Introduction – The Loss of Chu Shong Tin
A few weeks ago the Wing Chun community lost one of its leading lights. It is hard to overstate Master Chu Shong Tin’s contributions to the emergence and preservation of the modern Wing Chun movement. Best remembered as Ip Man’s “third disciple” (and at the time of his death his most senior living student) Chu combined a very thoughtful approach to his art with boundless energy and an infectious smile.
Named the “King of Siu Lim Tao” by Ip Man, he pursued his own research into the softer, more structural, side of Wing Chun while immersing himself in the duties of a hands-on instructor. Students remember him for his openness in discussing every aspect of the art. Chu remarked on many occasions that in Wing Chun nothing is secret. He left both a written and visual record of his insights that will provide guidance to students for decades to come.
While a practitioner of the same style, I am not part of Chu Shong Tin’s lineage, nor was I ever lucky enough to meet him. My work on the modern development of Wing Chun made me aware of his many contributions to the art, and like other readers I have benefited from his various essays and books. My initial plan for this post was to compose a brief summary of Chu Shong Tin’s life. Documenting the current history of the martial arts is just as important a task as delving into the deep past, and Chu’s career spanned an interesting period in the development and transformation of Hong Kong’s Kung Fu community.
I had expected this to be rather easy given the various publications and interviews that Chu has left for posterity. Yet as I began to review these works a complication arose. While he was eager to discuss the practice of Wing Chun, Chu rarely spoke about himself. Interviewers, both those interested in the practice of Wing Chun and its history, spent a great deal of time asking Chu about his associations with Ip Man and other illustrious practitioners from the past (Wong Sheung Leung, Bruce Lee…) but rarely about his own life story.
This results in a somewhat paradoxical situation. Chu Shong Tin was an important player in the emergence of the post-1949 Hong Kong Wing Chun scene. He left behind a richer documentary record than most other martial artists. While these sources shed much needed light on figures like Ip Man, Chu himself remains somewhat in the shadows.
In the following essay I would like to bring together some of the existing sources to paint a more detailed portrait of Chu’s life and career. Next I would like to focus our attention on some of the gaps that these discussions typically contain and to discuss why they are a problem for students of Chinese martial studies. Lastly I would like to offer some thoughts on how theory, either cultural or social scientific, can lead us to ask better questions and gather more important types of information as we engage in either interviews or archival research.
Too often students make an artificial distinction between “historical” and “theoretical” work when in reality these two approaches should complement each other. I doubt that it is actually possible to actually write anything substantive that is totally devoid of theory. We all approach our research field with certain questions and assumptions, and those are theoretically given, whether we realize it or not. Regardless of if one is engaged in “hypothesis testing” or delving into the sea of “thick description,” theories are useful precisely because they reveal our blind-spots. They allow us to ask better questions, and that leads to more meaningful discussions.
The individuals who took the time to interview Chu Shong Tin were not really attempting to do something like “martial arts studies,” even though a number of them were very interested in the question of Wing Chun’s origin and history. Still, the subsequent discussion of Chu’s life points to the importance of approaching this type of research with an understanding of (and curiosity about) the ways in which the martial arts fit within other larger social systems. I suspect that Chu’s career may be especially illuminating in this regard. While he has left us with a detailed record of his thoughts on the practice of Wing Chun, there is still much that he might be able to teach us about the evolution and development of the modern martial arts in Southern China.
The Life of a Wing Chun Master – Chu Shong Tin
Much of the information in this timeline came from biographical statements made by Chu Shong Tin in his dual Chinese and English volume The Book of Wing Chun (vol. 1). Also available to the general public are a number of interviews such as those conducted by Darrel Jordan and Sergio Pascal Iadarola. One of the most intriguing sources on the life of Chu Shong Tin is his profile at WingChunPedia. This essay contains a detailed account of his early years, but it is also totally unsourced. While this seems to be the normal state of things on the internet, it limits our ability to determine the reliability of this information and hence its usefulness within Chinese martial studies.
