Plum Flower Maiden Dancing from Pole to Pole. Circa 1880. Source: Wikimedia (though I believe that Stanley Henning was the first person to publish this image in his essay for Green and Svinth.)
Plum Flower Maiden Dancing from Pole to Pole. Circa 1880. Source: Wikimedia (though I believe that Stanley Henning was the first person to publish this image in his essay for Green and Svinth.)



“The way in which we read the document depends on what we have read before.”

Evelyn S. Rawski, October 1, 2015, “Crossing from Nation to Region: China in Northeast Asian History.”





Recently I had the opportunity to hear the noted Chinese historian Prof. Evelyn Rawski deliver a guest lecture at Cornell.  Among her many accomplishments Rawski is best remembered for her early social histories as well as for her groundbreaking work to establish the “New Qing History.”  To the best of my knowledge she has never actually written about the Chinese martial arts, but its the work of scholars like her that provide the basic framework of understanding that makes our field of study both decipherable and interesting.

Yet the most powerful idea in her talk occurred when she began to discuss the training of graduate students for the sorts of multilingual, multi-sited archival research necessary to truly think about problems in regional terms.  Nationally focused areas of study limit the number of perspectives that any one scholar tends to bring to complex topics.  After all, if we have spent our entire career studying political history from the Chinese national perspective, and we run across a new document detailing regional competition, will it ever be possible for us to read it as anything other than yet another national narrative?  Rawski contends that what we get from of our primary sources is very much dependent on all of the things that we have read before they ever enter our hands.

Her line of argument struck me as it seemed to speak so directly to a problem that I had been thinking about.  Globalization is a theme that emerges repeatedly in discussions of Chinese martial studies.  Indeed, vast systemic pressures helped to shape the specific forms that Chinese hand combat systems took in the late 19th and early 20th century.  They created new economic and political openings that martial arts reformers could exploit at exactly the same time that rapid social change was cutting off the institutions that had once supported these practices.  Then in the second half of the 20th century these same global forces allowed for these fighting systems to thrive in the West where they took on new meanings as they were appropriated into the local cultural and commercial landscape.

It is not surprising then that a number of scholars have decided that this expansion of the Asian fighting systems could potentially reveal much about the underlying processes of globalization and the ways that identity moves, hybridizes and is appropriated in its wake.  While the journey of practically any “traditional” art might illustrate these points, the popularity of Wing Chun, due in no small part to its fortuitousness relationship with Bruce Lee, makes it a particularly interesting case.  One of the main points that becomes evident as we look at Wing Chun’s “journey to the West” is that the discourse that has surrounded this art has never spoken with a unified voice.  It has never been just one thing.  Rather, multiple groups have contested the questions of what this art is, and what it should become, for reasons of their own.  Nor has this debate been stable over time.

In some cases this evolution has to do the progressive steps in the interpretation and cultural appropriation as outlined by Krug.  Yet if we look at this process on a more detailed level what quickly becomes apparent is that rather than a single dominant narrative what we often see is a dynamic process driven by the logic of strategic competition rather than simply cultural appropriation.  Yet it seems that we often miss the complexity of what is going on in these movements.  Why?  It could be that just as Rawski warned, we tend to read them from a single perspective.

To illustrate this possibility I would like to take a closer look at the early three volume instructional set produced by K. T. Chao and J. E. Weakland titled Secret Techniques of Wing Chun Kung Fu (Vol. 1-3) written between 1976 and 1983.  Each one of these three volumes explores the techniques, applications and concepts found in one of the style’s three unarmed fighting forms (Siu Lim Tao, Chum Kiu and Bil Jee).  I briefly addressed the first of these books as part of a short series of posts looking at the evolution of the earliest print discussions of Wing Chun in the West.  In the current essay I would like to discuss the content of the series as a whole, explore some issues in the way that its treatment of the art’s history evolved between the first and third volumes, and place it within its proper context.

On one level its easy to look at the work of Chao and Weakland and to see it as an example of the “Orientaliztion” of the discourse surrounding Wing Chun in an attempt to make the art more attractive to western consumers as interest in the system was spiking in the early 1980s.  Indeed, the difference in tone between these works and prior discussions of Wing Chun, both in Hong Kong and the West, is fascinating.  Yet I argue that rather than thinking of these moves as part of a process of cultural appropriation or coercive mimeticism, it is necessary to see them as responses to other specific actors in the environment.  The various strains of the Chinese martial arts which made their way to the West did not all share the same values or goals.  Nor can we place them all on a neat and tidy two dimensional continuum.  What arose from this process of strategic competition and innovation was different from what had gone before.  At least some of the new approaches that emerged were the product of the same sorts of forces that have always shaped the development of the martial arts.

