Ip Man practices Chi Sao With Moy Yat.
Ip Man practices Chi Sao With Moy Yat.




It goes without saying that I should not be writing this post.  On Sunday I will be boarding my flight for the UK and the 2016 Martial Arts Studies Conference at Cardiff University.  I am looking forward to this event, but there are all sorts of other last minute things I should be doing right now.

This will also be my last “live” post for the next couple of weeks.  There will be updates on the blog as I have arranged for some other articles to be posted in my absence.  I will also be working on a full conference report as soon as I get back home.

Today’s essay attempts to explore a few of the problems of translation and communication as they relate to the practice of the Chinese martial arts.  This is a huge topic.  Ideally such a discussion would involve an entire series of essays each looking at a different aspect of the problem.  Even a single topic, such as “the textual translation of early 20th century manuals,” could generate enough puzzles to keep us busy for a long time.

Obviously that exercise will need to wait.  Today we will instead consider how the embodied practice of martial arts might aid the process of cultural translation even in cases where (for social or linguistic reasons) this might seem very difficult.  The Southern Chinese style wing chun will be called upon to illustrate some of these concepts and possibilities.

Specifically, I hope to explore how chi sao (or “sticking hands”) allows for extended communication through time in the absence of explicit discussion and translation.  While Ip Man was by no means the first wing chun teacher to employ this sensitivity drill, training exercise and combative game, he did make it the centerpiece of his teaching during the Hong Kong period of his career.  To an outside observer, familiar with the TCMA, chi sao would probably look vaguely familiar, and be recognized as similar to the training exercises seen in a number of other systems (such as Taijiquan’s push hands).

Yet for many students of wing chun, it defines their relationship with the art.  By practicing chi sao you become part of a larger conversation that transcends both temporal and geographic locations.  When a training partner throws a punch, or slaps one of yours away, their actions demand “What will you do?”  “How will you respond to violence?”  “What is your reaction to the unexpected?”

From one set of hands to another this conversation has been passed.  With each transmission it is enlarged.  For better or worse it has molded generations of Wing Chun students.  The pressing question “What will you do?” needs no spoken translation. Ip Man taught only in Cantonese, and the vast majority of his students were instructed in Hong Kong.  But now his central question can be experienced around the world.


Ip Man Karate Fight.donnie Yen


The Problem with Translation


It is one thing for a message to be heard.  It is quite another for it to be understood.  Again, Chi Sao is a fascinating example of problem.  In Hong Kong the exercise was used as a primary element of classroom training in an environment in which extra-curricular (and totally unsanctioned) fights between young kung fu students were common.  American culture today frowns on that same level of youth violence and I don’t think that most Western students are subjected to anything like the rooftop challenge matches of post-war Hong Kong.

“Kickboxing night” at a local MMA school would probably be the closest easily accessible analog.  Yet it goes without saying that these cannot replicate the social and cultural milieu from which Hong Kong Wing Chun arose.  So how confident can we ever be in the quality of our translation?  Are we actually taking part in a communal conversation that Ip Man started?   Or are we lost in somatic drift, playing an embodied version of the telephone game in which we imagine whatever message best fulfills our orientalist fantasies?

A number of prior scholars have wrestled with the problem of translation in the performance, discussion and portrayal of the TCMA.  They collectively deserve the credit for inspiring my own questions on the subject.  In the current essay there is only time to touch on two or three examples from this literature.

Paul Bowman, in his upcoming volume Mythologies of Martial Arts (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016) expresses a fair degree of pessimism regarding our ability to achieve actual linguistic translations of key concepts within martial arts studies.  This, he warns, may skew our ability to openly discuss even the most basic ideas, such as the nature or definition of the “martial arts” themselves.

Bowman correctly notes that any attempt to generate a universal (and universalizing) definition of the term “martial art” is predicated on first solving an immense number of other much more specific translation problems.  How have various groups around the world socially and linguistically defined their “martial arts?”  What activities fall within those boundaries, and what fall outside of them?  How do all of these discussions compare cross culturally?  When Western scholars define “martial arts” in the abstract, are we capturing the essence of something that actually exists, or imposing a type of understanding that obscures the richness of human experience, rather than revealing it?

Indeed, if “translation issues” can have such a disruptive effect on our attempts to define key concepts (in a cross-national setting), what hope is there for a deeper conversation at even the best of times?

Bowman is not the only writer on the martial arts to be concerned with the challenges of translation and communication.  Fans of the recent Ip Man films may want to take a look at a book chapter titled “The Sino-Japanese War in Ip Man: From Miscommunication to Poetic Combat” by Paola Voci.  In this essay (originally published in Chinese and Japanese Films on the Second World War, Routledge 2014) Voci takes a close look at Ip Man’s various failures to communicate, both with the Chinese martial artists who are making their way to Foshan from the north and (more critically) the Japanese forces led by General Miura, in Wilson Ip’s 2008 biopic.  Readers may recall that the later villain had decided to train his troops by having them fight with impoverished and starving kung fu masters (who were paid in rice).

