I recently had the good fortune to attend the 2016 Martial Arts Studies conference held at the German Sports University of Cologne, sponsored by the German Society of Sport Science’s Martial Arts Commission.  The theme of this year’s gathering was “Martial Arts and Society.”  Over the course of three days (October 6th-8th) I saw dozens of papers and posters on a number of fascinating topics.  I am happy to report that the future of Martial Arts Studies in Germany looks very bright.  In my next post I hope to be able to offer a complete report on the conference.

In the mean time, I would like to post the text of my keynote, delivered on the morning of October the 8th.  When I was initially contacted about this conference the organizers asked me to reflect on the process of writing my recent book on Wing Chun, to discuss why this style makes a potentially interesting case study, and to explore the process of writing good, engaging, martial arts history.  The following paper is a result of my reflections on those questions.  But, just to keep things interesting, I have also tossed in a couple of new discoveries uncovered during the course of my recent research at Cornell.

On a more personal note I would like to extend a special note of thanks to three individuals.  Prof. Dr. Swen Korner (and family) for the great hospitality and stimulating conversations that they offered over the course of these meetings.  Next, Leo Istas for all of his hard work in helping to bring this conference together and making it possible for me to attend.  And lastly Sixt Wetzler, who generously introduced me to some priceless treasures at the German Blade Museum (more on that later).  It was a great conference, and I highly recommend that anyone who has the chance to attend in future years do so.

Creating Wing Chun: Towards a Social History of the Southern Chinese Martial Arts


Why should scholars be concerned with the history of the Asia martial arts?  And why is social history, in which we seek to understand the practices of ordinary people by situating their involvement with these fighting systems against a broad range of factors, particularly useful?  This paper addresses these questions as they related to my recent book, co-authored with Jon Nielson, The Creation of Wing Chun: A Social History of the Southern Chinese Martial Arts (SUNY Press, 2015).  It begins with two stories.

The first is a well-known legend within the TCMA community.  I am sure that there are people in this room who know it well.  It is the creation myth that is taught to every student within the Ip Man branch of the Wing Chun system.

Ip Man (1893-1972) was a master of a Chinese martial arts style called Wing Chun.  He became a prominent figure in the hand combat community after he fled to Hong Kong from his native town of Foshan in 1949, just ahead of the Communist advance.  Once in Hong Kong, economic necessity forced the aging Ip Man to open a martial arts school from which he promoted what had previously been a local art.  One of his best known students, the American actor and martial artist Bruce Lee, transformed his art into a global phenomenon.[1]

Our second story comes from the pages of the July 13th, 1872, edition of a now forgotten newspaper called the North China Herald.  Published in English, this newspaper was popular with Western expatriates living in Shanghai and other parts of China.  I have never seen this account discussed in any publication on the Chinese martial arts.

In some respects these stories will be quite different, yet shared concerns and themes echo between them.  Taken as a set they help to illustrate the questions that emerge when we attempt to write social history.  Let us begin by attempting to imagine two competing visions of the Southern Chinese martial arts as they may (or may not) have existed at some point in the past.  The first of them comes directly from the brush of Ip Man.
The Burning of the Shaolin Temple and the Birth of Wing Chun

“The founder of the Ving Tsun Kung fu system, Miss Yim Ving Tsun was a native of Canton China. As a young girl, she was intelligent and athletic, upstanding and manly. She was betrothed to Leung Bok Chau, a salt merchant of Fukien. Soon after that, her mother died. Her father, Yim Yee, was wrongfully accused of a crime, and nearly went to jail. So the family moved far away, and finally settled down at the foot of Tai Leung Mountain at the Yunnan-Szechuan border. There, they earned a living by selling bean curd. All this happened during the reign of Emperor K’anghsi (1662-1722).

At the time, kungfu was becoming very strong in Siu Lam Monastery (Shaolin Monastery) of Mt. Sung, Honan. This aroused the fear of the Manchu government, which sent troops to attack the Monastery. They were unsuccessful. A man called Chan Man Wai was the First Placed Graduate of the Civil Service Examination that year. He was seeking favour with the government, and suggested a plan. He plotted with Siu Lam monk Ma Ning Yee and others. They set fire to the Monastery while soldiers attacked it from the outside. Siu Lam was burnt down, and the monks scattered. Buddhist Abbess Ng Mui, Abbot Chi Shin, Abbot Pak Mei, Master Fung To Tak and Master Miu Hin escaped and fled their separate ways.

