Earlier in the summer my co-author, Jon Nielson, and I had the pleasure of discussing our recent book and the current state of martial arts studies with Gene Ching. As many of you already know, Gene is the Editor of Kung Fu Tai Chi magazine, one of our favorite publications. He has also been very proactive in bringing some of the more important authors in Chinese martial studies (scholars like Meir Shahar and Peter Lorge) to the attention of his readership. Yesterday I got a follow-up email letting me know that the second part of our interview had gone live on the Kung Fu Tai Chi webpage. You can see the original here.
We had the chance to do a couple of interviews following the release of our book, but this was by far the most detailed and thoughtful. We greatly appreciated the fact that Gene engaged directly with the substance of what we were seeking to accomplish. The questions in this section covered a variety of topics, but there was a bit more emphasis on martial arts studies as an academic area.
The entire interview ended up being long enough that they decided to split it into two parts. If you have not yet done so you may want to start by reading the first section of the discussion here. I have re-blogged the final section of the discussion below. Also be sure to watch for an upcoming interview with Paul Bowman in the same space. Gene said that he thought it might be up in a week or so. Enjoy!
GC: What do you think of all the attention Grandmaster Ip Man has garnered in Chinese film lately? There’sDonnie Yen’s trilogy, Herman Yau’s films, and, of course, The Grandmaster. How might these fictional retellings affect the subject of your book and Wing Chun on the whole?
BJ: On one level it’s a great thing. As the teacher of Bruce Lee, Ip Man has long had a certain level of name recognition among the practitioners of Chinese martial arts in the West. The way that his life’s story has intersected with what was going on in the southern Chinese martial arts is absolutely fascinating. We hope that these films inspire a number of people to dig a little deeper in an effort to come to terms with what he accomplished and the nature of the environment that he lived in.
This project has been something of a labor of love and was years in the making. We started it prior to the release of the first movie. In terms of building an audience, these films have been great! No one could ask for better advertising. And I suspect that most viewers of the films realize that they are watching very fictionalized accounts of Ip Man’s life, so they probably won’t be too disturbed when some of the events in his actual biography turn out differently.
The more interesting questions revolve around how this burst of media attention will affect the practice of Wing Chun itself. Obviously anything that attracts new students will be welcomed by many individuals interested in the health of the art. But by and large these films all attempt to make Ip Man’s Wing Chun conform to a preexisting vision of what the southern Chinese martial arts are supposed to be, and how they relate to larger questions of national and regional identity. One of the things that is interesting about Ip Man was the degree to which he was willing to sidestep some of these expectations in his own day to focus on his unique visions of what Wing Chun should become as a modern system of hand combat. So it will be interesting to see whether this new media discourse pushes his system in the direction of becoming a more self-conscious cultural project.
GC: Family feuds are fairly common within the world of Chinese martial arts. Wing Chun, in particular, has suffered from many such squabbles. What did you do to maintain an objective perspective on Grandmaster Ip Man’s coverage in your book?
BJ: From the very beginning of our research we decided that we wanted to tell the story of Wing Chun, and the southern martial arts, as a “social history.” What that did was to shift our focus away from a “great man” view of history towards one that focused on the social, political and economic environment in which these events took place. That allowed us to focus on the martial arts as social institutions and organizations rather than as reified lineages or cults of personality. It also brought the students of these systems (rather than simply their creators) into the picture. Who studied these arts? What motivated them? How did all of this change over time?
This sort of approach helps to deemphasize some of the sorts of disputes that have plagued the TCMA community. Suddenly who did it “first,” or who did it “best,” is not nearly as important a question as why they did it in the first place, and what it all meant to their communities. So the more academic focus of this work naturally led the discussion in a different direction. And addressing some of these more controversial points is a lot easier if you have first developed a really rich understanding of the environment that all of this was supposed to have happened within.
GC: Have you seen the Wing Chun duan ranking system that China is trying to establish and, if so, what do you think about it?
JN: I guess they are trying to bring order to a disordered community, so I have to respect that, but I hope it doesn’t catch on. Wing Chun is a self-defense system, not a combat sport. Ranking systems are useful to sports combat because you want to match people of equal skill when they compete, but such a system doesn’t really carry over to self-defense.
BJ: It is not anything that I have personal experience with. I suppose anything that helps to make Wing Chun available to a larger audience on the mainland cannot be completely bad. And this is only one part of a much larger effort to promote and harness martial culture that has been going on in one form or another since the 1930s.
Still, there do seem to be certain historical ironies in all of this that are difficult to ignore. While this may create a pathway for certain sorts of state legitimation or support, Wing Chun has always been deeply connected to southern China’s local and regional culture. And I suspect that these ties will continue to strengthen in the foreseeable future, especially in Hong Kong. I think that it is still an open question as to whether these national level efforts will have any sustained impact on the development and actual practice of Wing Chun.
Personally I would be more interested in seeing whether the Hong Kong government might be convinced to do more to support or legitimize the practice of Wing Chun and other local forms of Kung Fu. That seems like a pretty natural fit and there have been some recent moves to include these combat systems in lists of important cultural practices. But so far they preferred to take a slightly more laissez faire approach to the question of actual support or preservation.
GC: When you hear MMA spokespeople like Joe Rogan put down Wing Chun, what do you think?
