By George Jennings (Cardiff Metropolitan University, UK) and Anu Vaittinen (Newcastle University, UK)
Reference to conference presentation:
Jennings, G. & Vaittinen, A. (2016). Mediated transformation: Interconnections between embodied training and multimedia resources in Wing Chun. Paper presented at the 2nd International Martial Arts Studies Conference, Cardiff University, UK, 19 July 2016.
We would like to thank Benjamin Judkins for his generous offer for us to write a summary of our conference paper for the excellent Kung Fu Tea blog, which is very timely, considering the relationships that our study has with such open-access, digital martial arts media for practitioners and scholars alike. Readers are very welcome to contact us directly if they have any questions, suggestions or other comments:
George Jennings firstname.lastname@example.org
Anu Vaittinen email@example.com
In their recent research on the history of Wing Chun Kung Fu, Ben Judkins and Jon Nielsen have demonstrated that this martial art has been taught, learned, practised and understood in a myriad of ways, which have diversified since its humble beginnings in South East China. Today’s varied interpretations of Wing Chun are particularly evident in the Ip Man branch of the genealogical tree, where in a matter of two or three generations, there often appears to be very different fighting systems in terms of weight distribution, technique shapes, form sequences, omissions and additions of certain blocks and punching variations, and also foci in terms of the attention given to the empty hand forms, wooden dummy, weapons, theory, conditioning, fitness and, of course, how they are put together into self-defence and even sporting combat applications. Scholars in media and cultural studies have so far focused on the legendary exploits of Ip Man in the recent Hong Kong films (see, for example, here and here). Yet to date, no research has detailed how forms of media like films/movies, documentaries, YouTube videos, images and blogs might shape (and be shaped by) the actual “hands-on”, solo and interactive physical training of the art of Wing Chun Kung Fu.
That is somewhat peculiar considering the global popularity of this Chinese martial art across cultures, generations, ethnicities and socioeconomic levels. This gap in the literature is precisely what we wish to address in this invited contribution to the Chinese Martial Arts Studies discussion. It is with this complex variety in mind that we begin to address the ways in which Wing Chun is currently learned from a sociological, phenomenological and pedagogical perspective. The small body of research on the training aspects of the art has touched upon topics such as body awareness (McFarlane, in his brief outline), how the unique methods employed in Wing Chun might hone fighting skills and whether they may even make the practitioner a better person (Scott Buckler’s taxonomy thesis).
Elsewhere, more sociologically-oriented ethnographic studies have discovered a core narrative and ethos of secular religion in a particular association, as well as ideas of the diversity of a cultivated martial habitus or scheme of dispositions. These publications provide a basis for the unification of an embodied, “carnal” sensitivity on Wing Chun with a contemporary sociological and educational vantage point. The fusion of all of these types of research may allow us to draw upon the recent studies on important topics including body lineage, digital technology and narrative from researchers in the field of martial arts studies.
Interestingly, this relative dearth of research on how participants’ corporeal practices intersect with digital, primarily visual media, as well as the active use of new media technologies, extends beyond Wing Chun and the martial arts, into studies of physical culture, media and visual culture more generally. Outside the context of formal physical education, what has received particularly limited attention is the perspective of the practitioners, and the role multi-mediated materials, new information economy and technologies play in their development of corporeal, and sensory know-how of combat sports. This lacuna is particularly intriguing, considering the ‘ocular-centrism’ of Western society, and way in which a range of sports (including martial arts) are transmitted to our living rooms, onto our PCs and smart phones at increasing intensity. Images play an increasing important role in our lives, experiences and concerns. Generally, sports media research has tended to focus on media texts, media institutions and audiences. The research on new media technologies, on the other hand, has explored sports video games along with examinations of online platforms such as Wikipedia, as a vehicle for communication among sports fans.