Ng Mui took refuge in White Crane Temple on Mt. Tai Leung (also known as Mt. Chai Har). There she came to know Yim Yee and his daughter Yim Ving Tsun. She bought bean curds at their store. They became friends.

Ving Tsun was a young woman then, and her beauty attracted the attention of a local bully. He tried to force Ving Tsun to marry him. She and her father were very worried. Ng Mui learned of this and took pity on Ving Tsun. She agreed to teach Ving Tsun fighting techniques so that she could protect herself. Then she would be able to solve the problem with the bully, and marry Leung Bok Chau, her betrothed husband.

So Ving Tsun followed Ng Mui into the mountains, and started to learn kung fu. She trained night and day, and mastered the techniques. Then she challenged the local bully to a fight and beat him. Ng Mui set off to travel around the country, but before she left, she told Ving Tsun to strictly honour the kung fu traditions, to develop her kungf u after her marriage, and to help the people working to overthrow the Manchu government and restore the Ming Dynasty. This is how Ving Tsun kung fu was handed down by Abbess Ng Mui.”[2]


After this point the Wing Chun creation myth becomes a more standard lineage genealogy.  It relates how the art was passed first to a group of traveling Cantonese Opera performers, then to a prominent Foshan pharmacist named Leung Jan and his student, Chan Wah Shun, and finally to Ip Man himself.

It is difficult to establish the date of this story with precision.  The version that I just read to you was written down by Ip Man in the Hong Kong period of his career in anticipation of the creation of an organization called the “Ving Tsun Tong Fellowship.”[3] For whatever reason, that group never materialized and this hand written account was found in his papers following his death in 1972.

The popularity of this story in other Wing Chun lineages strongly suggests that it was something that was in general circulation by the 1930s.  As we argued in our book, this myth, in its current form, probably dates to the Republic period as it relies rather heavily on the figure Ng Moy who in older versions of the Shaolin myth was actually a villain.  She was not reimagined as a hero until a group of novels were published in the 1930s.[4]

Leaving aside specific arguments about the origin of the Wing Chun system, this story is of interest because it paints a vivid picture of the world of the southern Chinese martial arts during the 18th and 19th centuries.  Consider some of the major themes that we find in this legend.  First, the martial arts occupy a lawless environment in which the state is powerless to enforce order.

Still, the situation is anarchic (as that term is defined by political scientists) rather than purely chaotic.[5]  There is a certain code of conduct that contains and shapes the expression of violence within the community.  This is exemplified by the challenge fight with the marketplace bully, rather than a resort to private war.  Lastly, there is just a hint of romance wrapped in a large dose of social propriety.[6]  We see this expressed when Yim Wing Chun fights off an unwanted suitor to preserve the honor of her childhood fiancée, whom she has probably never seen before.

All of this happens in an undeniably romanticized Chinese landscape.  The actions starts when the Yim family flees the known world of the Pearl River Delta and heads for a far off mountain in Western China complete with mist covered temples and a mysterious Buddhist recluse.  It all sounds oddly like the plot of a kung fu movie.[7]  By the conclusion of the story the reader has no reason to doubt the inherent virtue of the southern Chinese martial arts.

Our second story, published under the title “Chinese Boxing,” also revolves around a life-defining challenge fight.  This event took place in a much more mundane environment, totally lacking in mist covered temples. Yet it also echoes many of the same themes found in the first story.

Image taken from a vintage french postcard showing soldiers gambling in Yunnan province.  Note that the standing soldier on the left is holding a hudiedao in a reverse grip.  Source: Author's personal collection.
Image taken from a vintage french postcard showing soldiers gambling in Yunnan province. Note that the standing soldier on the left is holding a hudiedao in a reverse grip. Source: Author’s personal collection.

A Death in the Marketplace

“If there is one particular rather than another in which we might least expect to find John Chinaman resemble John Bull, it is in the practice of boxing.  The meek celestial does get roused occasionally, but he usually declines a hand to hand encounter, unless impelled by the courage of despair.  He is generally credited with a keen appreciation of the advantages of running away, as compared with the treat of standing up to be knocked down, and is slow to claim the high privilege the ancients thought worthy to be allowed only to freemen, of being beaten to the consistency of a jelly. 