One suspects that there are more detailed sources of information on Chu’s biography that remain unpublished within his own lineage. My own background in Wing Chun lies in different areas and I do not make any claims to having special “insider” knowledge on this topic. Rather I have relied on what is generally available to individuals interested in the recent history of Wing Chun. Hopefully some of the questions that I raise in the remainder of this essay will inspire a fuller accounting of Chu’s life and career in the future.
Chu Shong Tin was born in Guangdong province in 1933. His childhood occurred during an era of rapid change within both Chinese society and the martial arts. There does not seem to be a lot of information about this period of his life, but we know from Chu’s own statements that he was considered somewhat sickly and at the age of 10 his father arranged for him to study Taijiquan.
Taiji itself was a recent import to the Pearl River Delta, first being popularized in region during the 1920s and 1930s by teachers associated with martial reform movements such as the Jingwu and Central Guoshu associations. It is also interesting to consider that his father was able to arrange for instruction in 1943, during the middle of the Japanese occupation of the region.
Chu’s introduction to the traditional martial arts was not particularly auspicious. He remarks that as a child and teenager he had no particular love for, or interest, in boxing. He simply followed the movements of his teacher in accordance with the demands of his father. All of this seems very unlike the adult Chu who would go on to demonstrate a profound appreciation for the conceptual basis of the martial arts.
The roots of this deepening emotional connection seem to lay in the traumatic events and displacements of the end of the Chinese civil war. Chu, who was then 16, fled Guangzhou for Hong Kong in November of 1949, following the KMT’s collapse and the Communist takeover of the area. It is not clear to me how much of his family left at the time, but it does appear that he had an older sister who lived in Hong Kong.
In September of 1950 Chu got a job as a secretary at the Restaurant Worker’s Union in Kowloon. This proved to be a fateful development. Ip Man was already living at the Union offices and he conducted Wing Chun classes during the days when Chu showed up for work. Still, Chu did not join his initial class.
Instead he followed the urging of his father and found a new Taiji instructor. This individual was a friend of his older sister and took a different approach to teaching. Rather than just reviewing the movements of the form, Chu was introduced for the first time to the conceptual foundation and philosophy of Taiji, as well as its applications. This was a teaching style that seemed to better agree with him than what he had been exposed to as a child.
It also served to introduce Chu to the discussions that swirl around the Chinese martial arts. This turned out to be critical as every day at the cramped Restaurant Workers Union he would have to listen to Ip Man explain the core concepts of Wing Chun to his new students in the same communal space that Chu was trying to do his work in. Eventually the young man who didn’t actually “like” boxing found himself drawn into the unfolding discussion.
For a variety of reasons Chu decided that he preferred the parsimony and conceptual simplicity of Wing Chun, and at the urging of Leung Sheung (a more senior union officer and experienced martial artist), quit Taiji and took up this new style. On January 1st of 1951 Chu Shong Tin presented Ip Man with a red envelope becoming a formal student.
This decision was critical for everyone involved. In all honesty Ip Man’s initial forays into teaching at the Union were not all that successful. While he started out with about 20 students, retention was a serious problem. Chu notes that one after another these students slipped away.
Part of this no doubt stemmed from the transient and economically strained life of most of these individuals. At the same time we know that Ip Man innovated throughout the 1950s to find ways to make his art more attractive to his highly mobile student base. For instance, Chi Sao (sticky hands) came to be emphasized during this decade while long periods of stance training (common in the traditional arts) were scaled back.
By January of 1951 Ip Man had only two remaining students, Leung Sheung and Lok Yiu. This was a critical issue as the old master was totally dependent on his students for economic support. If the teaching experiment had failed it is highly likely that Ip Man would have looked for some other source of income and the modern Wing Chun community (to the extent that one might even exist) would probably be very different. It should be recalled that Ip Man was actually somewhat ambivalent about taking up public teaching in the first place, so this situation may have been more delicate than is generally realized.