Particularly important to Voci’s argument is the character Li Zhao, first introduced as a police officer, and later as a Chinese translator (and hence collaborator) working for the Japanese military.  As the only character who understands both the Chinese and Japanese languages and communities, Li would seem to be in an ideal position to facilitate linguistic and social understanding.  Yet this was not to be.

According to Voci, in a militarized environment (and following the conventions of Chinese war films) such “open communication” is not possible, and usually not even desirable.  Instead Ip Man and the Japanese military officers find themselves in a world of “closed communication” where the lack of a common spoken language, differing cultural frameworks and vast power disparities make it impossible to have verbal conversation in which both parties meet as equals to lay out a dispute.  While it might appear that there are a number of conversations throughout the film, Voci concludes that these are basically monologues in which Ip Man, the Northern Chinese martial artists, or the Japanese military officers use those around them as props in what are really self-absorbed monologues.  It is this this specific pattern that Voci’s terms “closed communication.”

An actual exchange of ideas and arguments between the Ip Man and Miura regarding the value of Chinese culture does not become possible until the final scene of the movie, when the two meet for a physical confrontation.  And even then Sato, a pure soldier who cares nothing for the logic or rules of martial arts contests, does everything in his power to disrupt it.

While Li is a relatively minor character in Wilson Ip’s film, he looms large over Voci’s argument.  It is noted that at first his translations are faithful to intent of his Japanese employers.  Chinese audiences are thus able to identify him as a text book “collaborator,” similar to other figures in various war films.  Yet when he encounters Ip Man during his fight in the grain warehouse, the fidelity of his translations begins to slip.

Li begins to insert himself into the situation, actively mistranslating the statements of Ip Man in an attempt to smooth over a volatile situation.  After defeating the ten karate students Miura, suitably impressed, asks the unknown fighter his name and invites him to return.  Ip Man refuses to give his name (identifying himself only as a member of the wronged Chinese nation) and wants no part in the gladiatorial exercise.  But rather than faithfully relaying these responses Li instead provides an introduction and the promise to “think the offer over.”

These insertions of the translator into the communication process become more brazen as the film progresses.  Yet ultimately they backfire.  Rather than bringing the two sides into greater understanding, chaos ensues.  Voci asserts that by the end of the film members of the audience will be left contemplating the complete failure of verbal language in either defining or resolving any of the key ethical issues in the film.

Everyone will also be struck by the ease by which Ip Man and General Miura, (sharing a common physical language emerging out of their extensive training in the martial arts) address these same questions in a way that is highly legible for those in the audience.  Indeed, the message of their fight is too obvious for Sato to tolerate, and he attempts to shoot Ip Man from the sidelines.

I will admit to not having thought too much about Li and the significance of his translations before reading this chapter.  Like others I had certainly noted the “creative” nature of some of his words.  I suspect that if Li had accurately translated Ip Man’s first response to General Miura he would have been locked up or shot on the spot.  In either event the movie would have been over.  An element of miscommunication was needed to set up a confrontation in which the righteous forces of Confucianism could prevail over the militaristic Japanese, rather than dying in a pool of blood after a spectacular, but ultimately pointless, display of pugilism.

Li’s “in universe” motives are not hard to discern.  Nor, for that matter, is the belligerent nature of Ip Man’s responses given the murder of his friend.  Yet when we re-frame this discussion from one of “vengeance” to “communication,” there is yet another factor for viewers to consider.

While audiences may immediately identify Li as a collaborator, it is probably best that they not spend too much time thinking about patriotic status of the various kung fu masters who have come to fight for their bags of rice.  Or even Ip Man himself.  Recall that General Miura is using these fights to train his troops and prove the superiority of the karate.  By showing up to fight, whether you win or lose, whether you take the rice or not, one is providing “material support to the enemy.”  The logic of this reality is softened somewhat by treatment of the Chinese fighters (climaxing in the brutal murder of Master Liu), yet it is inescapable.

It is not just that the physical act of fighting allows for an escape from the problem of closed, uncommunicative, language.  The use of the martial arts, all performed under the watchful eye of the Japanese officers, communicates too much.  It reveals the strengths and weaknesses of the Japanese forces in a way that needs no translation.  Of course Ip Man refuses to give his name, or to come back.  For the story to proceed he must demonstrate to the audience that he is no collaborator.  And so Li, in the first of his many mistranslations, steps into the breach.