How the race must rise in the estimation of foreigners, therefore, when we mention that the noble art of self-defence and legitimate aggressiveness flourished in China centuries probably before the “Fancy” ever formed a ring in that Britain which has come to be regarded as the home of boxing.  Of course, like everything else in China, the science has rather deteriorated than improved; its practice is rough; its laws unsystematized; its Professors of the art, called “fist-teachers,” offer their services to initiate their countrymen in the use of their “maulies,” and, in addition in throwing out their feet in a dexterous manner…

…Boxing clubs are kept up in country villages, where pugilists meet and contest the honours of the ring…

We are not unused to hearing of fatal encounters in the Western ring, where the brutal sport is hedged about with restrictions intended to guard against its most serious eventuality, but in China homicide in such affairs is made more frequent by the admission of kicking.  A case of the sort has just occurred at Tachang, a village about eight miles due north from the Stone Bridge over the Soochow creek. 

In a teashop where gambler and boxers were wont to meet, a dispute arose between two men about 18 cash, and it was arranged to settle it by fight.  After a few rounds, one man succeeded in knocking over the other, with a violent kick to the side.  The man sprang to his feet, exclaiming “Ah! That was well done,” and as he advanced to meet his antagonist again, suddenly fell back, dead. 

Consternation fell on those concerned in the matter, and every effort was made to evade a judicial enquiry.  The relatives of the deceased, however, come forward to make the usual capital out of their misfortune.  They seized the homicide, put him in chains, and bound him for two days and nights to the body of the dead man, which had been removed to the upper part of the teahouse. 

An arrangement for a pecuniary salve to their lacerated feeling was made, by which the people in the neighborhood paid $150, the teahouse keeper $100, and the dealer of the fatal blow $50.  But gambling and fighting had drained the resources of the latter, he was an impoverished rowdy without a respectable connection in the world, except the betrothal tie, by which the fate of a young lady was linked with his, before either had a will to consult or the wayward tendency of his character had appeared.  Glad of an opportunity to break off the engagement, the young lady’s friends came forward and offered to pay the sum if he would surrender all claim to his fiancée. 

The offer being accepted, the whole affair was settled; the sum of a Chinese boxing match being thus one combatant killed, a teahouse keeper ruined, a neighborhood heavily fined, and a marriage engagement broken off.  Probably such incidents occur very often, but if the parties can settle it among themselves, the magistrates, for their own sakes, are only too glad to have the matter hushed up.”[8]

One could write an entire paper analyzing, deconstructing and investigating this short news item.  Period accounts of actual challenge matches, and their social aftermath, are extremely rare in any language.  Yet consider the major themes shared between the two stories.  Unlike the previous legend, this one can be dated with a fair amount of precision.  It is an account of events that probably happened sometime in the summer of 1872, reported to the English reading public on July 13th of that year.

That is significant as it makes this fight roughly contemporaneous with a critical stage in the development of Wing Chun.  Leung Jan, the pharmacist from Foshan who we just mentioned, may have been instructing his friend from the marketplace, Chan Wah Shun, as all of this was happening.[9]  Nevertheless, this description of the 19th century martial arts lacks the exotic orientalism and romance of its predecessor.

Still, the martial arts are once again associated with economic marketplaces and the types of ruffians one might find there.  That is an important clue for historians of the Chinese hand combat systems to contemplate.

In the first, more romanticized, story the martial arts are seen as the means by which social norms are upheld.  The second case demonstrates the opposite possibility as the fight leads only to death, financial ruin the dissolution of an engagement.  Yet in both instances individuals seem to believe that keeping the state out of the matter is a good idea.

The thematic differences between these accounts are also interesting.  In the first story Yim Wing Chun and her family are very much alone in a hostile world.  Yet the second account reminds us that in reality the Chinese martial arts, and social violence more generally, occurred in villages that were dominated by strong clan structures.

In fact, most villages of this size would contain between one and three surnames, being dominated by a few large clans.  While the author of the article chose not to go into detail on this point, taking a male who has wronged your clan hostage and holding him until a hefty ransom was paid was not an uncommon way of settling inter-village disputes in the late Qing.

Tone is perhaps the most important difference between these stories.  The account of Yim Wing Chun emerges from within the world of Chinese boxing.  It is an emic explanation of these fighting systems which views them as a fundamentally positive means by which individuals address pressing personal and community matters.