Instead Leung Sheung (perhaps the first martial artist in Hong Kong to fully recognize Ip Man’s genius), Lok Yiu and Chu Shong Tin pooled their resources to support their teacher through a period of poor enrollments. Much of the later popularity of the style was subsidized by these sacrifices in the lean years of the early 1950s.
Chu Shong Tin stated that the order in which he learned the Wing Chun system was somewhat different than how most students approach it today. In fact, it seems closer to how the style was taught in the Foshan period. Initially he was introduced to Siu Lim Tao, the style’s first unarmed form, which he practiced for over 1 year. Next he was introduced to the concept of turning prior to the actual introduction of Chum Kiu (which employs both stepping and turning).
Sometime after that (probably during 1952) he seems to have started studying Chum Kiu. The following year he was introduced to the dummy, learning about 20-30 movements at a time. Rather than seeing the entire set at once, individual chapters were introduced throughout the remainder of his unarmed training as new topics or problems came up. In or around 1954 Chu was introduced to Biu Jee, and the following year he began to learn the Six and Half Point Pole.
Chu does not appear to have approached learning as a passive pursuit. One of the things that impressed me as I read about his life and watched various interviews were his keen powers of observation. Chu had been carefully observing Ip Man and his instruction for some time before he ever joined the class.
As such he was able to demonstrate the entire Siu Lim Tao form on his first day as a formal student. This allowed him to spend his time perfecting the nuances of the movements and their applications rather than simply learning them. He is reported to have done the same thing with Chum Kiu.
It was during this early period that Chu first acquired his nickname, the “King of Siu Lim Tao.” Multiple accounts of how this came about have been given, though they all seem to be different aspects of the same event. All of the stories are clear that Ip Man, who enjoyed pronouncing light-hearted nicknames upon his students and friends, was ultimately responsible for this one as well.
Some accounts of the event begin by noting that Wing Chun received a certain amount of coverage in the local press during the 1950s and 1960s. In one of these stories Ip Man mentioned noted Chu’s dedication to the study and practice of Siu Lim Tao, beyond all of the other forms, and named him the “King of Siu Lim Tao.” The name stuck in large part as Chu’s own approach to Wing Chun emphasizes the importance of body structure, relaxation and psychological intent, all things that can be trained in, and explored through the practice of, the first unarmed form.
In a slightly different account of these events given in an interview with Sifu Sergio, Chu instead emphasized the role of his persistent questioning in the origin of the nickname. Following the urging of Leung Sheung, in 1951 he had moved into the Restaurant Worker’s Union to work more closely with his teacher. Ip Man and Chu shared a small room for some time. In addition to learning Wing Chun Chu attempted to help the older master with various household tasks, in effect becoming a live-in student.
The term “Siu Lim Tao” has been translated in a number of different ways. It means something like “the little thought form,” or the “small idea.” This had always bothered Chu as it is quite different from the sorts of names that are given to most other Chinese boxing forms. For him the name itself became a sort of paradox. Every day he would ask Ip Man what it meant, and his teacher would respond simply by telling him to continue practicing the form and to have faith in the process.
Chu did not abandon his quest lightly. Instead he continued to asked Ip Man about the meaning of the name daily. Each time he was told to simply keep practicing. And practice he did, almost constantly. Eventually he began to feel as though he was able to unravel the mystery of the form on his own.
It was at this point that Ip Man, always sensitive to the power of names, began to call his student “Siu Lim Tao.” I don’t think that Chu ever got a straight answer to his question about the origin of the form’s name. Indeed, it is the sort of question that may not have any answer at all. But through his own persistence he acquired a new name for himself.
During 1955 Chu Shong Tin began to study the Six and a Half Point pole form. This was a period of sweeping transition within Ip Man’s growing clan. Sometime during the same year Ip Man’s relationship with a widow and fellow refugee from Shanghai (known within his school only as the “Shanghai Po” or the “Shanghai Woman”) became visible. This relationship, outside of the bounds of his initial marriage, while never publicly defined, became a crisis for a number of his students. It was a violation of their understanding of “martial virtue,” or perhaps the Confucian glamor that Ip Man often exuded to his younger students.