What is really interesting about Voci’s paper is the demonstration that this pattern, with its anxiety about translation and communication, is not confined to this specific film.  Rather it is seen in a number of war movies dealing with the Sino-Japanese conflict.   The question of the physical embodiment of communication (more commonly seen in the martial arts genera) is then used to complicate this well-worn conversation.


Ip Ching, the younger son of Ip Man, discussing Chi Sao techniques with a teenage student at the VTAA headquarters in Hong Kong.
Ip Ching, the younger son of Ip Man, discussing Chi Sao techniques with a teenage student at the VTAA headquarters in Hong Kong.


From Representation to Practice


Wing chun has an interesting relationship with questions of communication.  I suspect that we have tended to overstate the “illiteracy” of the Chinese martial arts in general. And readers might recall that during the early 20th century wing chun itself seems to have been comparatively more popular with bourgeois and professional individuals (earning itself the moniker “rich person kung fu”).   That may also have had an impact on the development and presentation of the art.

Regardless, the version of the art that I was taught is full of self-conscious verbal metaphors.  Where as other toalu or katas are often envisioned as complete or partial confrontations with imaginary opponents, the Wing Chun forms are different.  Siu Lim Tao, the first of the unarmed forms, is particularly unique in this regard.  Rather than a type of shadowboxing, it functions as a catalog of possible body movements relating to certain types of punches.

As my own Sifu pointed out on a number of occasions, properly speaking, it is not even a collection of “techniques”.  Each of the movements in the form can be applied singularly, or in combination, in a wide variety of combative situations.  The form itself functions as a “dictionary” of movements.  To study Siu Lim Tao is to come to understand the alphabet-chunks of movement further developed throughout the entire system.

These same verbal metaphors were then extended to the other forms.  As groups of movements aggregated into more complex combinations in Chum Kiu (the second unarmed form) one is “learning to form words.”  In Biu Jee (the third and final unarmed form) one begins to “string together sentences.”  The dummy and weapons teach one a greater variety of complex structures in the hopes of making original self-expression possible. Now you are writing your own books.

I am sure that Wing Chun students from other schools and lineages might take issue with this thumb-nail sketch of the system.  Yet the central purpose of this digression was to point out that the entire system was presented and explained to me through a series of verbal and language based metaphors.  Nor is my experience unique within the Chinese martial arts.  There must be some type of communicative logic behind all systems in which both instruction and combat happen through individuals “talking with their hands.”

But what do we have to say?  And are we all part of the same conversation?

Chi sao is sometimes criticized as being an unrealistic method of sparring or an inefficient platform for teaching self-defense skills.  And I suppose that there is a fair measure of truth in these criticisms.  It was never designed to be a method of sparring at all.  It is a sensitivity drill and combative game.  And when was the last time that you did chi sao while holding a rubber knife?  Again, there are probably better structures for drilling weapon defense skills.

Yet in light of our current exploration of translation and communication, such criticisms appear to be missing something crucial.  Yes there are “cooperative” aspects to game, and both parties must mutually agree upon certain standards beforehand.  But it is the presence of these predictable structures that allow for the systematic introduction, exploration and experimentation with more interesting unknowns.

This is where the communicative value of the exercise lays.  And it is where much of the actual insight of the wing chun system can be introduced and taught in a non-verbal, quasi-universal way.  What will you do when faced with this type of pressure?  What happens when you are attacked along this (unexpected) line?  How will you react to a series of punches that slip through your defensive structure?  Every individual, regardless of their ethnic or linguistic background, must encounter and decipher these questions through their own bodily experience.  As they learn an “alphabet of movement” they will struggle to formulate their own answers and follow-up questions.

The embodied nature of the exercise does not remove the possibility of misunderstanding and mistranslation.  Yet it does open the possibility of meaningful exchange and learning across linguistic, national and cultural barriers.  As Adam Frank has noted, this is why the Asian martial arts can exist so successfully as multi-lingual and multi-sited communities even though most outsiders see them only as symbols of ethno-nationalist identity.

Is my experience of chi sao identical to a given student in Hong Kong?  Do we share a single identical understanding of the art?

Probably not.  But that was never the point of the conversation.  As Frank noted in his ethnography of Taijiquan in Shanghai, the deeply rooted desire to experience an art just as an authentic native practitioner might (with all of the Orientalist baggage that comes along with such western desires) may well inhibit us from grasping the basics at all.

When Ip Man threw his first punch at a student he was not asking “What would I, your Sifu, do in this situation?”  That would not have been a real conversation.  It would simply be a monologue played out in violence.

Instead he was asking all of those who would come later “What would you do?”  My embodied experience and cultural understanding of chi sao may be different from those held by some of my kung fu brothers and sisters.  That is precisely what makes the conversation real and worth having.



If you enjoyed this essay you might also want to read: Cantonese Popular Culture and the Creation of Wing Chun’s “Opera Rebels.”