The second story is etic in nature, presenting us with an outsider’s perspective.  Moreover, the anonymous author of the account of the fight in Tachang Village held the world of the Chinese martial arts in low regard.  In other portions of this account that I omitted due to the limitations of time it seems possible that he does not think all that highly of the English sport of boxing either.  One wonders whether his criticisms of people who practice the Chinese martial arts should be read as a subtle jab at his Western readers who may well be fans of their own forms of boxing.

Still, this air of disdain is quite accurate in some respects as it reminds us that, even in the volatile second half of the 19th century, most respectable individuals in China were not interested in the martial arts.  They found these practices, and the individuals who took them up, to be socially marginal.  Nevertheless, once we control for questions of tone, the author’s outsider perspective yields a number of interesting historical and ethnographic observations.

An interior picture of the renown library at Shaolin.  Prominently displayed in the center are copper plated Buddhist scriptures.  Researchers on the expidition also noted that this library contained illustrated manuscripts and a collection of staffs from historically important monks.
An interior picture of the renown library at Shaolin prior to the 1928 destruction. Prominently displayed in the center are copper plated Buddhist scriptures. Researchers on the expedition also noted that this library contained illustrated manuscripts and a collection of staffs from historically important monks.



My Method of Social History


We now have two competing accounts of the Southern Chinese martial arts.  One is a period account of an alleged event that was likely recorded a few weeks after the fight in question transpired.  The other is a legend, an example of folk history, which purports to reveal the origins of an increasingly popular regional fighting tradition that was already a century old.

There is also the matter of social memory.  One of these accounts is still known, believed, taught and enacted in communities around the globe.[10]  Individuals look to it for inspiration and technical guidance as they seek to transform themselves through the practice of the martial arts.  The other story, while probably much more factually accurate, has been totally forgotten.  Its service as a cautionary tale ceased to be relevant when the community that it sought to inform dissolved in the 20th century.

When faced with two differing accounts, the first question that we often ask is in many respects the least helpful.  Students will look at these two contrasting descriptions of the Southern Chinese martial arts and want to know, “which one is true?”  Which vision most accurately captures “reality?”[11] On some level the answer must be neither.

The problems with the Wing Chun creation legend are more obvious.  The Southern Shaolin Temple, as it is described by the region’s martial artists, likely never existed.  And the Shaolin Temple of Henan province (specifically referenced in the Ip Man version of the story) was never burned by Qing.  Nor did they slaughter its monks.

These are established facts, not up for historical debate.  It is quite suggestive that some of the figures in this account show up as characters in late-Qing kung fu novels long before they appear anywhere else.  Likewise, the resemblance of the heroines of the Wing Chun legend to central female figures in the creation accounts of White Crane Boxing (from Fujian) is probably not a coincidence.

Our second account also has some serious problems.  It is in no way a shining example of investigative journalism, even by 19th century standards.  The author makes no effort to hide the fact that he is far from neutral observer.  Nor does he include some very basic facts in his account, such as the names of the two fighters, or even the date on which these events took place.

The level of descriptive detail in this account leads me to suspect that it is basically credible.  Yet the way in which it is written strongly suggests that the point of this article was never to teach readers technical or sociological facts about Chinese boxing.  Rather, it was a transparent attempt to convince them to imagine China in a certain way.  It is basically an exercise in the construction of ethnic and national “mythologies” by other means.

The correlation between the socio-economic status of our authors and the ways in which they discussed the martial arts is probably not a coincidence.  As one reads the various accounts of the martial arts that appeared in the popular press in China between the 1870s and the 1940s we see competition between groups who viewed the personal empowerment promised by the martial arts in positive terms, those who wish to reform these practices and put them at the disposal of the state, and lastly a large group of relatively elite voices that viewed the martial arts as a backwards waste of resources that had no place in a modern China.  The crafting of accounts supporting these different positions is highly reminiscent of the process that James C. Scott described in his classic study, Weapons of the Weak: Everyday forms of Peasant Resistance.[12]

In many respects the preceding accounts are fairly representative of the sorts of data that scholars discover throughout the course of their research.  Faced with such narratives, all of which have been shaped by other hands, what is a social historian to do?

