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Chinese Martial Studies, Martial Studies, Pop Culture Kung Fu, Wing Chun

Theory and the Growth of Knowledge – Or Why You Probably Can’t Learn Kung Fu From Youtube

Ip Man Wooden Dummy.bong. 1972


Becoming Ip Man, in all the Wrong Ways


On a Saturday morning in 2011 I found myself running an “open session” for my Sifu’s Wing Chun school.  The weekday classes were always structured affairs in which learners worked their way through an extensive curriculum centered on one of the various forms in the Wing Chun system.  Monday through Thursday students were separated into individual classes for Siu Lim Tao, Chum Kiu, Biu Jee, the dummy, pole and swords.  There was also a separate introductory class in which beginners were taught basic skills before being advanced to Siu Lim Tao.

Friday nights and Saturday mornings, however, were different.  Sifu would take the day off and one of his senior students opened the school for anyone who wanted to train.  Most students were interested in working on their Chi Sao or “sticky hands.”  But in other cases people would work on skills that had been introduced during the week, perfect their forms or train on the schools dummies.

That was where I found Danny*.  In his mid-twenties he was a relatively new and enthusiastic student.  Danny had only recently been advanced from the beginner to the Siu Lim Tao class.  But he was a quick learner and spent a lot of time on social media.

Given the order in which Sifu introduced class material, Danny had never been formally introduced to the dummy form.  That would come a couple of years down the road.  But he had been shown some basic drills that could be done on the dummy to help him improve his basic skills and conditioning.

Enthusiastic as ever Danny was eager to move beyond this material.  So he went on Youtube and, in the course of a single week, taught himself the entire dummy form.  When he arrived at the school on Saturday he was eager to show me what he had been working on.

Danny admitted that the entire exercise turned out to be more complicated than he had expected.  A talented dancer, he was no stranger to the reconstructing other people’s movement techniques from video.  I must admit that this is something that does not come easily to me.  It is much easier for me to understand a sequence of movements from the way that they feel, rather than how they might look to a theoretical third party observer.  To each his own.

The first issue that Danny discovered was that there are a million versions of the dummy form on Youtube, and most of them seemed to have little in common.  He had no way of knowing which was the most appropriate model for our school (Sifu had yet to start posting his own videos).  Nor, in his estimation, were all of the performers equally skilled.  But if you do not already know the form, how can you tell who is actually doing it “correctly?”

Danny decided to cut the Gordian knot with an argument by authority.  He had not heard of a lot of the lineages and teachers that he saw on Youtube, but he did know that he was studying “Ip Man” Wing Chun.  A couple of quick searches revealed the 1972 recording of Ip Man performing the dummy form in his own home in Hong Kong.  Realizing that he just found a fount of “authenticity” Danny drank deeply.

What he proceeded to demonstrate for me was, in a word, terrifying.  It was an absolutely uncanny reproduction of the now iconic Ip Man film.  Every movement, gesture and pause was flawlessly reproduced.  And yet what was performed was most definitely not our dummy form.  It was at best a shadow of it, a type of Kung Fu mime.  Movements that can contain power did not, his angles of approach were all just a bit off (which is a problem when you are punching a block of solid wood), and his form lacked the cadence one typically sees (I suspect because the video he worked from had no sound).  Yet before my eyes a young and healthy student was transformed into a frail Cantonese gentleman.

The entire thing was an exercise in self-transformation, just not any of the ones that the dummy form is usually concerned with.  I asked Danny if he knew how Ip Man had died, and he did not.  What followed was an explanation of the fact that the recordings he had seen were of an old sick man in the final stages of throat cancer.  Some of what Danny had been practicing was indeed dummy material.  Yet a surprising amount of it was simply the imitation of a single specific moment in time.

One suspects that if we had a recording of Ip Man’s dummy form during the 1930s he would have approached it somewhat differently.  And it still would have been “authentic” Wing Chun.  Yet which recording would a modern student find more useful?

Simply jumping into the world of Youtube instruction thus presents two problems.  First, we must locate the appropriate model.  Next we need to determine what is actually significant, and what is secondary, in that performance.

Danny’s solution to the fist problem was actually clever.  Indeed, our schools version of the dummy form is virtually identical to what he saw in the video.  But without a firm grasp of the basic techniques and philosophy of Wing Chun, he was not able to separate out the core purpose of the dummy form from all of the secondary considerations that emerged at one specific moment in 1972.