For a more in depth-discussion of some of the existing field of research, see:
In this project we seek to explore another avenue which, within the existing literature, remains relatively unexplored. The aim of our study is to offer fellow researchers, practitioners and instructors some insights into learning and teaching in Wing Chun using multimedia resources to support both teachers and students. We do this through two case studies of specific Wing Chun pedagogical approaches and social environments: 1) a series of private classes with individuals in different locations (private, public and commercial) in Mexico City, taught in English and Spanish; 2) an informal, small school run in the Northeast of England that is composed of more experienced practitioners. Our specific objective is to facilitate discussion on contemporary issues in Wing Chun under the working research question: In what ways can today’s practitioners use modern digital (and online) technology to support their learning before, during and after lessons and training sessions? Although restricted to one style of Kung Fu, this study might interest other martial arts scholars examining the links between media and embodied practice in a variety of styles and systems. It offers insight into how digital multimedia – accessed anywhere and anytime – can add to the multisensorial learning of the martial arts. This post is exploratory in nature, and raises far more questions than could be hoped to answer.
Our collaboration is an unusual one, as we had never met until uniting at the second Martial Arts Studies Conference at Cardiff University in 2016. Both of us are associate researchers at the Health Advancement Research Team (HART) at the University of Lincoln, interested in entirely different topics: Thermoception and thermoregulation (see here). We are from England and Finland respectively, and were at the same time researching the Chinese art of Wing Chun in Mexico and England. This is another example of the increasingly international nature of martial arts studies: a new multidisciplinary, interdisciplinary and cross-disciplinary field with international researchers who travel to other countries to study and discover fighting systems developed from a range of cultures and civilisations, and who engage with a plethora of languages and native technical terms, and later teach and research in various global contexts.
This study – still very early in its development – is an opportunistic offshoot from our phenomenological work with Jacquelyn Allen Collinson and Helen Owton. It is more methodological than theoretical in nature. We began our first article together with an important reflexive note on our own positioning, which combined to provide a more rounded approach to studying Wing Chun than would have been possible alone. Reflexivity is now common practice to outline new qualitative studies of martial arts due to the fact that the researchers are often practitioners themselves. Confessional, reflexive and auto-ethnographical work has been shared by authors such as: Channon, introducing his martial arts and fighting experience prior to studying mixed-sex martial arts; Delamont and Stephen’s early reflections on their joint fieldwork in a Capoeira school as a complete observer and immersed participant respectively, and Martinez’s autoethnography of her pursuit of Karate in a male-dominated dojo. Our own work follows this important representational turn, with George’s vignettes on the embodied nature of interviewing, and how physical training can lead to spontaneous and flexible interviews, along with other forms of data collection.
In her recent work, Anu has examined the importance of reflexivity in relation to gender, and the embodied labour of the researcher in participatory fieldwork (Forthcoming, 2016). This paper illustrates the advantages and challenges of insider research, but equally interrogates the gendered positionality which the research embodies concurrently with their insider status, and its impact on the research process and data.
Despite being the same age (32) and both having academic background in the sociology of sport and physical culture, our different training experiences have shaped the way we learn, practise and teach Wing Chun. George has tended to focus on non-sporting martial arts after brief periods in Taekwondo, Judo and Kendo. He has practised Wing Chun since 1999, first as a student, later as an assistant instructor, and most recently as a nomadic “ronin” instructor and independent researcher in Scotland and Mexico. He retains a research interest in Wing Chun pedagogy and training methodology, but has since switched his academic attention to the new martial arts of Mexico, such as Xilam whilst teaching Wing Chun privately and in a small group at the Universidad YMCA, where students, staff and the general publish were welcome. George’s small group of Wing Chun novices were not well versed in chi sau (the sensitivity game also known as sticking hands), so he opted to look at the role of theory and specific Wing Chun fitness and conditioning exercises to provide them with a firm foundation for more technical aspects of the art. The students were aged 14-72 (two female, three male), and mainly learned through private tuition or in pairs. George tried to maintain a very tactile approach, and did not rely on videos or images during training. However, some students requested recordings of him performing the first form before the Christmas holidays. This event sparked his interest in the relationships between seemingly timeless digital media and the phenomenological issues of training in more specific space.