JN: We haven’t really heard Joe Rogan or any other official spokesman say anything directed specifically at Wing Chun. Instead we observe people who listen to these spokespeople and hear what they want to hear. As with any movement that people identify strongly with, there will always be people who will use general statements to build up arguments against those systems they feel most threatened by. In that way, we see these misdirected criticisms as a testament to Wing Chun’s strong position in the martial arts community.
GC: Do you feel that the Chinese martial arts are growing or fading now? What about with Wing Chun specifically?
BJ: That is a question that you could write a book on. Certainly it is something that a lot of people are wondering about. I can tell you that multiple readers a day come to Kung Fu Tea after doing an internet search on that specific question.
In general the death of the traditional Chinese martial arts has been greatly exaggerated. Certainly things are slower now than they were in the 1980s and 1990s, both in China and the West. Yet what is often forgotten is that those were in many ways pretty exceptional decades in the history of the Chinese martial arts. For a variety of reasons there was an explosion of interest in these systems which for most of the 19th and 20th centuries had actually been viewed as pretty socially marginal. So the most recent historical era might not actually be a great baseline for meaningful comparison.
A lot of the decline in martial arts practice in China today is directly tied to the recent period of rapid economic growth and the expanded opportunities for both employment and recreation that comes with it. In the short run that has not been great news for a number of systems. But in the long run having a healthy middle class with disposable income to spare will probably be great for at least some of these same systems. It is really a question of how well they can adapt to changing cultural and economic circumstances. Note that some arts, like Taekwondo and BJJ, have been expanding at exactly the same time that other traditional Chinese systems are shrinking.
The idea of the “traditional” martial arts changing tends to make a lot of people nervous. But the truth is that these systems are always adapting themselves to their environments. They have changed, often in important ways, in every generation. The real question is how well they are doing it. When people ask me whether the traditional Chinese martial arts are dying, I tell them no, they are evolving.
Wing Chun seems to be doing fairly well at the moment. Unsurprisingly there was a groundswell of interest following the release of Wilson Yip’s film. Nor has the Sherlock Holmes franchise (with Robert Downey Jr.) been bad for enrollments. And I think that the ongoing interest in Bruce Lee suggests a certain degree of sustained public curiosity about the art. At the moment Wing Chun is either holding steady or growing, depending on the area under discussion.
JN: I feel interest in the martial arts comes in waves. Sometimes it surges and sometimes it wanes, but there is always water in the ocean. Right now, a lot of attention is being focused on sport combat. Some see this as detracting from other martial systems, but most people who are really interested in self-defense understand that sport combat is a great form of exercise and entertainment, but won’t replace a serious study of self-defense.
GC: In Paul Bowman’s 2015 book, MARTIAL ARTS STUDIES, he ponders the possibility of martial arts studies as an academic field. What do you think of this notion? Do you foresee doctoral programs in martial arts in major U.S. universities?
BJ: It is becoming increasingly apparent that martial arts studies, as an academic project, is here to stay. Scholars from a number of fields have decided that an examination of these fighting systems can help them to advance fundamental discussions on topics as diverse as identity formation, social conflict, imperialism, nationalism and gender performance. We are seeing anthropologists, historians, cultural studies scholar and a variety of social scientists all doing good work in this area. University Presses are increasingly receptive to these projects, and Paul and I are in the process of launching an academic, peer reviewed, journal meant to encourage the publication of more article length treatments of these subjects.
I think that right now the real question is what sort of project martial arts studies will become. There are a couple of possibilities. First, it might develop into an interdisciplinary research area, a space where scholars trained in the traditional fields come to investigate a set of questions that provide them with a new perspective on established debates. As Bowman has pointed out, development along these lines also has the potential to begin to call into question some of the more artificial boundaries that have traditionally separated the academic disciplines. That is something that he is generally in favor of.
At the June 2015 conference on Martial Arts Studies held at the University of Cardiff, the very distinguished professor (and highly accomplished martial artist) Stephan Chan took issue with this view. In his keynote address he argued that in fact martial arts studies is likely to become a discipline of its own, with a distinct set of conceptual tools and theoretical concerns. He saw its development as being guided by linguistic, geographic, historical and social scientific concerns. One suspects that this vision of martial arts studies would likely find a ready home in Asian Studies departments, but it might have less of an impact on the traditional disciplines.
At this point it is really difficult to predict the details of how things will develop. Either pathway could work, though I suspect that we are more likely to see martial arts studies develop as an interdisciplinary research area first. Creating the basic institutions needed to support named chairs and degree programs in the American university system will take a lot of work and fundraising. But I can tell you that there are already a number of individuals who specialize in the academic study of the martial arts who are graduating with doctorates in anthropology, history and cultural studies. That is certainly one of the big forces pushing martial arts studies forward at this moment in time. There is a lot of hunger among these scholars for a deeper, more sustained and meaningful conversation.
GC: What else might you be working on in the future concerning Chinese martial arts?
BJ: I think it would be fair to say that we have a number of irons in the fire. Paul Bowman and I are looking forward to the launch of our new interdisciplinary journal, Martial Arts Studies, in October. The first issue is currently slated to include a review of our book by Prof. Douglas Wile and we are looking forward to hearing what he thought of it.
We also wrote a fair amount of material that did not fit with our final vision for this book. I think that we will be taking another look at some of this, as well as writing a few new chapters, to develop a different sort of discussion of Wing Chun’s origins and significance aimed more at a popular audience.