A number of Ip Man followers left him. This proved to be both a professional and personal setback for the now aging master. Ip Chun relates that he had been receiving remittances from his father’s teaching fees that were sent regularly to his family members still living in Guangdong. Due to his increased financial hardship these payments ceased after 1955.
At the same time a number of Ip Man’s senior students left to start their own schools. These helped to establish a strong base of Wing Chun instruction in Hong Kong, but they also competed directly with the master’s own efforts.
After living with his teacher for almost five years Chu Shong Tin also left during this same period. Having found work as a secretary with another labor group (the Association of Taxi Drivers in Hong Kong) he moved to Wan Chi in Central. However he continued to study with Ip Man and made the trip back to Kowloon as his work schedule permitted.
During 1957 and 1958 Chu, like others, took advantage of the growing popularity of Wing Chun and began to teach. At first this took the form of private lessons at the homes of individual students. Later a new job (this one with the Association of Textile Workers of Hong Kong) allowed him to move back to Kowloon. Much like Ip Man in 1951, he taught classes on the rooftop of the association headquarters until he found a more permanent location for a school.
Ip Man’s sons, along with a number of other individuals who had been trapped in Guangdong when the border was unexpectedly closed in 1949, were able to return to Hong Kong in 1962. This period seems to correspond with something of a renaissance in Ip Man’s career and he once again took a more active interest in his teaching. In 1963 Chu Shong Tin began his study of the Bart Jarm Dao (“Eight Cutting Blades” or Butterfly Swords). Indeed, he was one of the few individuals to learn the complete form from Ip Man. His study of the subject took more than a year, and he was introduced to the final section of the form in 1965.
In 1964 Chu established his first school in a permanent space at the Four Five Six Building of Nathan Road in Kowloon. Three years later (in 1967) he moved about a block away to Cheung Sha Wan Road where he both lived and conducted classes for many years.
Chu was deeply affected by the death of his teacher from throat cancer in 1972. By this point the future of Wing Chun seemed secure. Ip Man had personally trained a generation of instructors who were running schools across Hong Kong (and eventually in a number of other cities) while his student Bruce Lee went on to ensure the lasting fame of the art throughout the global system. This was also the start of a new era for Chu whose son Horace was born in 1974.
Chu remained busy teaching Wing Chun at his own school and with the VTAA throughout the following decade. Later he began to commit the fruits of his deep research into the principals of Siu Lim Tao to paper. In 1993 he published The Book of Wing Chun (in three volumes). This Chinese language project examined the unarmed forms, the wooden dummy and both the pole and knife sets. The text was accompanied by line drawings. The author of the 2013 edition’s preface states that while Chu was happy with the content of these volumes, he felt that they failed to achieve their full potential as they never received sufficient promotion.
He also took other steps to document his understanding of the Wing Chun system in other ways. In 2002 he released a DVD titled “Chu Shong Tin Wing Chun.”
The next decade of Chu’s life was not without incident. He was involved with a number of projects as Ip Man’s growing stature in popular culture increased the profile of Wing Chun. At the same time a 2011 article in the South China Morning Post revealed that Chu had been diagnosed with late stage cancer earlier in the decade and had been told to make his final preparations.
Luckily he managed to beat the odds and went on to enjoy another decade of teaching and exploration of his beloved art. His family attributed his long and relatively healthy art to his dedication to Wing Chun.
After a period of extensive preparation Chu’s earlier books were rereleased in a new edition in 2013. Not only has this been an invaluable resource for martial artists, but the form that these new volumes took seems to speak to important changes within the world of the traditional Chinese martial arts. To save both time and resources the previously planned three volume set was condensed into just two books. The first focused on the three unarmed forms, while the second combined a discussion of the dummy and weapons.