Although she has been involved in a range of competitive and recreational sports since an early age, Anu was a relative latecomer to martial arts and combat sports. After arriving in the United Kingdom from Finland in 2005, she had the opportunity to try kickboxing in her early 20s, and subsequently got involved in Mixed Martial Arts and Wing Chun. She trains with a small, informal group of practitioners led by her Sifu in the Northeast of England. This involvement shaped her research interests. Her doctoral dissertation examined ways of embodied knowing in mixed martial arts through an ethnographic study which utilised a phenomenologically-guided, interdisciplinary analytical frame.
In her previous work on mixed martial arts, Anu found that practitioners actively utilised multimedia (in particular visual) materials to accompany physical training and as part of the learning process. They also documented their own practice through new media technologies including smart phones. This sparked questions as to whether practitioners of more traditional martial arts (such as Wing Chun) utilized technology in similar ways.
Anu suffered a severe knee injury in 2014 during the course of her MMA training when she tore her anterior cruciate ligament. Following her recovery from surgery her involvement in Wing Chun training intensified, although she is still a relative novice. The small, but committed group of practitioners she trains with focus on the Wing Chun forms, accompanying technical and conditioning drills as well as Chi Sau. However, their training is not completely restricted to traditional Wing Chun. Her Sifu’s very eclectic background in a range of combat sports and martial arts ensures that the group’s training also incorporates elements from Western boxing, Bruce Lee’s Jun Fan, kickboxing and grappling. There are usually three to five participants (aged 33-65; one female, the rest male) attending training sessions. Some only attend once a week whereas the three core members of the group, including Anu, gather to train more frequently. She also participates in private tuition in addition to the group classes.
In summary, we are working together to examine novel approaches to Wing Chun pedagogy. Our different personal, professional and martial arts biographies, dispositions and intuition have led us to delve into material on different topics. This is of course due to our position in our respective groups, and their stages of development (beginning and established). The novelty in this article is in the use of digital technology between instructors, students and other Wing Chun devotees, who all form the global Wing Chun community. We both used the same methods and forms of analysis, and shared our data via email, and later via Facebook and the Messenger mobile phone application to verify our analysis and core argument. Our open-ended research design moved from what began as a phenomenological consideration of time, space, the senses and the body through autophenomenology (Allen Collinson) to a methodological bricolage including field notes and observations, one-on-one focused interviews, email interviews and dialogue, online media analysis and autobiographical reflections which came together at different stages of the six-month study.
We followed Newcastle University’s official guidelines for conducting qualitative research through informed consent. All names have been changed to protect the practitioners’ identities, although the original media that we and the practitioners have used remain overt for the readers’ visual reference and for better clarity in the description of movements and concepts that can easily be mistaken with the written word. Furthermore, we remain in contact with our participants as future collaborators, who are informed of the study from the beginning to the dissemination process.
Discussion: Using multimedia before, during and after classes and training sessions
The discussion of the qualitative data that we have gathered has been divided into three parts by adopting a temporal or ideal typical approach to understanding both official Wing Chun classes and seminars alongside informal training between Kung Fu brethren and solitary home training. The first section deals with the use of media before training sessions, and even before some of the participants became involved in the formal study of Wing Chun. The second part briefly explores how Wing Chun media might be used as a training and teaching aid at the same time that the practitioner is working on specific skills and exercises. The last part provides an insight into how online information can solidify into embodied knowledge directly (or shortly) after the training session or class in question as a means of analysis and circumspection.
The Ip Man films noted in the literature review are well known in both English and Mexican society. George was pleasantly surprised when a university student, Raul, knocked on the door of the studio he used as a kwoon:
Thanks to the Ip Man trilogy and related films, many people recognize the characteristic movements in Wing Chun. I was finishing the second and third section of Siu Lim Tao when a young student appeared in the doorway.
“Is that Wing Chun?” He asked in a confident manner, as if he knew the answer already.
“Yes, that’s right – it’s Wing Chun.” I replied.
“I thought so. I recognize that movement from Ip Man!” He remarked, as he demonstrated the quintessential chain punch.
Mario, my devoted student in his 70s, turned round and smiled with great joy at the mention of Ip Man. He was normally austere and distant with visitors, but not on this occasion.
