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Chinese Martial Studies, Martial Studies, Wing Chun

The Cultural Translation of Wing Chun: Addition, Deletion, Adoption and Distortion



“In the case of Tai Chi however, the major defining feature of hybridity, the sense of mixture and the equal status of the different cultures involving in the mixture, is absent.  In the eyes of its UK practitioners Tai Chi is not a combination or mixture of Chinese and English bodily/spiritual disciplines.  On the contrary, they consider their practices to be more authentic and original than their contemporary Chinese counterparts, since they see them as having a direct linkage to Tai Chi’s ancient lineage and continuing a tradition which they claim was lost in Communist China.  As we will see, in fact, they have added, deleted, adopted and distorted practices derived from their Chinese (or English) masters in a continuous process of translation based on an imagined construction of Chineseness.”

Gehao Zhang.  2010. “Invented Tradition and Translated Practices: The Career of Tai Chi in the West.” Doctoral Thesis, Loughborough University. P. 16





Other commitments have taken me away from blogging over the last few weeks.  The Spring 2016 issue of Martial Arts Studies (now available for download) required attention, as did the draft of my paper for this year’s conference at the University of Cardiff in July.  I recently finished a first draft of what will be my keynote address, but it will still require work over the next week or so.

These commitments also distracted me from something else that I had been working on.  Recently I received a copy of Prof. Gehao Zheng’s dissertation “Invented Tradition and Translated Practices: The Career of Tai Chi in the West.” Given that the theme of our recent journal issue was “The Invention of Martial Arts,” I had been reading this with a great deal of interest.  Unfortunately I was not able to finish his manuscript before other commitments caught up with me, but it is something that I intend to return to once things settle down.

Gehao’s discussion of the cultural appropriation of Taijiquan in the West is significant.  And while many of these sorts of studies tend to focus on events in America I found his case-study of the British community quite interesting.  In short, this is the sort of dissertation that warrants a close reading.

Unfortunately that will have to wait for later.   This will be a much lighter essay as I attempt to ease back into my writing schedule.

In today’s post I would like to focus on a single passage from his introductory discussion which I have been mulling over for the last few weeks.  While it speaks directly to the process by which Taijiquan has been received in the West, it carries some basic insights applicable to discussions of all sorts of martial arts.  In fact, it is not hard to spot many of the same basic trends that he notes at work in the Wing Chun community (the area of the traditional arts with which I have the greatest familiarity).

Consider the following observation, “As we will see, in fact, they have added, deleted, adopted and distorted practices derived from their Chinese (or English) masters in a continuous process of translation based on an imagined construction of Chineseness.”  When thinking about the cultural appropriation or translation of the Asian martial arts I think there is a tendency to simplify, or see only a single aspect of this process.

Yet Gehao notes that a community’s preexisting beliefs about the nature of Chinese identity (as well as their own cultural identity) can actually result in a number of strategies of translation.  Here he quickly lists four possibilities.  Obviously his dissertation takes a more nuanced approach and introduces additional concepts.

Nevertheless, over the last few weeks I have decided that I like this simple formulation as it is both easy to remember and reminds us to look for an entire constellation of changes.  To quickly explore the utility of these four descriptive concepts, this post will consider some of the ways that Wing Chun, a traditional martial art hailing from Southern China, has been “translated” into an American commercial and cultural context.  As Gehao found in the case of Taijiquan, popular ideas about the nature of Chinese identity would have an important impact on the resulting reconstruction of Wing Chun in the West.


healthy fast food chain.wing chun


Added, Deleted, Adopted and Distorted


Before delving into this discussion a few caveats are in order.  As much as we might want to practice our art in a “perfect” and pristine state, we should admit that this is probably not possible.  We might also go further and ask why the idea of “purity of transmission” has gained such a hold on the popular discussion of the martial arts?  What set of values and desires does this rhetoric advance?  How are they different in the West than China?