The overall production values of the new books are excellent. The original line drawings and diagrams (while helpful) were replaced with new photos featuring a still vital Chu presenting his own arguments about the nature of the art in visual form. Perhaps the most significant aspect of these books is that they were published as bilingual texts in both English and Chinese.
This is an interesting point as Chu himself did not speak English. While he worked with foreign students, in the West he was never among Ip Man’s best known disciples. There are probably a number of reasons for this. His own association with Ip Man predated that of Bruce Lee and his cohort. Nor did Chu leave Hong Kong to pursue a career abroad like so many other Wing Chun instructors. Lastly, Chu appears to have been a genuinely humble individual who did not get caught up in the various public disputes that characterized the Wing Chun community during much of the 1980s and 1990s.
The revised editions of these books and DVDs will make his understanding of the Wing Chun system available to a much larger and more diverse group of students. At the same time it seems to be a tacit acceptance of the fact that Wing Chun is no longer a Hong Kong, or even a southern Chinese, phenomenon. It has become a truly transnational movement. Most of the individuals who now study, teach and transmit the system are no longer located in China.
On the one hand this speaks to the surprising success of Wing Chun in establishing itself as a quintessentially modern (and highly accessible) fighting system. This is a fulfillment of Ip Man’s vision of what his school could become. At the same time it begins to pose difficult questions of what it ultimately means to be a “Chinese martial art” in the current era.
In the end time catches up with all of us. Chu Shong Tin died on July 28th, 2014. Wing Chun practitioners the world over are fortunate that he was able to so fully articulate an understanding of his beloved style. I suspect that his books and videos will be studied and discussed for decades.
The Place of Theory in the Life of a Master
Chu Shong Tin made a number of contributions to the development and spread of modern Wing Chun which have received too little notice within the global community of practitioners. The Chinese martial arts have never been purely technical exercises in violence. Instead they have always existed as a distinct set of social institutions embedded within broader cultural systems. It bears repeating that without the early support and dedication of Leung Sheung, Lok Yiu and Chu Shong Tin, it is unlikely that Ip Man would have been able to establish the Wing Chun community that exists today. Indeed, it is the existence of students which calls a teacher into being. One cannot exist without the other.
Current Wing Chun practitioners are fortunate to know as much about Chu’s practice as we do. Still, for students of Chinese martial studies he presents a number of problems and silences. Consider a few of the issues that didn’t really come up in the foregoing biographical sketch.
What do we know about Chu’s family and their socio-economic situation in Guangdong? And why did they consider it necessary to leave in 1949 when so many other individuals did not? What sort of formal schooling did Chu receive, and what affect did that have on his life?
It is interesting to note that many of the jobs that Chu had in the 1950s and 1960s were involved with the world of organized labor. This is important as unions had a somewhat complex relationship with the martial arts in southern China. What drew Chu to this line of work? What were his thoughts on the social unrest that gripped Hong Kong during the 1960s, and how did it affect his students?
Chu loved Wing Chun and he always seemed ready to discuss it. Yet even though he left behind a body of essays, interviews and books, we actually know comparatively little about his own life and experience of Hong Kong’s changing landscapes. It seems that collectively we have been guilty of asking Chu only about the technical practice of his art and his teacher, but never really about himself.
This is problematic precisely because the martial arts are part of a social system. As academic students we wish to get a better understanding of how they have evolved, their functional meaning in the life of the community and their relationship with larger social or economic trends. To do this we cannot look only to the founders of styles. We must instead start to ask detailed questions about those who followed them.
For instance, given the manifest economic hardships of the early 1950s, why were some individuals, but not others, willing to dedicate so many resources to follow a martial arts teacher? Why did certain students sacrifice to perpetuate these systems when the vast majority of their classmates were content to move on?
The biographical sketch that I have provided above brings up many fascinating questions, but it does not provide much in the way of answers. Chu’s understanding of his community, and his motivations for contributing to it, are left very much in the shadows of Ip Man’s achievements. While this may make for good Kung Fu hagiography, it does little to advance Chinese martial studies.