An image of the Ancient Jedi Master Bodo Baas appears to Kam Solusar as the keeper of a Holocron. Source: wookieepedia

An image of the Ancient Jedi Master Bodo Baas appears to Kam Solusar as the keeper of a Holocron. Source: wookieepedia


The Jedi’s Holocron


I had not thought about Danny or that incident back in my Sifu’s school for years.  Yet for the last couple of days it has been on my mind.  Recently George Jennings and Anu Vaittinen visited Kung Fu Tea and shared some of their research on the growing presence of the multi-media resources within the Wing Chun community.  While other scholars have tackled the issue from the film and media studies perspective, they were more interested in pedagogical questions.  How does the omnipresent smartphone, with instant access to a huge database of video, change the way in which Wing Chun is taught or learned?

Of course this situation is in no way restricted to Wing Chun.  All of the more popular styles seem to be inundated with on-line instructors and students offering a wealth of free advice.  The combat sports (Boxing, Wrestling, Kickboxing, MMA) have been using film as part of training and fight preparation since literally the invention of the moving picture.  From that perspective, the TCMA are relative latecomers to a crowded media landscape.

It was my ongoing ethnographic fieldwork with the Central Lightsaber Academy that first forced me to confront these issues in my personal training.  While I have mostly managed to avoid the social-media scene surrounding Wing Chun, Darth Nihilius (also a Wing Chun Sifu), is very engaged with these technologies of communication.  He has brought this same enthusiasm to his lightsaber combat class.  In order to help students practice various techniques at home he posts frequent video updates to his Facebook groups and Youtube channel.

Lots of material is inevitably pulled into these discussions from other places as well.  Much of that comes from the Terra Prime Lightsaber Academy, run by another individual with an extensive background in the Chinese martial arts. This group functions, at least in part, as a sort of “virtual lightsaber school.”

It has assembled a training and advancement program and put out a huge number of videos on a mind-boggling number of topics.  Students who do not have the benefit of direct classroom instruction can go through this material on their own, post videos of their progress, and get detailed criticism and feedback from a select group of more experienced practitioners within the TPLA.

Within the TPLA community you will find some lightsaber students associated with traditional schools (much like Darth Nihilius’ CLA), and others who gather only in the digital realm as “learners in exile.”  Needless to say, this type of hybrid teaching structure is only possible because of relatively recent advances in communications technology.  Yet even the students within more traditional schools are encouraged to keep video diaries of their own training, as well as to consult the extensive library of teaching resources that can be found on-line.

One finds these sorts of hybrid and networked teaching structures in other places as well.  Aspects of the Taijiquan community, which combines both traditional schools as well as large numbers of semi-detached and solo-practitioners, comes immediately to mind.  Yet when we begin to look at these practices through the lens of the lightsaber community, it all begins to look like a case of life imitating art.

One of the many iconic images to be found in the Star Wars extended universe is the “holocron.” Shaped as either a cube or pyramidal box, and made up of a complex arrangement of crystals and circuitry, this supposedly ancient technology allowed Jedi and Sith masters to store vast amounts of information for future generations.  Explicitly designed as a pedagogical tools, a holocron possessed an artificial intelligence that could access and display recordings from many fields of knowledge, including lightsaber combat.  And while they were not “alive,” these devices were said to have been able to detect both the motivations and skills of their users.  This allowed them to withhold information until such a time as it might provide real insight.

More than once I have found myself holding a lightsaber in one hand, and my phone in the other, as I attempted to work my way through a new training exercise. (Unfortunately we have yet to perfect the holographic display, which would greatly simplify things).  At those moments I sometimes think how close we have come to being able to realize the essential promise of a holocron.  Twenty minutes later, when I find myself still working on the same basic sequence, I am more likely to reflect on the pedagogical distance between a Youtube video and the assembled wisdom of the Jedi sages.

Such has been the case over the last few days.  I was recently assigned to begin learning a new form (or “dulon”) in my lightsaber class.  Due to upcoming travel over the next few weeks Darth Nihilius mentioned that I should look at the various videos that have been produced on this particular form and keep working on my own.

This has worked fine for learning the basic sequence of techniques in the dulon.  Yet as any martial artist can tell you, there is more to learning a form than just mastering the gross motor movements.  Those only put you in a place where the real work of perfecting intent, energy, and the fine details of technique can begin.

Nor is this material of secondary importance.  Very often conceptual arguments are encoded in the rhythm and energy of a form.  This is where one might also find a dulon’s more elusive “internal aspect.”  Unfortunately “energy” and “intent,” qualities that can be easily felt and experienced, do not always come through on video.

This is not to say that they never come through.  The more depth of knowledge you have in these areas, the more you will be able to decode in another martial artists performance.  Yet there are always secondary considerations that cloud the picture.  And the very fact that you are attempting to learn a dulon from a video clip in the first place suggests that you may not be totally qualified to critique and deconstruct its performance.