In reality cultural translation is an unavoidable process whenever a given set of practices or identities crosses global and cultural borders.  There have even been substantial periods of “translation” within China itself as the martial arts went from being a mostly rural, occupationally focused, pursuit in the 19th century to being promoted as a nationally focused urban, middle class hobby in the 20th.

Given that none of us are Cantonese speaking tradesmen living in Foshan in the 1850s, our understanding and embodied experience of Wing Chun must be different from Leung Jan’s.  The notion that “identity moves” (to borrow a memorable turn of phrase from Adam Frank) is not an inherently bad thing.  While the process of cultural translation inevitably changes something about an identity or sets of practices as it seeks to make them legible in a very different context, we do not need to view the end product of this process as inherently illegitimate.  This is not to imply that one cannot find better or more unfortunate examples of such translations within the martial arts world.

How can we understand the sorts of transformations that we are likely to see?  As Western practitioners of these systems attempt to make sense of their arts they are forced to negotiate their own experience of these practices with an inevitably imperfect understanding of Chinese identity.  When the transmitted techniques do not conform to their culturally conditioned expectations, change is often the result.

First, “additions” might be made to a system.  These sometimes take the form of core Western cultural values being read onto an Asian art.  In other cases what is added is an inappropriate element of Asian culture or philosophy so that the practice better meets Western expectations about what an “Oriental” art should be.

On the opposite end of the spectrum certain practices or elements of identity might be “deleted” from a westernized version of an art.  Again, specific cultural elements that do not match Western expectations often receive this treatment.

The traditional Chinese martial arts were often rigidly located with regards to questions of social class and gender in ways that would make students in liberal western countries uncomfortable.  While their modern schools often go to great lengths to demonstrate how “traditional” they are, no one that I am aware of refuses to teach women, or prohibits physical contact between unrelated men and women in class even though that would have been a common taboo at the time that Wing Chun was first formulated.  What was once an important set of practices regarding the construction and maintenance of masculinity within a Chinese cultural context has simply been deleted with very little notice.

In addition to these first two responses, Western students might also strategically “adopt” certain practices and identities which fit their expectations about Asian culture.  While relatively few Western martial artists seem inclined to actually learn the native language of their arts (often a daunting challenge), many nevertheless make the mastery of foreign language names and labels something of a fetish.  Yet to Western students this vocabulary often carries connotations that are quite different from how the same terms might be perceived by a native speaker.  Paradoxically, attempts to achieve linguistic accuracy by avoiding the processes of “translation” can actually lead to even greater levels of cultural mystification.

Lastly there is the problem of “distortion.”  In my own experience there are a number of ways that distortion might arise.  The first is a simple misunderstanding.  The lack of cultural and linguistic expertise noted in the previous examples suggests that fighting against the tide of this distortion is the daily work of a dedicated martial arts student seeking a serious encounter with their chosen art.

Distortions are also likely to arise because of the very nature of cultural appropriation.  Once a practice has come to be socially accepted and commercially successful, consumers and students will naturally begin to hybridize the values of their chosen practice with the (often quite different) social discourses that surround them.  Consider how often we encounter advertising materials promoting the health benefits of Kung Fu within the commercially driven paradigm of western athleticism.  It is simply human nature to want all good things to fit together.

In truth the culture of Taekwondo that is practiced in strip malls across America is quite different from that which is seen in Korean military units.  And yet there is an almost universal tendency to accept one’s own vision of the art as uniquely legitimate.  This was one of the more interesting aspects of Gehao’s discussion which I hope to explore in future posts.
Nima King.Wing Chun School


Ip Man Comes to America


Each of these four strategies have shaped the cultural translation of Wing Chun in the United States.  Perhaps the most notable changes have been the additions.

One of the great challenges that the Chinese martial arts faced in making themselves legible to Western consumers was the prior success of their Japanese cousins.  While Chinese practices tended to be treated somewhat dismissively as boxing, juggling or “sword dancing,” the Western reading public seems to have had a healthy (and remarkably nuanced) appreciation of the Japanese martial arts by the early years of the 20th century.