This recognition of the triple punch combination led Raul to join the class, and combine it with his Japanese martial arts training. George found it imperative to install a solid understanding of Wing Chun theory in a “scientific” way, especially for the sport science students at the university, who were studying topics such as biomechanics and anatomy. Having explored numerous websites and old books, he found Google Images to be an invaluable resource to help him explain the founding principles of Wing Chun, as seen in one diagram:
I was instantly attracted to a coloured diagram depicting five different lines within three zones (heaven, man and earth). It drew me to an article by the leader of the mysterious Black Flag Wing Chun lineage. Some people claim this is the original style, while others refute this branch as a recent invention and marketing gimmick. Regardless of these often politically motivated debates, the diagram could serve Wing Chun practitioners from all schools and styles. It would help them understand the correct position of techniques and the six gates according to the three Dantiens. Pak Sau, for example, is not a centerline technique; instead, it works within the inner shoulderline, just outside the head.
Personally, George has used videos of hard training sessions with accompanying music to motivate him to train alone, and has sought out rare Wing Chun conditioning drills for the hands, forearms and problematic areas in order to offset potential postural difficulties. Regardless of style, association or “body lineage”, there were useful multimedia resources from veteran Sifus, relatively unknown instructors and even intermediate students sharing fitness tips.
Different multi-mediated materials also provided an initial entry point to members of the English training group, helping to spark their interest in Wing Chun. This led to exploration of further resources and the search for a place to practice. Senior students like Jack (who is in is mid-forties) initially sought out information through a range of sources which inspired him before he took up training in Wing Chun:
“So before I started training in Wing Chun, I had an awareness I suppose from popular films and television. So it would have been Bruce Lee films and generally representation of Kung Fu on television, Jackie Chan, but also magazines like Martial Arts Illustrated and so on, which I would read — Because before I had only seen what he had done in his films, so pretty superficial until I learnt a bit more by reading magazine articles, so people who know knew more about him and about his past and I thought well if you went down that path then maybe it’s worth at least having a look at ” (Jack, May 2016).
Older students also described seeking out a range of material in their interviews. Yet such information was not as widely available or as easily accessible prior to the Internet. Our Sifu recalled the challenges of seeking out resources on Wing Chun (and Kung Fu more generally) in the ‘old days’ and when written sources such books and magazines were harder to get a hold of. For the younger members of the group, including myself and fellow student Alex (35), the online sources provided the primary material utilized in our search for information about the art. Yet in neither case was this the sole source of information. Rather, our interest in Wing Chun was preceded by participation in other arts [for Alex, Tae Kwon Do and Aikido; for myself, kickboxing, Thai boxing and MMA].
In terms of the use of these materials, prior to actual physical training sessions, practitioners tended to seek out online materials – primarily YouTube videos – on different technical drills and chi sau. They were employed as aide-memoires which helped them to review elements of Wing Chun that they would be practicing during the upcoming session. New media technologies such as smartphones facilitated access to these materials. Alex (35), for example, often watched videos on his mobile phone prior to sessions and when he had free time during his job as a taxi driver:
“I generally watch videos on You Tube on a daily basics usually while waiting for jobs, or when waiting to start a class, etc.” (Alex, March 2016).
Anu also utilised these online visual materials in a similar fashion. She sought out drills and techniques which she had found challenging during the previous session. The videos offered useful visual reference points that intersected with the corporeal reference points acquired through experience during the group and one-to-one sessions.
Pre-designed diagrams and figures are an obvious resource when teaching Wing Chun theory, and some podcasts, videos and images can also be used to teach students. Meanwhile, videos and photographs can be an effective way to help students realize their mistakes, as George found when he learned the art in England, in the days before smart phones.
The deployment of such technology can be helpful in avoiding confusion, often overwhelming to beginners, over the various ways to execute techniques and forms. During an interview, one of George’s students, Saul, actually suggested using his cell phone to record the technique:
“I was going to suggest that in the last five minutes of class that perhaps I could record with my cell phone some of the things that I could do at home. They’re not always easy to remember. I’m at home, and I go like, “Was it like this that I was supposed to practise? Do I go like this, or like this?” So, if I could record some of the techniques to bring home, I could record them on my cell phone and it would be easier to remember.”