On the small black holocron that currently sits on my desk, I have four different recordings of the dulon that I am currently working.  They were recorded by two different instructors (both trusted sources) over the last couple of years.  While the basic sequence of techniques in each of these recordings is the same, when examined carefully the fine details between them are sometimes strikingly different.

In one form the movements are clear and distinct, punctuated by brief pauses in which a stance is held.  When one watches the blade tip it looks as though most of the movements and cuts are basically linear in their travel.

In the next recording the instructor appears to be working on presenting a smooth flow of movement.  The sword tip never rests, so much so that certain techniques that were distinct in the first recording seem to be totally swallowed in the second.  Further, some movements that had previously been linear now take on a looping quality in which economy of motion is traded for momentum.

The third recording goes even further down this same pathway.  Now the swordsman’s body seems to be allowed to arch and sway in compensation for specific techniques.  This form also covers the least ground and the footwork is, in places, restricted.

The final recording is different still.  Its movements are sharp and linear.  This quality of movement has been tied to a feeling of aggression not seen in the first three.  Upon closer inspection it seems to be the result of more power being issued through each of the strikes and a slightly faster tempo of footwork covering more ground.

Danny worked from only a single recording of Ip Man.  As such he had no subtle variations to fixate upon.  Without an exterior frame of reference (or a strong grounding in the basics of the style) each small detail in the form looked as valid and central to the performance of the set as the next.

My current situation is slightly different as I can directly observe the same individuals performing the same form in slightly different ways.  My background as a martial artist leads me to suspect that both environmental and personal factors are at play.  In one case the room was too short and the footwork at the end of the dulon had to be altered to accommodate the environment.  But did a feeling of being “cramped” alter other aspects of the performance as well?

Nor do martial artists always approach a form with the same goals.  At certain times their objective might be to give a clear performance for the audience.  In another practice session they may be trying to flow smoothly between actions.  Later they might practice the form for power development.

How then do we locate the essence of a form in this plethora of representation?  A holocron that presents information selectively, and possesses a sense of its own authority, might be able to help.  A smartphone, on the other hand, leaves us to our own devices.


Instruction at a TPLA Workshop held on April 30th, 2016. Source: The TPLA Facebook Group.

Instruction at a TPLA Workshop held on April 30th, 2016. Source: The TPLA Facebook Group.


Martial Arts, Lakatos and the Scientific Research Program


Perhaps we can begin to think more critically about this problem by abstracting away from the realm of the martial arts.  One of my favorite books in graduate school was Imre Lakatos and Alan Musgrave’s co-edited volume Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge.  This was derived from the proceedings of the International Colloquium in the Philosophy of Science held in London in 1965.  At these meetings a number of philosophers responded to Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.  Lakatos attempted to bridge the gap between Popper and Kuhn by advancing his own notion that science was based not so much on discrete, easily falsified theories (Popper’s position), but on more holistic “research programs.”

In retrospect it seems like an odd book to find in a survey course on the Theories of International Relations.  And the debates over the epistemology of knowledge have moved on from where they were in the middle of the 1960s.  Still, I often find myself thinking back to ideas I first encountered in this collection, even when I am working with a lightsaber or wooden dummy.

There are many ways to conceptualize the martial arts.  Some students seem to regard them as a collection of discrete techniques to be mastered.  Other individuals look to them as vehicles of philosophical understanding, a “way of life.”  In my academic work I tend to view them as social organizations.  Indeed, the martial arts really only exist when there is (at least potentially) a master and an apprentice.

Another possibility is to think of them as something similar to scientific theories, each of which is upheld and expanded by a dedicated community of researchers.  More specifically, many martial arts seem to be based around particular theories of violence. They contain certain core assumptions about how the human body works, and responds in different situations.

These are then hedged about with smaller secondary theories regarding what sorts of attacks one is most likely to encounter (Wing Chun often defaults to multiple attacker scenarios), and what sorts of structures will most likely to be effective (ones that control the “center line”).  Beyond that, there are a number of commonly shared minor hypothesis (punching wall bags and hanging heavy bags helps to build “good structure”), that get tested in schools around the globe on a nightly basis.

But what if our theory is wrong?  The seemingly utilitarian logic of science (championed by Popper) would call on us to discard our theories when we first encounter evidence that contradicts them.  Thus when Bruce Lee’s fight with Wong Jack Man was not as successful as he hoped, he moved farther away from his traditional Wing Chun training.