Secret Techniques of Wing Chun Kung Fu. Hardbound 1st edition. Source: Author's Personal Collection.
Secret Techniques of Wing Chun Kung Fu. Hardbound 1st edition. Source: Author’s Personal Collection.



From Ip Man’s Modern Fighting System to the “Secret Techniques” of Wing Chun Kung Fu

I have always been a little surprised that Wing Chun’s many amateur historians have not taken more interest in the early publications that documented the spread of this art from Southern China to both North America and Europe.  While there has been a lot of emphasis on the critical role of Bruce Lee in all of this, there has been much less interest in the extensive paper-trail of books, magazines and ephemera that both helped to commercialize and (for our purposes) document practically every step of this journey.  This is all the more interesting as the modern history of Wing Chun is notoriously fractious with many divisions existing not just between lineages but also more basic historical theories and philosophical disagreements about the very purpose of the art (and possibly the TCMA in general).  How then did a relatively simple art from a small group of closely linked schools back in Hong Kong yield such a diversity of outcomes?

Take for instance a very basic question.  What is the purpose of Wing Chun?  Is it primarily a self-defense art?  An efficient and modern system of hand combat?  Or is it really best understood as a cultural project?  Something rooted not in the modern realities of street fighting but in the timeless philosophy of Chinese culture?  Is Wing Chun meant to be a “way of life” on a deeper spiritual level? 

One would think that such questions would be easy to answer in strictly empirical terms.  After all, most Western Wing Chun practitioners today trace their lineage back to Ip Man, and he only died in 1972.  He had many students and apparently he even gave a couple of interviews.  Ip Man’s children are still alive today and his followers have produced a raft of instructional manuals and historical remembrances.  A museum was even built to preserve his personal affects.  Its hard to find that many other masters of the same generation whose teaching careers have been quite as well documented as Ip Man’s.   And yet when we look to this vast body of popular writing for guidance on our basic question we see a vast range of opinions.  Chao and Weakland’s three volume set on the Secret Techniques of Wing Chun Kung Fu is interesting precisely because these books document a moment when a powerful new strand of discussion came to dominate the public imagination of the art.

Before delving into the specifics of those observations we should provide a more general introduction to their work.  The initial volume in this series (covering Siu Lim Tao) was released in 1976, three years after the explosion of the “Bruce Lee Phenomenon” making it one of a handful of early works on the Wing Chun system available to the English language readers.  The first of these books was Clausnitzer and Wong’s 1969 volume (unique because of its extensive discussion of the social setting of Ip Man’s schools).  The most widely read was James Yimm Lee’s Wing Chun Kung Fu (basically transcriptions of Bruce Lee’s early Wing Chun curriculum).  I have discussed the contents and contributions of these books at length elsewhere and I will not repeat those discussions here. Its sufficient to say that both were meant to be basic introductions to the system which sought to demonstrate the style’s opening form, provide a short discussion of some core concepts, and outline a few basic two-man exercises that if done faithfully would allow the reader to begin to feel some of the basic energies used in Wing Chun.  Yet both books functioned more as an advertisement for the system than anything else.

The task that Chao and Weakland set for themselves was much more ambitious.  While the authors start out by stating that is impossible to actually learn Kung Fu from a book, they then outline a detailed curriculum that would allow a small group of people working together to basically do just that.  Each of the three volumes began with a short introductory discussion.  This is often historical and distinctly philosophical in nature but other topics, such as the traditional Wing Chun Maxims (Vol. 1) or basic Qigong practices (Vol. 3), were also included.

In point of fact no actual “secrets” about the Wing Chun system were revealed in the three books.  What was offered was a fairly complete curriculum of self study roughly modeled on the progression  of movements, concepts, two-man exercises and forms used in the Ip Man schools back in Hong Kong.  Perhaps the greatest pedagogical innovation seen in these books is that individual techniques and applications were introduced and drilled extensively before the student was finally introduced to the completed form.  The authors state that forms practice will be more meaningful if the nature of each movement is thoroughly understood before repetitive practice is undertaken.

I have always been interested in the speed with which Wing Chun spread across North America in the late 1970s and early 1980s.  Given the rather limited number of individuals from Hong Kong with actual teaching experience one might be forgiven for thinking that this would have been a slow and arduous process.  Yet I suspect that the detailed curriculum of study outlined in this series of books, along with some seminars and a relatively brief period of formal instruction, probably jump-started the teaching careers of a good many individuals early in the decade.