This early familiarity (and in some cases practice) was amplified by the experience of WWII in which returning GI’s imported an interest in Judo, Karate and (to a much lesser extent) Kendo.  The sorts of Japanese hand combat systems that existed at this period shaped the public’s perfection of what a “traditional Asian martial art” should look like.

The American public quickly came to expect exotic uniforms and colored belts.  Classes were regimented and often reflected the military values of the individuals who brought them back to the US.  And the martial philosophy of Judo and Karate quickly came to be seen as generically “Asian” in nature.

All of this gave the Japanese a substantial “first mover” advantage in the Western marketplace.  In comparison the Chinese hand combat systems did not look like martial arts at all.  The relationship between Chinese teachers and students tended to be much less structured and idiosyncratic.  A formal class curriculum was the exception rather than the norm.  Most Chinese folk styles did not revolve around the idea of regular progression tests and colored belts.  And while the Japanese donned their white gi’s, their Chinese counterparts tended to work out in western style street clothes or t-shirts.  Somehow the Chinese martial arts managed to be both too exotic for comfort and yet not quite “Asian” enough.

Of course almost all of these Japanese “traditions” are of rather recent vintage, reflecting efforts made to modernize their martial arts and introduce them into the education system in the first half of the 20th century.  But the end result was that traditional Kung Fu systems (like Wing Chun) did not always conform to consumers expectations about what a martial art should be.

Chinese Sifu’s (and later their first generation of Western students) were quick to accommodate their new students.  Uniforms were bought, tests for various sorts of colored belts were created, and instruction was standardized.  Thus much of the institutional and organizational infrastructure seen in any Western Wing Chun school today is an example of the ways in which “additions” are used to bring a preexisting set of practices in-line with our current expectations about what a “real” Asian martial arts should be.

The flip side of this process is the deletion.  As was mentioned above, most traditional Chinese arts were situated within local society in very specific ways.  Individual schools were often aligned with specific social, political, economic or even criminal factions.  There was a strong correlation between the practice of boxing and economic marginality.  Nor were women welcome in most traditional training environments.

The story of the cultural translation of these systems has in large part been the abandonment, and even conscious inversion, of each of these realities.  The sorts of neighborhood social structures that supported the martial arts during the Republic period simply do not exist in the West.  Further, the popularity of Daoist and Buddhist philosophy among counter-culture elements in the Western society led to a situation in which egalitarian readings of Asian society were privileged and assumed to be universal.  Gender and racial discrimination in training never carried the same weight on this side of the Pacific.

This example is a valuable reminder that not all changes are negative.  In fact, the judicious use of “deletions” is necessary if the traditional arts wish to survive in a global environment.  Reformers within the Chinese martial arts have understood this since at least the end of the Boxer Rebellion.  Yet the Confucian emphasis on “faithful transmission” of traditional practices and methods means that many of the same people who actively innovate within the martial arts must also work the hardest to maintain the air of “timeless immutability.”

A number of adoptions are also visible within the American Wing Chun community.  The rigid adherence to a set body of forms, training routines, creation myths and conceptual framework allows for the maintenance of truly transnational clan of practitioners.

Still, the preservation of certain forms or ideas can become yet another site of “Orientalization” within the martial arts.  Perhaps there is no more classic example of this than the many contortions that happen around the concept of “Qi” and “internal training.”  While these concepts do not play as central a role in Wing Chun as they do in Taijiquan, they remain a source of speculation.  In fact, certain of his Western-grand students seem to focus on these concepts more than Ip Man himself did.  A similar tendency is also seen in an emphasis on traditional Chinese medicine.  It is often forgotten that this was not particularly popular in Hong Kong during the 1960s-1970s, and certainly not to the same degree that it became on the mainland after the 1990s.

