Hsu-Ming Teo. 2011. “Popular History and the Chinese Martial Arts Biopic.” History Australia. Vol. 8 No. 1: 42-66.
Technology is a double edged sword. Electronic databases and fancy search tools promise a near omniscient grasp of what other writers have been up to. Yet these same tools can also lead to a false sense of security.
Consider for instance Hsu-Ming Teo’s 2011 study of the relationship between “popular history” and the Hong Kong film industry’s penchant for Kung Fu biopics. Her discussion of the recent Ip Man and Wong Fei Hung films, and how they relate to questions of transnational identity, nationalism and gender, is the sort of thing I would be very interested in reading. In fact, I conduct multiple electronic journal searches a month using a variety of tools in a couple of different libraries just to make sure that I don’t miss out on articles like this.
Something always slips through the cracks. In the ongoing pursuit for “global Kung Fu awareness” it seems that my reach still exceeds my grasp. Luckily Teo just uploaded a copy of her article to academia.edu, making it available to a broader audience, including myself.
I am very glad that she did. This paper is of interest to many students of martial arts studies. It will fill a valuable hole in a number of literature reviews and would work nicely on many undergraduate reading lists.
Hsu-Ming Teo is a senior lecturer and the head of Modern History at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia. Much of her research revolves around the history of popular literature, tourism, British imperial culture and post-colonialism. Her major academic publications include Desert Passions: Orientalism and Romance Novels (Austin: University of Texas Press, November 2012) and Cultural History in Australia, ed. Hsu-Ming Teo and Richard White, (Sydney: UNSW Press, 2003). Teo has also published two novels, Behind the Moon (Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 2005; New York: Soho Press 2007) and Love and Vertigo (Sydney: Allen & Unwin 2000), giving her unique insights into how the creative process unfolds.
The article that we will be discussing here draws on her general academic background. As far as I can tell it is her only paper to date that deals exclusively with the Chinese martial arts and their relationship with broader themes in popular culture. Still, her study serves as both a testament to the growing interest in martial arts studies and the general importance of this field’s central questions.
Popular History within the Kung Fu Genera
Teo takes recent developments in the Hong Kong film industry as her basic point of departure. She notes that ever since 1949 certain trends have been clearly discernible within the field of Chinese martial arts films. Perhaps the most prominent among these are the “Wuxia” and “Kung Fu” genres. The “swordsmen” films which had been produced in Shanghai prior to 1949 tended to feature a relatively stable conversation concerning the the social values of the “Xia” or wandering knight. Many of these stories contained straightforward nationalist themes.
During the 1950s Wuxia narratives increasingly found themselves in competition with “Kung Fu” films. These movies focused on empty hand combat (though a variety of weapons might be employed). They also tended to valorize local folk heroes (such as Wong Fei Hung) or to recast national figures and debates in remarkably flexible ways that responded to the parochial, transnational or social concerns of the audience.
As any fan of Chinese action cinema can attest, the pendulum has swung back and forth between public demand for Wuxia and Kung Fu films over the years. Both of these related genres have their fans. However, Teo seems to detect a renewed identification with the popular folk-heroes of southern China in recent years. The modern incarnation of this movement was grounded in Jet Li’s “Once Upon a Time in China” series, loosely built around the exploits of Wong Fei-hung. This basic trend was then updated and reinforced with Ronny Yu’s 2006 film “Fearless” and Wilson Ip’s 2008 “Ip Man.”
A number of commentators have already addressed one or both of these films. They have noted the immense popularity of these projects in Hong Kong, and the various ways in which the city’s residents have read the directors multi-layered messages about local and national identity.
One of the things that makes Teo’s study unique is her emphasis on a different audience, namely the diaspora Chinese community living around the pacific rim and in other spots across the globe. Her paper begins with a personal account of watching “Ip Man 2” (2010) with a packed house of mostly other Asian patrons in the Hoyts Chatswood Mandarin Cinema:
“For a film with an often risibly cheesy script, it had a powerful, emotional impact on this particular audience, or so it seemed. My memory of watching the final showdown between Ip Man and the sneering British boxer – representing the condescending and sometimes cruel British colonial community in the 1950s Hong Kong – is of an almost unbearably tense atmosphere. In the darkness, the films soundtrack was punctuated by occasional mutterings against the British colonizers, including an explosive and alliterative “Beat the British bugger up!” As the cinema emptied at the end of the film, I heard someone remark in passing: “Gong Gong (Grandfather) said it was just like that in Hong Kong back then. The British wouldn’t allow Chinese beyond the mid-levels unless they were servants or coolies.” Whether this was actually the case or not is beside the point; for that viewer, the biopic had just confirmed his Grandfather’s truth, just as Ip Man had confirmed for Chinese audiences other popular historical truths about the Japanese during the Second World War and what it means to be Chinese.” (p. 43)
Teo’s subsequent paper explores the various ways in which “popular history” (meaning history produced by non-professionals for a variety of purposes including entertainment and economic consumption) has fueled Hong Kong’s Kung Fu film industry. She also asks about its role in shaping the ways in which audiences go on to understand different aspects of their national and local identity.