The other innovation had to do with how all of this information was discussed (rather than simply its quantity and organization).  The authors state in their preface to the first volume that their purpose is to correct the errors of the popular articles and books that have already appeared on Wing Chun to that point.  In their view these are ignorant of the true principals of the art as taught by Ip Man.  Beyond that they hope to convince their readers “that there is more to the art than one might assume after viewing modern popular “Kung Fu” films.  It is more than a fighting technique.  More properly, it could be called a “way of life.”

One suspects that it is this extended body of arguments that form the actual “secrets” of Wing Chun, rather than the details of how various two man drills are to be organized.  In truth much of that same information (if in lesser quantities) was already made available in both Lee’s and Clausnitzer’s  volumes.  And the basic discussion of concepts offered by Chao and Weakland is actually pretty similar to what one might find in these previously published books.

The most glaring differences between these volumes and their predecessors seems to have been their answer to the basic question of what Wing Chun really was.  Clausnitzer drew on his interviews and experiences in Hong Kong to note that Ip Man explicitly argued that Wing Chun was best understood as a modern fighting system, and that his students were among the most progressive and open group of individuals that one was likely to encounter within the traditional martial arts scene.  He even went so far as to argue that its relatively streamlined and modernized nature made Wing Chun well suited for success in the global marketplace.

Lee’s volume, much like its author, is famously down to earth and taciturn.  After a one paragraph review of the art’s origins the book moves right into a detailed discussion of its conceptual foundation and training drills.  While James Lee was as well versed in the Shaolin mythos as any other western practitioner of the Chinese martial arts of the period, he seems to have consciously excluded any discussion that might be extraneous or distracting from his more practical concerns.  The result was a slim volume that is virtually timeless.  Having said so little (but including many clear photographs) there is pretty much nothing in the book that can go out of date.

Chao and Weakland frame their discussion of Wing Chun in an entirely different way.  Rather than advertising the art’s modern credentials or devastating combat efficiency they instead present it within a rich cultural framework.  They go to lengths to argue that Wing Chun can only be understood through, and as an extension of, Chinese philosophy.  While the art itself claims Shaolin roots, the authors seem oddly partial to philosophical Daoism.  The front matter of their first volume manages to quote both Lao Tzu and Zhuang Zhou and attentive readers will also be able to detect instances where these works have been paraphrased and inserted into the text without direct attribution.

Occasionally Daoist discussions occur in rather odd places.  For instance, the authors saw fit to add two new school rules to the traditional set laid down by Ip Man, each of which took the form a quote from one of these classic Daoist works.  And when discussing the details of kicking and counter-kicking in Vol. 2 readers are sagely reminded:

“Deal with it before it happens.” (Lao Tsu) Remember the Wing Chun maxim: Prevent a kick with a kick. “There is no greater catastrophe than underestimating the enemy” (Lao Tsu).  Watch your opponent carefully to detect any shift which would indicate an intended kick.  The best rule of course is to kick first, but if you cannot then block his kick with one of your own before he can generate power.  Crowd your opponent and never allow him to get set….” (Vol.2 p. 82)

This is all good advice.  It represents a line of instruction that many generations of Wing Chun students have received.  Yet I would venture to guess that most of us got the discussion without the explosion of maxims and aphorisms seen here.  Its not clear what these proof-texted quotes really bring to the problem at hand.  Yet it is typical of the authors to attempt to integrate them into their discussion of the actual details of the system.

I personally doubt that many of these references had their actual origin with Ip Man.  The few actual quotes from the grandmaster included in the volumes all tend towards a sharp sense of humor rather than protracted flights of philosophical fancy.  This is not a surprise as most period accounts of Ip Man’s personality specifically mention his caustic sense of humor.  A few note his traditional education and Confucian bearing.  Indeed, Ip Chun has explicitly argued that anyone seeking the “philosophical roots” of Ip Man’s thought should start with the Doctrine of the Mean.  But I have yet to see an extended discussion of his thoughts on Daoist philosophy outside of the basic metaphors (the Five Phases, etc) that are common to all of Chinese popular culture.

The discussion of Wing Chun provided in these books also differs from other popular manuals in its self-conscious feeling of erudition.  In addition to the Daoist works mentioned above the authors quote Carlos Castaneda, T. S. Elliot, Spinoza, and even the Taiji Classics.  This may be less surprising when we remember who the they were.  K. T. Chao earned a law degree from a University in Taiwan and later studied at Cambridge in the UK.  Weakland is a professional Historian who worked at Ball State University, making him one of the very first American academics to write about the Chinese martial arts.