First we must step back and think carefully about research design.  What is the actual object of our analysis?  What puzzles are we attempting to solve?  Is our goal really to understand the technical development of a hand combat system?  Or are we instead interested in the community that developed and transmitted these practices at different points in time?

Good social history is concerned with the production of sound descriptive and causal inferences.  My approach to these questions is probably a result our background in the social sciences and training in the case study (rather than the area studies) approach.  As such, both Jon Nielson and I were interested in moving beyond purely interpretive exercises.  We wished to develop a framework that could speak directly to a range of sociological theories.[13]

Without denying the fruitfulness of the “embodied turn” that we have seen in fields like sociology and anthropology over the last few decades,[14] we would suggest that students of martial arts studies think very carefully about their linked methodological and theoretical assumptions.  The hand combat systems are said to be “arts” precisely because they exist only as social institutions.   They differ from pure violence in that these techniques exist within a framework of ideas and identities which are meant to be conveyed from teacher to student.[15]  Questions of community involvement are not superfluous to the development of the martial arts.  Rather, they are central to the entire enterprise.

The author of the 1872 article was absolutely correct to identify the individuals most likely to invest themselves in these systems of practice and knowledge as being socially marginal.  Nor is this pattern isolated to China in the Qing or Republic periods.  Modern sociologists and anthropologists have noted a link between many hand combat traditions and social marginality in a wide range of cultures and settings.[16]

This is precisely why historians interested in questions of social history and popular culture must take note of the Chinese martial arts.  As in most places, the history of China was written by educated elites.  This makes the day to day realities of most people’s lives very difficult to reconstruct.

The Chinese martial arts are interesting in that they offer a unique window into the hopes and concerns of a large segment of the population that might otherwise be overlooked.  Further, the lineage based nature of these fighting systems means that modern organizations and practices continue to look to the past for legitimacy.  These fighting systems have sometimes preserved information, usually stories but in other cases actual documents, that historians will find useful.

More importantly, members of the local community tend to regard martial art traditions as being ancient and the guardians of certain types of values.  While most of the Asian fighting systems that people actually practice are very much products of the modern era, they are nevertheless closely tied to critical discourses about identity, community violence and history.

There are other social organizations that share many of these same traits.  I actually began my research on community organization and violence in China before I ever became personally involved in the practice of kung fu.  Initially I was conducting research on new religious movements and their association with violent uprisings in the late Qing dynasty in an attempt to test a general theory of the relationship between religious communities and the generation of social capital.[17]

After giving a paper on social capital and the Boxer Uprising at the 2009 Midwest Political Science Association meetings, one of the commentators suggested that I take a look at some of the events in southern China.  He was attempting to direct my attention to the Taiping Rebellion.  As I began to investigate the issue I was surprised to find a number of martial arts schools still in existence that claimed a heritage going back to those events.  This memory of revolutionary action, whether real or imagined, would arise again within these groups at later moments of historical crisis.[18]

At that point I became quite interested in the development of the martial arts associations of southern China.  Other sorts of social organizations, like trade guilds, clan associations or new religious movements might occasionally become involved in community violence.  Yet martial arts societies often viewed themselves as specialists in this realm.[19]  While the trade guilds of Beijing and Yihi Boxers of Shandong have ceased to exist, many of southern China’s martial arts movements are still with us today.  As a student of globalization, I was also fascinated by the degree of success that these groups had enjoyed in spreading themselves throughout the world.[20]

Shortly after coming to these realizations I began a personal study of Wing Chun with Jon Nielson, who at the time also taught at the same university where I was employed.  He was interested in many of the same historical and theoretical questions and had been planning a more limited historical research project of his own.  At that point we began to discuss the possibility of putting together a broadly based, theoretically informed, study of Wing Chun.

This seemed like an obvious topic as my co-author is a direct student of Ip Ching, one of Ip Man’s surviving children.  We were assured of getting access to certain resources that would be helpful in understanding the evolution of this particular system.  Yet basic research design questions still required serious thought.  Making a contribution to the social scientific literature requires more than just access to good data or an interesting story.  Specifically, one needs a theory.

We began our investigation with a simple premise.  We proposed that increased instances of community instability would lead, in time, to the development new martial arts organizations.  Rather than simply providing self-defense training on an individual level, these organizations should be seen as expressions of the community’s self-interest and would be tolerated by local elites (who might otherwise fear their rebellious potential) to the extent that they provided a degree of stability.  In short, while martial artists often posture as outsiders who flaunt societal conventions, in fact they played an important role within traditional Chinese communities.