While the rise and fall of the popularity of TCM is a historically bounded (and frequently studied) phenomenon in China, Western consumers have essentialized it.  As such, students of a Chinese martial art may feel a strong pull towards the study of this other discipline. It can even become a lens through which seemingly unrelated martial arts are understood.

Lastly we come to the question of “distortion.”  Some of the ways that Chinese religion, more specifically Chan Buddhism and Daoism, are read into Wing Chun might fall into this category.  The style’s creation myth references the burning of the Shaolin temple, but this is a common motif shared by a number of social groups throughout southern Chinese society.  While some students of Wing Chun have been dedicated Buddhists it does not follow that the practice itself is a Buddhist art.  Likewise, many of the supposedly Daoist elements that students sometimes perceive are better understood as cases of generic Chinese culture.

An exaggerated emphasis on Buddhism and Daoism creates “distortion” in the cultural translation of Wing Chun on at least two levels.  Most immediately, it obscured other influences that are present and may reveal something either about the nature of the art or Ip Man’s thinking.  Ip Chun, the son of Ip Man, has noted on numerous occasions that his father was strongly influenced by his Confucian education, and that those looking for the deep philosophical roots of the art should start there.

His advice could easily be expanded upon.  A lack of interest in Confucian thought is one of the odd blind-spots of current students of Chinese martial studies.  This was the dominant social philosophy throughout the 19th and early 20th century, the same time period that many of these fighting systems were taking shape. Students of any number of southern Martial Arts systems might benefit form a closer study of this cultural milieu.

Yet on a deeper level, why must Wing Chun have a spiritual (or religious) philosophy?  Is a martial art only legitimate if it is dedicated to some sort of transcendent goals?  When Ip Man told a young Clausnitzer that it was his goal to teach Wing Chun as “a modern form of kung fu, i.e., as a style of boxing highly relevant to modern fighting conditions,” can we not take him at his word?

Once again, our expectations of what a “proper” martial art should be can powerfully shape the ways in which we experience, understand and transmit these systems.  Japanese ideals of the “martial way” and Republic era Chinese notions of the martial arts as vectors for nationalism and cultural essentialism continue to shape the popular understanding of Asian identity in powerful ways.  These, in turn, have impacted the way that Wing Chun has been culturally translated.

ip man.chair




Ip Man’s photo is displayed prominently on the walls of martial arts schools across North America.  If he were to look out through the eyes of these icons, what would he see?  Would he recognize the Wing Chun being performed in his name?

I suspect that he would be very surprised with some aspects of the scene below.  He would recognize the colored belts, but would probably find them out of place.  The highly structured format of our classes would also seem alien to him.  He could not help but wonder why his picture so often hangs next to that of Bruce Lee and Dan Inosanto.

Yet I doubt that he would be confused by the purposes of the changes that he saw.  After all, Ip Man guided his branch of Wing Chun through an important period of “cultural translation” as it went from being one kind of martial art in Republican Foshan, and became something notably different in the Crown Colony of Hong Kong.

Those with previous training in the system were surprised to see how differently Ip Man’s post-1950 classes were structured.  A curriculum had been added, traditional concepts were deleted, the local culture of youth fighting was “adopted” (or at least tolerated) and the practice of chi sao had been elevated and made a central aspect of daily training. Translation and change was the price of making Wing Chun legible to a new generation of Hong Kong students.

While Ip Man might at first be mystified by some of the details, he would understand the basic processes at work in our own era.  He knew that it would take work and flexibility to maintain Wing Chun as a modern fighting system.  Mostly, I suspect,  he would just be happy to have another generation of students to practice his chi sao on.




If you enjoyed this you might also want to read:  Why is Ip Man a Role Model?



One thought on “The Cultural Translation of Wing Chun: Addition, Deletion, Adoption and Distortion

  1. Great read Ben!

    Posted by John Crescione | June 21, 2016, 1:44 pm

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