History plays a critical role in the way in which the practice of Wing Chun is framed, contextualized and presented to the readers of these volumes.  Again, this is something of a depart from previous works.  The story of Yim Wing Chun had certainly been published before, but individuals like Bruce and James Lee were not primarily interested in these sorts of discussions.  And Clausnitzer and Wong’s treatment of Wing Chun focused on the art’s future rather than its past.  Volume one in the present series begins with a multiple page discussion of Wing Chun’s history.  This  starts with references to the actual building of the historic Shaolin Temple in Henan.  It then introduces the origins of the “animal styles” of Kung Fu and moves on to the myth of the destruction of the temple and the creation of the Wing Chun system.

The next section introduces a discussion of the Wing Chun maxims.  The overall impact of these sayings is to lend the art a slightly archaic feeling (students are first informed that “Because of the deceptive appearances monks and nuns, women and scholars are the most dangerous practitioners of Kung Fu.”)  The section is even introduced with a quote taken from the Tai Chi Classics (as well as another nod to Zhang Zhou) which help to underline the essentially “balanced” and “internal” nature of Wing Chun.

The second volume (published in 1981) omits any introductory historical material in favor of more philosophical quotes.  Yet in the third volume (1983) the historical discussion returns in an expanded form.  It seems that two new sources of information have become available to the authors.  First, a more detailed version of the Wing Chun origin story, written by Ip Man and  found among his papers after his death, had been published by the VTAA.  A few of the details of this version of the story clashed with elements of the account previously published by the authors and we can see their efforts to rectify those aspects of the myth.

It also appears that one of the authors had an opportunity to work with some of the documents that are held by the Wade Collection at Cambridge University.  The end result was a much more detailed historical discussion in which additional information about the historical creation and rebuilding of the Shaolin Temple were appended to the sorts of myths that had long been popular with martial artists.  To this was added references to much older material, such as the myth of the temple’s salvation by a pole wielding giant at the start of the Ming dynasty, and even detailed references to Cheng Zhongyou’s pole fighting manual written by the important 16th century martial scholar.    In an attempt to explore and rectify the various accounts of Shaolin’s destruction the authors introduce a longer variant of the story taken directly from accounts of Triad initiation dramas.

The progression of the historical discussion from the first to the third volumes is significant.  The authors are clearly uncomfortable endorsing the historical validity of the style’s creation myth, yet they do not attempt to offer any alternative to it. Nor do they simply throw it out when they encounter more reliable information about the history or the development of the Chinese martial arts elsewhere.  Instead they try to integrate this new information into a larger, and more detailed, narrative.  The end result is story that sounds more accurate and reasonable, yet is still built on mythic foundations.

Its also interesting to note what never comes up in any of these discussions.  The work of Tang Hao, or any of the other early historians of the Chinese martial arts, is never referenced even though it was available in Taiwan. So while the authors were attempting to do historical research they were essentially forced to start from scratch.  Still, by the standards of popular publications of the early 1980s a lot of fascinating information had been presented.  Elements of what they uncovered anticipated the later discussions found in Meir Shahar’s work on the Shaolin Temple and Ter Haar’s discussion of the shared Shaolin mythos of both martial artists and gangsters.

Figure 1: Early Wing Chun Publications by Year and in Social Context

Wing Chun Articles and Books by year. Source:, 2015.
Wing Chun Articles and Books by year. Source:, 2015.



The Evolution of a Secret: Debates Within and Without

While many readers have valued Chao and Weakland for the training tips, these were not the most unique aspects of their book.  Instead their emphasis on Wing Chun as a culturally bounded mode of self-actualization, detailed historical discussion and emphasis on arcane knowledge (whether maxims, Daoist thought or discussions of Qigong exercises) all set their work apart from other early treatments of the art.  Those tended to focus instead on its simplicity or combat prowess.  How were these differences likely read at the time?

Given the disapproving comments in the text about Kung Fu movies and “previous books and articles,” one suspects that on a certain level this project was taken as a rejoinder to Bruce Lee and the vision of the Chinese martial arts that he had sought to promote.  While clearly dependent on the groundswell of interest in the Asian fighting systems that Lee had helped to create for its economic success, its interesting to note that he receives no direct mention in these books.  This is another point of departure from the works of both James Lee (heavily advertised using Bruce’s image within the pages of Black Belt) or the earlier volume of Clausnitzer and Wong (1969).  We can even see in this training program a direct embrace of the traditionalism that Lee worked so hard to reject and very little of the scientific method of experimentation that he sought to promote.  It might then follow that these works are best read as an attempt to “Orientalize” Wing Chun to better promote it to a new generation of Western students in the wake of the Bruce Lee Phenomenon.