Popular interviews with important figures can provide scholars with certain pieces of the larger puzzle. Yet to gain a clearer understanding of the situation two additional things are needed. The first is a curiosity about how the Chinese martial arts interact with other aspects of life. The second is a particular vantage point from which to investigate those questions.
This brings us to back to theory. Academic theories are essentially maps of reality. We need these maps because reality itself is too big and complicated to be easily understood. “Real life” contains too many random events and spurious correlations. Whether we are attempting to do “thick description” or to test “causal theories,” we need some set of assumptions that tell us what sorts of events are significant and meaningful, and which ones are not.
While certain historians and journalists are fond of “letting the facts speak for themselves,” this is fundamentally a delusion. One knows that a given observation is a “fact” only because you already hold a theory that tells you it is so. Indeed, theory seems to be hardwired into the human retina. Given that we cannot escape it, we have an obligation to acknowledge its existence and make some conscious decisions about how we intend to employ it.
An overreliance on theory does not make academic discussions inaccessible. As I have explained to my students numerous times, poorly defined researched questions and bad writing are much more likely to lie at the heart of unreadable papers. Theory itself should be liberating.
In the hands of skilled researchers theory expands our understanding precisely because it allows us to ask better questions about our research subjects than we otherwise could. It suggests puzzles which can only be resolved as we dig a little deeper into the historical record, looking for new and different types of data. Far from detracting from empirical description, theory drives us to make new discoveries. It suggests new avenues for investigation that are often counter-intuitive and exciting.
The question of what sort of theory to employ in a given situation is often a vexing one. Indeed academic students spend much of their time arguing about the superiority of various research methods and assumptions. These conversations are complicated by the fact that they generally lack easy answers. Different theoretical approaches may reveal or obscure various aspects of the same research subject.
Let us return to the career of Chu Shong Tin to see how all of this might play out. A student of cultural studies might look at Chu’s career and emphasize the role of popular literature and film in the development of the modern Wing Chun community. None of the existing interviews speak to Chu’s taste in literature, or the sorts of films and TV programs that were popular among his students. Still, if that information could be uncovered through interviews it might help to reveal quite a bit about how these individuals understood the social meaning of the martial arts and their place in society. This new data could speak to questions as diverse as the shifting nature of Hong Kong identity or the variety of cultural responses to the pressures of globalization.
A student of political economy or economic history might have a very different set of interests when looking at Chu’s life. His repeated association with various labor organizations is a potentially important subject. What can the development of the modern martial arts tell us about evolution of Hong Kong’s labor market? Given that Chu directly witnessed multiple periods of radical transition in Hong Kong’s economic history (from a shipping hub to center for light manufacturing to its current state as a financial destination) what can the evolution of his martial arts school reveal about the actual social costs and contours of this process.
These are only two possibilities. There are many other approaches that might yield equally interesting questions. Critics might object to the appropriation of Chu’s memory to advance lines of inquiry that probably are not directly related to his understanding of Wing Chun. Still, properly done such studies could help to fill in the blank spaces in Chu’s biography while at the same time illuminating the complicated ways in which the martial arts, as a set of social intuitions, interact with southern China’s broader popular culture.
The traditional southern Chinese martial arts are currently undergoing a pronounced generational shift. Chu’s passing only underscores that truth. We are emerging from an era that saw vast changes in these fighting systems as the reforms of the 1930s and 1940s were consolidated just in time for many of these arts to be introduced to the global marketplace. It is important that current students document as much of this transitional phase as possible.
In practice this means turning our attention to oral history projects, or looking at the more recent historical development of local schools. Still, for these efforts to be effective it is not enough to focus only on the technical transmission of these fighting systems (though that is often an important and very interesting topic). Instead we need to remember that each of these teachers and schools exists within a broader social environment. Adopting appropriate theoretical frameworks can help us to better understand these relationships and ask more interesting questions about the historical record.
If you enjoyed this post you might also want to read: Lives of Chinese Martial Artists (5): Lau Bun—A Kung Fu Pioneer in America.