Further, the impulse to create and fund such groups is basically rational in nature and it varies with the level of demand.  A purely cultural explanation of the martial arts might, on the other hand, see them as relatively constant over time as cultural factors change more slowly than political or economic ones. If the martial arts are simply an expression of timeless patterns in Chinese culture, then there would be no reason to expect that their popularity would decline in times of peace.  In fact, with extra resources to dedicate to non-essential activities, their practice might even increase in popularity. As the idiom goes, constants cannot explain variables.

In order to test this theory we developed a few implicit hypotheses.  The first of these was that factors that decreased community stability would lead to an increase in martial arts activity.  Given my academic background in international relations, one of the variables that we were immediately drawn to was globalization, meaning rapid increases in the flow of goods, capital, individuals and ideas across previously closed borders.


During the 19th century China’s once isolated and protected markets were forcibly opened to global trade on a massive scale.  As the country’s economy adjusted to new patterns of imports and exports some people discovered windfall profits.  Many more found themselves trapped in dying modes of handicraft production and agriculture.  In short, shifts in trade always create waves of winners and loser.  Unless carefully managed this contributes to social instability.[21]

When viewed in this context, the development of Wing Chun suddenly begins to look very interesting.  The practice originated in the Pearl River Delta region of Guangdong province, home to Guangzhou (Canton), Foshan and Hong Kong, three major economic centers of trade and production.  This was also the first region of China to be opened to foreign trade and missionary work on a massive scale.

As Jon Nielson and I discussed possible research and writing strategies we realized that in addition to providing a window onto the popular culture of ordinary Chinese citizens, our project suggested ways in which a large number of additional theories could be tested or explored using the Chinese martial arts as a data source.  Unfortunately, there were very few known historical facts about these systems.  And most of the work that had been done focused on systems coming out of Shanghai or Northern China.[22]  In some cases their findings had been extrapolated, we felt incorrectly, to make generalizations about all of the Chinese martial arts.

The nature of the existing literature thus helped to shape our research design.  Rather than focusing exclusively on Wing Chun (which would remain our major case study) we would attempt to provide a detailed social history of the martial arts in a single region in Southern China.  It would involve the exploration of economic, political, social and cultural factors within the Pearl River Delta.

Since our subject of analysis was now geographic in nature, we would be free to examine a number of the leading styles rather than focusing only on a single art. Given our personal backgrounds in Wing Chun, the inclusion of other systems (such as Choy Li Fut, White Eyebrow or the Jingwu movement) was also important from a research design standpoint.  It ensured that we would not test our ideas about the relationship between the martial arts and their social environment on the exact same body of insights that we used to derive our basic theoretical model.

Further, these other arts tended to have different relationships with the main economic, social and political variables that we discussed.  So while we presented our readers a single case study, a rich reading of the area’s martial history allowed us to multiply our observations in ways that we hoped would allow us to avoid issues like tautology and selection bias.[23]

Inevitably many of our findings had to be left out of the final manuscript.  Even with the amount of space that we dedicated to Wing Chun, it was impossible to go much beyond Ip Man’s lineage in a single volume.  Other southern arts, such as Hung Gar, certainly deserved more discussion than they received.  Yet our hope was that by providing a comprehensive social history of the region’s martial arts community, students of these other lineages and styles would be able to discover the sorts of forces that had an impact on the development of their own practice.  Likewise, social scientists interested in a wide variety of theoretical questions would be able to turn to our book as a reliable source of description and data.

This brings us back to the questions posed by the two stories introduced at the start of this paper.  If we focus only on a technical history of the Chinese martial arts, seeking to verify the claims of various lineage myths, we are bound to be disappointed.  The historical record is simply too thin in most places.  And as Foucault reminds us, a high degree of caution and introspection is necessary whenever scholars find themselves striking out to discover, rather than to question, the “origins” of a revered practice.[24]  Martial arts studies must not become an apologetic exercise.

Nor, on a more practical level, is the question of “ultimate origins” of much interest to scholars who approach these fighting systems from an outside perspective.  Indeed, the most interesting question is not whether Ng Moy really created Wing Chun, but rather why that specific story became so important to groups of teenagers living in Hong Kong in the 1960s.  Why does that image still resonate with so many Western martial artists today?