Obviously the sorts of “history” that these films call on are sometimes quite creative. While the directors and marketing agents of these projects tout their historical credentials, or note the extensive amounts of time and research that went into writing the script (a trend that has become particularly apparent with the recent Ip Man films), in truth none of these movies have proved to be particularly faithful to the actual lives of their subjects.
Rather than debating the quality of this popular history, Teo instead sets out to explore other questions. What social function do these stories serve? Who tells them, who consumes them, and for what reasons? More specifically, do these stories play a positive role in the creation and dissemination of the modern Chinese national identity, both within the nation-state proper and the larger diaspora community?
This last point appears to be the source of some anxiety, and the author returns to it numerous times throughout the paper. In some ways this article becomes an extended meditation on the limitations of the Kung Fu genre as a vehicle for Chinese national identity construction.
National vs Local Identity in Hong Kong Martial Arts Films
Teo’s misgivings about the brand of nationalism presented in recent Kung Fu biopics appears to be deeply rooted in her understanding of the structure of the Hong Kong film industry. She notes that after 1949 the center of martial arts film making shifted from Shanghai (which had specialized in the production of Wuxia films) to Hong Kong. Here the Kung Fu movie began to develop in the early 1950s as studios looked for new ways to stage stories about classic figures from local folklore.
On the surface many of these Kung Fu films would appear to promote a very straight forward, even simplistic, appeal to Chinese nationalism. Foreign imperialists and Japanese aggressors were by no means absent from the genre. A wide audience could cheer Bruce Lee on in “Fists of Fury” (1972) as he used his hardened body to destroy both rooms full of karate students and the hated “sick man of Asia” epitaph.
Nevertheless, a strong counter current ran through many of the Hong Kong Kung Fu dramas. These were Cantonese language productions that often featured local heroes rather than national figures. Wong Fei Hung (perhaps the most successful character to ever be staged in any Chinese film) defended his community against many threat. Yet the vast majority of them (especially in the serialized films of the 1950s and 1960s) were actually other Chinese martial arts clans, triads and cultists, not foreign aggressors.
Teo notes that this same dual discourse is clearly evident in Wilson Ip’s 2008 Ip Man biopic. Donnie Yen’s rendition of Ip Man defends the national honor against both the invading Japanese and later the insults of British boxers (2010). Yet he does so only after taking the audience on a visual tour of Foshan’s divided and squabbling martial arts marketplace. Even worse, his most emotionally engaging confrontation happens not with the stereotypically evil officers of the Japanese Imperial Army, but rather with a violent and boorish martial arts master (and later bandit) from northern China who has come to Foshan to make a name for himself at the expense of local society.
Others have noted that this dual discourse was the key to the films commercial success. It allowed for diverse audiences in Hong Kong, Guangdong and other areas of China to identify with key elements of the plot. Still, Teo claims that it undercuts the ability of the film to speak to questions of Chinese nationalism and identity in critical ways.
After all, the Chinese martial arts are not shown as being united in their defense of the country. Nor can one trust or empathize with a given character simply on the basis of their Chinese identity. By the end of the film one wonders whether Ip Man was actually fighting for the welfare of the nation as a whole, or if he was instead defending the honor of southern China?
One of my regrets about Teo’s paper is that it was published in 2011. As a result she missed two of the more recent and interesting additions to the growing collection of Ip Man biopics. Specifically, Wong Kar-wai’s version of Ip Man seems to have been written as a response to some of the issues in Wilson Ip’s earlier film that Teo points to. This Ip Man transcends questions of North and South. Rather than seeing Kung Fu as a matter of local or even national identity, he seems to deliberately foreshadow the growth of a movement that will transcend the bounds of the nation state. Of course this will bring us to another aspect of Teo’s critique, the Kung Fu genre’s persistent transnationalism.
Moving beyond the difficult questions of local versus national identity, Teo is also unhappy with the “Self-Orientalizing” trend that has become apparent in a number of these biopics. In Wilson Ip’s 2008 movie she criticizes the constant visual references to overdone period architecture, asides to antique vases and traditional clothing in an era when such modes of dress where actually becoming rather uncommon.
Gender is also an issue that runs through many of these films. Audiences tend to identify the heroes of these movies through their sheer strength, skill and physicality. Bruce Lee’s Olympian physic is often the first thing that comes to mind when someone mentions the words “Kung Fu.” Yet even when the protagonist is ostensibly older or more scholarly, such as Ip Man or Wong Fei Hung in the “Once Upon a Time” series, these characters are still shown as embodied expressions of the “self-strengthening” movement within Chinese nationalism.
While they occasionally make an appearance, there are many fewer female characters in these films, and most of those that are included tend to fall into two categories. The vast majority simply provide a domestic backdrop against which the protagonist can display his stereotypically male martial prowess. Worse yet, those female characters that are shown as fighters are generally expected to display the same set of “male” personality traits as their co-stars rather than developing a new and challenging way of displaying their own strength.
The end result is that the vision of Chinese nationalism portrayed within these films is oddly constrained. The Chinese state is both geographically and linguistically diverse, yet these stories silence most of those voices. The essence of the Chinese identity is always enacted by a small minority of individuals, overwhelmingly male and socially conservative in nature.
