first two or three training trips to Hong Kong. There is certainly interesting stuff in here, but I wished that he could have been more detailed in his treatment of events back in Italy as well. Throughout the book he offers us tantalizing glimpses of what the early days of the European Kung Fu Craze was like, but he never really delves into this subject. That is a shame as those events are just as critical to understanding the global spread of the TCMA as what was happening in Hong Kong. Further, English language readers are not often given an opportunity to learn about the development of the Italian or European Chinese martial arts community. To me this felt like a missed opportunity.
Still, for a book that aspired to be nothing more than a short personal memoir of one man’s introduction to Kung Fu, a Hung Ga Story touches on a number of the discussions that go on in Chinese martial studies. More consistent editing is needed, but my main complaint about this volume is simply that I would have liked to hear more. While I suspect that most readers approaching this book will be Hung Gar students, it may appeal to anyone who is interested in the southern Chinese martial arts.
Conclusion: Finding “Reality” in a Chinese Martial Arts Community
One of the themes that Biraghi returns to throughout this book is the enduring quality of the friendships that he forged with his Kung Fu brothers and sisters. In fact, he spends just as much time discussing his classmates as his more famous teacher. It is clear that even decades later the author feels a very genuine sense of affection for his fellow travelers on the Hung Gar path.
These relationships seem to have provided much of the emotional fuel that powered the author’s Kung Fu journey. He repeatedly emphasizes the degree to which Chan’s school was an organic community in ways that later (more “rational”) Hung Gar institutions were not. He discusses his feelings of listlessness after returning to Italy at the end of his training expeditions and how one simply could not experience the “authentic” martial arts in isolation or (in his view) outside of China.
In fact, the author seems to make a very pointed argument that Hung Gar is in its essence not a technical system of physical movements, but is instead an expression of culture. He doubts the ability of anyone who was not born within the Chinese language and society to genuinely master the art, let alone teach it. In fact, one cannot help but escape the impression that for him the Chinese martial arts are “authentic” precisely because they emerge from (and ultimately reduce to) an expression of Chinese culture. Still, reading between the lines it seems that he felt that being immersed within his network of Kung Fu Brothers was enough to give him access to some of the inner aspects of the art, and make up for his own lack of deep cultural background.
The broader field of martial arts studies has recently been engaged in a discussion of the idea of “reality” in the martial arts and the media discourse that surrounds them. While reading this book I was struck by the fact that what seemed to make Hung Gar “real” for the author, what gave him a sense of faith in his art and security in a foreign city, was ultimately the social network that Chan created rather than any specific technique or training method that he may have employed.
I think that this might be a critical idea to consider when thinking about the question of “reality” in the traditional Chinese martial arts. For most western students “reality” seems to be basically a byword for their faith in the art. It is important that a style “works” on the street or in the ring. Yet in some ways these discussions are always predicated on a rather unrealistic (if terrifying) scenario. We always seem to be concerned with being the lone victim of an attack by a stranger in dark alley where, like Chuck Norris, we have nothing but our two hands and our two feet to save us.
Yet this scenario might be the single most unrealistic aspect of the entire discussion of reality in the martial arts. In reality most attacks originate from someone we know, not a stranger in a dark alley. Most assaults in the US involve weapons. Many include more than single attacker or victim.
In another reading project (discussed here) I have been looking at some very different martial arts teachers and their organization in northern China during the time of the Boxer Uprising. This was an important episode as it allows us to see exactly what community violence in China actually looked like at the turn of the century.
The results are not pretty. It turns out that martial arts schools were sometimes involved in attacks on innocent groups and unprovoked anti-Christian violence. Some of these were individuals who had trained their entire adult lives in boxing and fencing. And yet when they actually attacked their neighbors they did not use anything that would conform to our modern vision of the martial arts. Instead their most important weapon was fire which they used to burn down both individual homes and whole neighborhoods. Both bows and rifles were commonly used, and horsemanship was perhaps the critical “martial skill” that made all of this possible.
In short, when Chinese martial arts groups pulled out all of the stops and actually became embroiled in community violence, they fought in pretty much exactly the same way as any other group involved in an armed insurrection. Nor should this be a surprise. Traditional weapons were used on the battlefields of the Taiping Rebellion, but the conflict itself much more closely resembled the American civil war (with massed groups of infantry and lots of cannons) than it did a Kung Fu movie. Yet after the war many of these same veterans went on to teach martial arts for a living. Why?
I am starting to wonder if the problem is our basic assumption about the primacy of individual combat. The historical lesson to be learned from China’s rich history of social violence in the 19th century was that individuals rarely went to war, but communities often did. Therefore if one is really looking for safety, become part of a community that is cohesive, strong and loyal is a good idea.
As social change eroded traditional modes of organizations (such as clan lineage structures in the south) increasingly transient individuals turned to martial arts schools to fill that need. Thus a martial arts school “succeeded” in its central goals by creating a large and robust community of trustworthy individuals, and not necessarily by training the most skilled boxers in the shortest periods of time. After all, if you are really in trouble it will take more than two hands and two feet to bail you out.
Of course this is only one element of what a martial arts community could provide. It would also be a huge mistake to assume that all sorts of schools necessarily had the same goals. Still, as we look over the historical records there are enough instances of crossover between hand combat schools and either gangs or secret societies to lead us to ask some probing questions about how these students understood their economic and physical safety.
In future posts I intend to draw on the sociological and economic literatures to further explore these questions. Specifically I hope to discuss how groups might create a reputation that would attract dedicated members who are willing to contribute their own resources while eliminating “free riders.”
Widespread community violence was much less of an issue in Hong Kong during the 1970s when Biraghi was first visiting Chan’s school. Still, the strength of the social network that he created made a real impression on the author. If you are interested in Kung Fu travelogues, or find yourself reaching for a “breach book” this summer, you might want to consider this offering. If you are a social scientist it may instead by worthwhile to ask what attracted all of those bright young people to Chan’s school, and what sort of “realism” drove their Kung Fu dreams?
If you enjoyed this post you might also want to read: Telling Stories about Wong Fei Hung and Ip Man: The Evolution of a Heroic Type