Although smart phones were employed by Anu, Alex and Jack to study videos prior to sessions, none of them had utilised this technology to record their own training during practice. However, an observational field-note and the subsequent reflection illustrate how connections to multi-mediated materials were regularly made with the bodily and sensuous training sessions:
The online videos available on YouTube are sometimes referred to during practice in relation to different aspects and discussions of efficiency and form, and during last evenings’ training session our Sifu mentioned particular videos that illustrated the form, and the drills that are utilised to practice the different elements of attack and defence particularly well. Within our small group, these references made during practice provide guidance in searching information and videos online, within the wealth of information that is now available and accessible, simply with a click of a button. (Field notes, May 2016)
Senior student Jack reflected on the idea of recording videos of his own practice and the possibility of it being useful for learning, along with limitations for the use of such materials for himself and also from the instructors’ perspective:
“But it would feel quite strange to see it from the outside, when you have experienced it internally from your own perspective, but to see it externally would be quite interesting and say for instance from the instructors’ perspective. Obviously without the experience you don’t have the tactility that is central there, so you wouldn’t have all the information that you could actually access practicing it for real. But it’s, VR and things like video playback, that could be…”
Video material is by far the most used form of media by most practitioners we have encountered, especially the younger participants. Whereas some older practitioners complained about the decline in the quality and quantity of martial arts print media, youngsters took to the use of video quite naturally. Mariana (14) videoed George demonstrating the first form, but eventually ran out of memory on her phone due to other videos she had recorded in the week. George recalled:
I felt strange being filmed – I imaged other Wing Chun practitioners scrutinizing my positions and even a piece of rare archive footage from my students to come in future decades. Setting aside these thoughts, I tried to perform the form without thinking, until I realised that I was slanting slightly in order to face Valentina’s camera phone.
“We could also film the form from the side”, I suggested, moving my body to the profile view in order to emphasize this. “It would be good in order to see the elbow line.” I said, demonstrating the movement from the profile view. This was another thought that popped into my head during the form: That the vast majority of Siu Lim Tao videos show the form from the front, but never from the side, which can lead to confusions concerning the fixed elbow position, the elbow line and posture in general.
It was exciting to realize that some newcomers to Wing Chun were actively creating new forms of media that could go online, or could be reserved for personal reflection and “old-fashioned” note taking. Regarding the so-called “old school” approach, George came across a challenging exercise for the neck, shoulders and arms that utilised Wing Chun hand positions:
Searching various YouTube videos, I came across an arm exercise demonstration by a seasoned Sifu in my own lineage who claimed it was an “old school exercise” from “thirty years ago.” He told the viewers to hold each position for thirty seconds, and individual movements one hundred times, “or as many times as you can. Basically, do this exercise until you can’t do it anymore.”
This Sifu was a practitioner somewhere between his mid-fifties and mid-sixties, but seemed to be in excellent physical condition. I felt honoured to be able to receive this one-man drill from a veteran practitioner and was surprised that I had never performed it in seven years within the exact same body lineage to which he belongs.
George first trained this exercise at home, and later prescribed it to students after several weeks of supervised repetition, before adding his own “twist” to the exercise through the use of two further – and rather awkward – hand positions (fak sau and ding sau).
Likewise in the second group of practitioners, both participants and the instructor would also review online materials following training sessions, primarily during leisure time and address questions raised during the subsequent gatherings:
“It’s probably normally during leisure time, rather than immediately afterwards, because I probably use the opportunity at that time to ask the questions or I’ll try and recall one for the next session and ask my questions then. Also, I’ll discuss the things I’ve seen so if there’s been a variance or differences between what I perceive on the video or lack of understanding of what’s actually going on, then I will ask my instructor.” (Jack)
Due to the explosion in the volume of videos and other online materials, filtering the information was important:
“I mean, I suppose one of the key things is to filter the information that is out there, that is very much about narrowing it down a bit. But not exclusively, but narrowing down perhaps an initial search to for example, to the lineage holders, so Ip Chun and Ip Ching, so you know you’re kind of getting the same sort of forms that I currently practice anyway. But also having maybe a look at some people who have different takes on it, you know to get at something that is not too narrow to get some wider exposure.”