Teo notes that given the plebeian nature of many Kung Fu heroes, one might expect that these stories would have a democratizing effect on the nature of Chinese nationalism, providing everyone with a chance to climb onto the stage of history. Yet in reality the story telling conventions that have dominated these works tend to erase much of the actual variation that exists within the complex and diverse Chinese state, replacing it with a homogenous “imagined community” that has never actually existed at all.
In multiple places in this essay Teo also expresses concerns about the “transnational” nature of the Kung Fu film industry. Given the limited size of the Hong Kong marketplace, its directors have long been accustomed to thinking about the demands of foreign audiences. At first this was the diaspora Chinese community that lived around the edges of the Pacific Rim. Later audiences within mainland China became part of the potential viewership for these films, as did very different onlookers in the west that might not have any association with Chinese nationalism.
This same diversity is also evident in the individuals who make these films. Increasingly directors who have worked in America, or were born in South East Asia, are being tapped to make “Chinese” martial arts films in Hong Kong. Eyebrows may be raised when a famous Cantonese actor from the south is cast to play a “northern” character in a Wuxia film (as happened in “Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon”) or vice versa. Teo notes that in academic terms the increasingly global nature of this film industry makes it difficult to employ their products as a lens for the study of nationalism.
When it comes to questions of nationalism there seems to be a deeper anxiety in her writing. While she does not directly express her distrust, one cannot help but conclude that she is suspicious of the sorts of “imagined communities” that emerge from these films. At no point does she explicitly address Benedict Anderson (or any other major scholar of nationalism) in her work, yet she uses his signature phrase repeatedly. The impression that emerges from her paper is that the “imagined” nationalism of the Kung Fu genre is a dangerous counterfeit which is both erasing and suppressing a more “real” Chinese nation which emerges organically from within the boundaries of state.
Obviously no one paper can do everything. While Teo provides us with a finely nuanced discussion of how these Kung Fu biopics effect identity formation within the diaspora Chinese community, her treatment of their impact on a more general western audience seems oddly underdeveloped. One of the impressive things about this article is the author’s engagement with the literature (as it stood in 2010) on Chinese martial arts cinema. While this area is not her specialty she obviously delved into the various discussions and made them her own. By in large she hits the major authors that one might expect to see in such a paper.
This is precisely what makes her treatment of western audiences and their reactions to Kung Fu films so puzzling. On the basis of her own experience she seems to assume that western audiences are both fairly homogeneous in nature and unmoved by the nationalist appeals within Chinese cinema. Yet there is a substantial literature on how disadvantaged groups within the west (often African-Americans and Hispanics) found deep resonances with this material. In fact, members of these groups were statistically more likely to take up martial arts practice after being exposed to these films.
In terms of her more general engagement with the literature I found it odd that Teo did not pick up on this discussion. Exploring this phenomenon in greater depth would have strengthened her overall critique of the transnational nature of the Kung Fu movement. At the same time one suspect that such a move, if done with an eye towards detail, might also have expanded the scope of this project from “paper” to “monograph.”
Hsu-Ming Teo’s study of popular history and its expression within Kung Fu films will be of interest to any student of martial arts studies. She provides a concise introduction to the academic study of “popular history” and then engages with a recent trend in Chinese martial culture. Her study draws from the existing literature while making a critical contribution to the discussion of how these films impacted the identity formation process within the Chinese diaspora.
My main criticisms of this paper all revolve around areas where I would like to hear more. Given the author’s interest in questions of national identity formation, it would be nice see a more direct engagement with the central debates and authors in that literature. I am also a little sad that this paper was published in 2011. The next few years saw the release of other popular films including Herman Yau’s “Ip Man: The Final Fight” (2013) and Wong Kar-wai “The Grandmaster” (2013).
One of the most interesting things to me about the Kung Fu biopic genre is the way in which characters evolve and build upon their previous incarnations over time. Obviously Wong Fei Hung, who has been featured in more films than any other martial arts hero, is the classic example of this. Yet the basic image of Ip Man laid out in Wilson Ip’s 2008 film has also been undergoing some subtle but interesting changes.
Herman Yau when out of his way to throw Ip Man’s into a very modern world, devoid of the luxury, classical architecture and the “Self-Orientalizing antique vases” that Teo criticized. Likewise Wong Kar-wai took Wilson Ip’s already multilayered discussion of national and local identity within the Ip Man narrative and added a few new dimensions of his own. Following in the best tradition of the Kung Fu genre, what this paper needs is a sequel, one that turns the author’s critical attention to these later (and in some ways more sophisticated) works.
Hsu-Ming Teo’s paper should be more widely known and read in martial arts studies circles. Her argument is clear and concise. In fact, this paper provides a very readable introduction to some of the more difficult theoretical issues that currently occupy the field’s interest. Her writing is also both engaging and critical. It is always appreciated when a scholar from outside of the martial arts studies area engages with these questions, and I very much hope that she finds additional opportunities to contribute to these discussions in the future.
If you enjoyed this you might also want to read: Essential Kung Fu Cinema (3): A Touch of Zen