When approached through the lens of social history, the stories that introduced this discussion reveal a wealth of information about the communities that composed and passed them on.  That, in turn, suggests something important about the nature and purpose of the southern Chinese martial arts themselves.  The social history of these fighting systems gives us a way to better understand the intersection of these folk narratives with a vast variety of economic, political and cultural variables.



Why Should Readers Care About the Social History of the Martial Arts?

Finally, why should the general reader care about the social history of the Asian martial arts? It may be cliché to say, but explorations of history are rarely concerned only with the past.  Ideally such works speak also to the concerns of readers in the present.  I second D. S. Farrer’s call, first made in his keynote address to the 2015 Martial Arts Studies meetings at the University of Cardiff: our field must tackle socially relevant questions and present actual solutions.[25]

Wing Chun, and the other Chinese martial arts, are fascinating precisely because they offer us an opportunity to investigate many pressing issues.  At this moment there is more interest than ever in the development of Chinese regional and national identity.  The evolving situation in Hong Kong is particularly relevant given Wing Chun’s current status as a powerful symbol of that city’s local, and increasingly independent, identity.[26]

Yet beyond such geographically focused concerns, do these systems, many of which were tied to specific moments in the 20th century, still have something to teach us today?  I would like to argue that they do.  This message comes in the form of both a warning and an opportunity.

Nothing demonstrates the continued social relevance of the Chinese martial arts more quickly than an examination of our current multi-media environment.  Simply turn on the television.  The Asian martial arts have come to be an expected element of film, tv programing and even major sporting events.

They are dramatized in novels and comic books.  An entire subsection of the internet seems to be dedicated to both instructional and comedic videos featuring martial artists.[27]  Indeed, most of us got our first exposure to the martial arts via some sort of mediated image, and not through direct exposure to actual physical practice.

This state of affairs is actually less of a historical departure than one might think.  Residents of southern China in the Qing and Republic periods also lived in an environment saturated with entertainment based visions of the martial arts.  They came in the form of Cantonese operas, marketplace performers, professional storytellers, serialized newspaper stories, collectible cigarette cards, kung fu novels and later radio dramas and films.[28]

It was through these routes that many residents of Guangdong and Hong Kong first developed an interest in these fighting systems.  To fully understand the social work that the martial arts have done in various times and places, one must give careful thought to social discourses, mediatized images and the economic markets that surround them.[29]  First impressions are a powerful force.

Consider the portrayal of the Chinese martial arts in current film.  Audiences seem to be attracted to the unapologetic violence in many of these stories.  The fight choreography of the Xu Haofeng’s recent film The Master (2015) is likely to appeal to modern Western Wing Chun practitioners given the abundant use of Butterfly Swords (the style’s signature weapon). Or consider Donnie Yen’s dojo fight scene in Wilson Ip’s 2008 biopic Ip Man, in which he wipes out an entire room of karate students.  While watching these sequences one cannot help but take note of the sheer body count that the various protagonists manage to rack up.  At times I am reminded of the Bride’s blade work (minus the copious blood) in Quentin Tarantino 2003 homage to the kung fu genre, Kill Bill.

Nor are these the only places in the current media landscape where viewers might find such images.  Scenes of unskilled, nameless, and thoughtless attacker being cut down by the dozens bring to mind the exaggerated action and martial arts stylings of the Resident Evil franchise, or the grittier violence of The Walking Dead.  I suspect that on some level there is a shared language of violence in these two genres (the kung fu film and zombie thriller).  In both cases spectacular portrayals of violence are placed in the service of a “world creation” exercise.

These images of violence underscore the break with the conventional social rules that govern the audience’s mundane lives.  Thus they are a primary aspect of the story, and not simply a stylistic flourish. The martial arts epic and the post-apocalyptic zombie adventure offer us a world that does away with the “decadent” comforts and conventions of the current environment.  They present a stage on which only the “awesome” will survive.

Who are these heroes?  Among their ranks we find the awesomely strong, the skilled, the cagey and sometimes the evil.  Every new world, it seems, needs an iconic villain.