The way in which the students and the Sifu used these materials was pragmatic and directly related to their own practices and experiences. In addition to online materials Anu often enjoyed studying books, particularly the scientific approach to the structure of Wing Chun by Sifu Shaun Radcliffe which also includes diagrammatic representations of the art, similar to those that George had explored online.
Multimedia resources can be accessed from mobile phones, tablets, computers and can even be saved through cloud technology in ways that do not occupy physical space. Nevertheless, from the perspective of embodied training this complex consumption of media can best be broken down into three times: before, during and after physical practice. There remains a lot of work to be done in terms of how other forms of digital and online multimedia are being used, and can be used, in a pragmatic and safe manner. We touch on these issues in our tentative conclusion.
Concluding comments: A call for further research and reflection
This small-scale study remains in its infancy. Yet we hope that it makes a small contribution to the pedagogical and social scientific work on Wing Chun, traditionalist Chinese martial arts and martial arts and combat sports in general. Other researchers and exponents of the art may wish to explore how the constantly expanding and flexible body of digital media offered on YouTube, Vimeo, private and open Facebook groups, specialist (and often commercial) websites, and blogs such as this one, can combine to influence learners and teachers of Wing Chun. Likewise, researchers could (and perhaps should) examine how practitioners themselves are shaping the knowledge of the art – and how this knowledge is transmitted – to new generations of Wing Chun learners and potential students in years to come.
Due to the almost infinite and “immortal” nature of digital information, it will be interesting to chart the development of this knowledge. What can be inspiring for some is frustrating and confusing for others unable to discern skill levels, quality of technique and nuances of lineage. Issues of credibility, authenticity and authority may intrigue scholars as training exercises, history, technical explanations and “secret” applications move from tightly-knit groups and federations to Wing Chun practitioners anywhere in the world at any time, at the click of the button. This is just as Spencer mentions in the aptly titled “From Many Masters to Many Students,” which ties together ideas of transnational identities, real and imagined movements in the martial arts, such as in the case of Capoeira in Canada.
We join calls from martial arts scholars such as Paul Bowman to disrupt seemingly established disciplinary boundaries in order to join forces to explore this challenging and stimulating topic from a range of disciplinary perspectives, and with their correlating methodologies and theoretical frameworks. Our own approach was limited to a more sociological standpoint that overrode our previous inclination towards phenomenology. It may yet provide room for other investigations looking at the historical development of martial arts instructional media, the ethical issues accompanying them, the cultural sensitivities when dealing with the politics and traditions of knowledge and its possession, and issues of regulation and legal control of potentially damaging material that could lead to bad or unhealthy practice. Phenomenology may afford purchase on investigations which explore the role of the senses within pedagogic and enskillment practices involved in embodied transmission of Wing Chun knowledge. An example of such avenue in another combat sports context is a chapter examining the role of the sense in pedagogies of MMA coaches by Anu, in a forthcoming book on the senses in physical culture.
Pedagogy in its broadest sense, like our backgrounds in sport and exercise sciences, is interdisciplinary, multidisciplinary and transdisciplinary. Martial arts studies can work closely with these similarly disrupted disciplines to explore complex themes such as the one we have selected here. And so we finish this short article with a question that remains to be fully explored: How can we understand the connections between multimedia and embodied knowledge in Wing Chun and other TCMA from a multisensorial, timeless and global approach?
About the Authors
George Jennings is a lecturer in sport sociology/physical culture at the Cardiff School of Sport, Cardiff Metropolitan University. His current work examines the relationships between martial arts, health and society. Previously, George has conducted ethnographic and case studies of Wing Chun and Taijiquan, as well as an examination of the newly crated martial arts in Mexico, such as Xilam.
Anu Vaittinen is a qualitative sociologist and a health researcher based at the Institute of Health & Society at Newcastle University, interested in sociological phenomenology and development of socially situated, sensuous embodied ways of knowing within physical cultures and health. Anu is a recreational MMA and Wing Chun practitioner and novice triathlete.