There is a great deal of wisdom in knowing when to move.  Still, one must be cautious when employing such an approach.  The basic problem with falsification based models of learning is that there is always a mismatch between our theories of reality, and the way that reality actually functions.

Simply put, the world is an exceedingly complex place.  Even a single topic, like community violence, is maddeningly complicated.  The human mind is simply incapable for fully perceiving, let alone computing, all of the facts necessary to deal with “reality.” As a result we create theories.  They are essentially simplified visions of reality that focuses on only the key points that are necessary for us to solve our problem.

J. Z. Smith has argued that theories, like maps, guide us through unknown territory. Yet no map is perfectly accurate. That would require a document drawn in one-to-one scale.  Such a thing would literally blanket and hide the territory that it was meant to reveal.  What makes a map truly useful is not what is included, but that which is left behind.  The more you omit, the easier it is to carry the map in your pocket or read it on a crowded subway car.  A map that is too large or cumbersome to read is, by definition, not useful.

Like maps, theories are simplifications of reality.  What this means is that in a strict sense every theory is born falsified.  That is the original sin of disciplined academic thought, particularly in the social sciences.  How one moves forward from that point has been the subject of debate.1  Yet on some level we hold on to our theories because they are useful to us.  100% descriptive accuracy has never been a possibility, nor is it really the point of the exercise.

Whether the Wing Chun structure will perfectly defend against specialists in every known type of violence (it will not), is not a relevant question.  Instead we need to ask, “Will this be useful to me in a number of situations against the sorts of attackers that I personally am likely to encounter?” Again, there are many reasons why someone might train in the martial arts that have nothing to do with self-defense.  But my hope is that this line of thought will help us to think more carefully about framing relevant questions.

Lakatos had quite a bit to say on what happens next.  Because all theories of violence (or anything else) will depart from reality on some level, the only thing that can actually falsify one approach is the creation of a “better” theory.  Failure to explain all observed facts is never enough.

What constitutes a “better” theory?  According to Lakatos we should only accept the second theory if it could accomplish three tasks:

1) It must do all the intellectual work that the first theory did.

2) It must account for the specific failure of that theory.

3) It must go on to explain a range of new and novel facts that are both important and unrelated to specific events of 1 and 2.

Admittedly that is a pretty high bar.  But when it is achieved we tend to see sweeping “paradigm shifts” in our understanding of a topic, much as Kuhn predicted. Unfortunately this insight alone did not solve Lakatos’ epistemological problems.  Nor will it resolve the dilemma posed in the first half of this essay.

To put the matter simply, we must still be able to define and identify our theories before we can collectively test them.  Nor is that process always easy in either the sciences (“Sure Dr. Jone’s work talks about the density of star formation, but is it really central to our theory of dark matter?”) or in the martial arts (“Yes, everyone says the Red Boat martial artists flipped their butterfly swords into reverse grips when training in confined spaces, but is that relevant to Wing Chun’s core understanding of bladed combat?”).

Lakatos observed that the work of actual scientists rarely conformed to the simplistic models of a single theory and set of hypotheses envisioned by most philosophers.   In real life we see lots of research teams working on many different projects, not all of which share the same basic assumptions.  So how do we locate the “real” theory of quantum gravity?  Or for that matter the real “Shii-cho” in lightsaber combat?

To solve the dilemma Lakatos observed that theoretical discussions are never unitary.  Instead we see at least two elements within a theory.  He called them a “positive” and “negative” heuristic.  But it might be simpler to think of them as a hard inner core of axiomatic insights, and a flexible outer belt of protective hypothesis and minor theories that can be derived from them.

When an important assumption was challenged a new set of hypotheses might be added to the protective belt to protect it.  If astronomers notice that the stars in a galaxy rotate faster than they expect given the observable mass of its cosmic structures, rather than throwing out our theory of gravity and starting from scratch, we might instead save Newton by postulating the existence of some sort of “dark matter” that does not interact with light or electromagnetic forces.  In fact, that is exactly what scientists have done, and the results have been fairly fruitful if not entirely satisfying.

Likewise, when I watch four unique performances of the same lightsaber Dulon, or I see two of my Wing Chun brothers play the same dummy set in slightly different ways, I do not assume that every small detail is equally valid and that somehow one performance has invalidated the others.  Instead there may be secondary considerations for what I have seen.  One student may be trying to develop energy in his dummy set, while the other is working on relaxation and flow.

This is the advantage of having multiple views of related events.  Through a process of elimination one might be able to work back towards the central core of the form.  Yet our view of the world is always incomplete.  We will never have a complete play list of all of the valid ways in which the form could be played, and so any inductively derived understanding of the theory behind the form must always remain incomplete.