Yet if we read these works only in the shadow of Lee and the small Wing Chun literature that came before, do we fall into the sort of trap that Prof. Evelyn Rawski warned us about?  Lee’s approach to the Chinese martial arts was never the only one to circulate in the West during the 1970s.  Nor did the debates that he is best remembered for capture the totality of the discussion that swirled around the Chinese fighting systems.  Other individuals with their own concerns had also arrived in the West and were actively promoting their theories by the time that Chao and Weakland began to write their book.  In fact, it might be the case that the innovations in this work are better understood as a response to these other discussions than as a direct attack on Lee or the more modernist camp within the Chinese martial arts community.

Consider for instance the renown painter and Taijiquan teacher Zheng Manqing (Cheng Man-ch’ing) who arrived in New York City and established his own martial arts schools in 1964.  Of course Sophia Delza had already been teaching Wu style Taijiquan in New York since 1959, and the artistic, philosophical, political and medical concerns of these practitioners were fundamentally different from the issues of efficacy and pedagogy that Lee was best known for.  Nor would many people have been introduced to these perspectives without the pioneering work of Draeger and Smith.  Smith was also a student of Zheng and helped to facilitate his relocation to New York.  He co-authored an early manual with his teacher (1967) and promoted him in his articles, letters and the 1974 book Chinese Boxing: Masters and Methods.

Its hard to overstate the impact of this last volume on a generation of Chinese hand combat students in the West.  Smith’s account of his martial arts exploration in Taiwan was widely held up as the best thing available on the Chinese martial arts and the gold standard by which all other martial artists and writers could be judged.  This position of prominence was further cemented by the encyclopedia titled Asian Fighting Arts (later the Comprehensive Asian Fighting Arts) coauthored with Draeger.  These are probably the sorts of books that individuals like Chao and Weakland were concerned with as they most closely matched their own concerns and temperament.

Anyone with a passing familiarity with Smith’s work will already know of his dislike for the commercial appropriation of the martial arts in America.  He appears to have detested Bruce Lee and pretty much everything ever published in magazines like Black Belt.  Smith very much promoted himself as the arbiter of good taste and “real” talent in the Chinese martial arts.  He had little good to say about the indigenous fighting styles of Guangdong or Hong Kong.  Nor was a he ultimately much of a fan of the “external” Shaolin styles.  Instead Smith promoted the martial excellence that he perceived in his own teacher and the internal martial arts more generally.

Recall that Chao and Weakland’s first volume was released in 1976.  Smith’s Chinese Boxing made a big splash of its own in 1974 and 1975.  All of this happened in years when precious few books about the Chinese martial arts of any kind were available to the reading public.

Thus when we see Chao and Weakland going out of their way to map Daoist discussions onto Wing Chun, to argue that it is an “internal art” (a category of discussion that was not particularly relevant at the time and place of its creation) and even quoting the Taiji Classics at the start of their book, one senses that they may have been much more interested in establishing their legitimacy with sorts of readers that followed Smith rather than those who are more interested in Lee.  Their contention that Wing Chun is best understood as a deep cultural project and “way of life” is then not so much a rebuke to Lee or any other Wing Chun authors as it is an attempt to gain legitimacy in the eyes of an entirely different discourse being promoted by a different group of martial artists.

Ultimately this is important as the conversation that Chao and Weakland helped to promote has never ceased.  In this way the discussion within the American Wing Chun community began to move beyond simple questions of how best to achieve results, to deeper disagreements on the nature of the system itself.  Ironically the critical figuring in making this happen may have been an author and expert on the TCMA who never really discussed Wing Chun at all.

Nor do these questions show any sign of nearing a resolution.  Their ongoing presence serves as a warning against the assumption that a single discourse will always dominate the discussion of the martial arts in the global system.  Instead a variety of reformers and teachers have exercised their agency to apply the martial arts to a wide variety of problems dealing with topics as diverse as practical self-defense, self-actualization, national identity formation and even public health.  Each one of these strains has an ability to find its own way along the pathways of global exchange.  Together they remind us of the necessity of looking at the broad picture when approaching any given text.  The sorts of lessons that we can draw from a source are closely tied to what else we might have read (or seen, or practiced) before.




If you enjoyed this you might also want to read: Lives of Chinese Martial Artists (12): Tang Hao – The First Historian of the Chinese Martial Arts