Robert Downey Jr. and Eric Orem working on the wooden dummy.

Robert Downey Jr. and Eric Orem working on the wooden dummy.



Conclusion: When the student is ready….


Having access to a skilled teacher is helpful on any number of levels.  Yet in this particular case they are able to speak to what Lakatos’ might call a martial art’s “central conceptual core” and the “protective belt” of training strategies and individual innovations.  They can relate to a student their specific theory of violence.  It may or may not be an accurate representation of reality, but it is certainly easier to encounter these ideas through conversation than by attempting to inductively derive everything from videos on a smartphone.

Most importantly of all, a teacher is able to withhold information in a way that Google and Youtube are not.  They should know when to step in to instruct, but also when to step back and tell the student to continue to drill the basics.  There is something almost seductive about the sheer amount of video that is now available on many fighting systems.  Yet the pure weight of this unsorted, ungraded and often very opinionated information that can also be stifling.

Once a common core of knowledge and insight has been built up through dedicated practice, much that was a mystery (“Should my blade tip cut in a direct line, or loop back and swing forward?”) naturally falls into place.  Having a vast sea of martial knowledge at our finger tips must be counted as an asset.  Yet perhaps the more valuable one is having a teacher that can inspire us to put the phone down, return to the basics, and solve some of these problems for ourselves.

It is important not to overstate this case.  The advent of virtually free video has been a major boon for the martial arts.  My fieldwork in the lightsaber community has introduced me to its undeniable pedagogical value, from the quick distribution of class notes and “homework assignments,” to the creation of movement archives with real depth.  Nor do I think that teachers within the traditional arts should be too quick to dismiss these tools as mere distractions.

Nevertheless, they do have limitations.  Most recordings capture only a single performance, crystallizing a specific moment in time.  Yet from these we seek generalizable understandings.

The results of imitating such sources too closely are often unfortunate.  Lakatos’ understanding of scientific inquiry helps us to understand why this method so frequently fails.  The inductive study of discrete events simply does not give us a reliable way to separate out the central defining aspects of a martial theory from the epiphenomenal aspects of a given recording. Creating ever more technically advanced recordings of a discrete sequence of performances, such as we see with some efforts to document the Asian martial arts for their cultural heritage value, does not resolve these more basic philosophical problems.

Ultimately multimedia resources work better when accessed in conjunction with other types of instruction.  Note, for instance, that the TPLA does not simply post their videos on-line and tell the Learners in Exile to have at it.  These students are instead encouraged to post their own progress reports, receive specific points of feedback, and be proactively engaged in a rich conceptual discussion.

Perhaps asking whether it is possible to learn Kung Fu from a video is actually the wrong question.  The much more relevant one would seem to be why in an age of abundant expertise, declining training costs and virtually free electronic communication, do so many individuals want to try?  That is fundamentally a sociological rather than a technical or philosophical issue.  Yet those who wish to preserve and pass on these fighting systems must grapple with its answers.

*As always when discussing fieldwork, names and identifying features have been changed to protect the innocent.

  1. “Kuhn as does Popper rejects the idea that science grows by accumulation of eternal truths. But while according to Popper science is ‘revolution in permanence’, and criticism the heart of the scientific enterprise, according to Kuhn revolution is exceptional and, indeed, extra-scientific, and criticism is, in ‘normal’ times, anathema… The clash between Popper and Kuhn is not about a mere technical point in epistemology. It concerns our central intellectual values, and has implications not only for theoretical physics but also for the underdeveloped social sciences and even for moral and political philosophy. If even in science there is no other way of judging a theory but by assessing the number, faith and vocal energy of its supporters, then this must be even more so in the social sciences: truth lies in power. Thus Kuhn’s position would vindicate, no doubt, unintentionally, the basic political credo of contemporary religious maniacs (“student revolutionaries”).”   *Imre Lakatos (1974), Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge.




If you enjoyed this post be sure to also check out:  Costly Signals, Credible Threats and the Problem of Reality in the Chinese Martial Arts




2 thoughts on “Theory and the Growth of Knowledge – Or Why You Probably Can’t Learn Kung Fu From Youtube

  1. This was exactly what I need to read right now. Thanks so much for writing it.


    Gahlord Dewald President/Janitor Thoughtfaucet

    http://thoughtfaucet.com http://linkedIn.com/in/gahlorddewald


    Posted by Jack Jones | September 23, 2016, 2:09 pm


  1. Pingback: Is Defence Lab the future face of martial arts? Here are ten reasons it could be . . . - Budō Inochi - January 4, 2017

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