In short, the subtext of many of these stories seems to be that those who will survive and thrive in these new realms are individuals who are “like us,” because they embody precisely the traits that we like to imagine in ourselves.  There is an unmistakable air of wish fulfillment in these secondary creations.  As we watch our heroes fight their way across the exotic landscapes of a fantasy Oriental past, or the post-apocalyptic future, they embody and project back to us our own love of masculinity, rugged independence and stoic resilience.

Perhaps we should not be surprised that the sense of looming social and economic crisis that has helped to popularize such stories over the last few decades is also thought to have contributed to the rise of various types of extremist movements around the globe.  Rather than the inevitable triumph of globalization and liberal democracy envisioned at the end of the Cold War, we are seeing the rise of violent (and media savvy) non-state actors, illiberal democracies, and both populist and rightist movements.  Nor, as Jared Miracle reminded us in the conclusion of his recent study of the global spread of the Asian martial arts, should we forget that in the past these political movements were sometimes associated with these fighting systems.[30]

The ethno-nationalist turn in certain martial arts, pioneered in Japan and China during the first half of the 20th century, provided a mechanism by which their symbolic association with physical strength, national heritage and masculinity could be marshalled and placed at the disposal of both extremist political movements and the state.[31]  We would be unwise to ignore the fact that there is much in the popular culture of the martial arts, in both the East and West, which continues to make them a tempting target for appropriation by such groups today.

Are these traits part of the essential nature of the Asian fighting arts?  Or were they instead epiphenomenal and historically contingent, a relic of the particular circumstances under which these systems achieved momentum as mass social movements?

This is another area where a better understanding of the social history of the southern Chinese martial arts might provide us with models for thinking about the current situation.  Consider again the stories that introduced this paper, the myth of Yim Wing Chun and the fight in Tachang Village.  From the final decades of the 19th century to the current era many of the region’s Wuxia novels, and other types of martial arts storytelling, have focused on the lives of impossibly talented wandering heroes in the Jianghu, or the realm of “Rivers and Lakes,” not unlike Ng Moy and her student.

This somewhat unsettling territory (imagined as an alternate social dimension, ever present yet just beyond the edge of our own life experience) seems to suffer from a lack of effective central governance.  What government exists is often seen as corrupt and in the process of oppressing the people.  The protagonists of these stories, frequently the inheritors of ancient martial arts lineages, are thus forced to seek their own solutions to pressing problems.  As one would expect in novels feature a colorful array of wandering monks, corrupt soldiers and hidden kung fu masters, this often involves an enthralling resort to arms.  These stories actively sought to create a sense of nostalgia among their readers for a type of past that never existed.

At first glance the rough and tumble realm of “Rivers and Lakes” would seem to bear more than a passing resemblance to the ultraviolent fantasy worlds of Kill Bill or Resident Evil.  It too seems to have an established hierarchy of awesomeness based on one’s strength, fighting style and the “martial virtue.” What use do wandering swordsmen have for village life and its many restraints?

Yet first impressions can also be deceptive.  While it may not always be apparent, the wandering swordsmen of the Rivers and Lakes are often quite concerned with questions of both social organization and justice.  Far from being only violent escapist fantasies, many of the most popular stories were rooted in easily identifiable debates about political ideals and social modernization.

Two scholars of the Wuxia literary genre, John Hamm and Petrous Liu have examined these stories from slightly different perspectives.  As Liu argued in his study of Chinese martial arts literature, Stateless Subjects (Cornell EAP, 2011), when understood in their original context such novels were often obsessed with political questions.[32]  Nor did they view traditional society as a mediocre mass that the martial hero fought to escape.

Rather than attempting to establish a hierarchy of social organization based exclusively on martial strength, the real controversy in many of these narratives seems to have been the preexisting forms of social order inherited from the late Qing, the Warlord period and even the Communist eras.  In short, internal imperialism and the teleology of western models of modernization were the problems that demanded a solution.

By demonstrating possible ways that society could address serious, even existential, concerns without recourse to a coercive state apparatus, these stories sought to argue for a social model that was essentially horizontal in organization, drawing on the strength of what current Western scholarship calls civil society.[33]  These authors advanced a model that placed authority in the hands of society and not in an externally imposed hierarchy emanating from a far off center.

While we tend to imagine these stories, and even the creation myths of the various southern martial arts, as reflecting the values of ancient China, it is probably no coincidence that the giants of the genre, individuals like Xiang Kairan (1890-1957) and later Jin Yong (born 1924), wrote in moments of social and political upheaval.  All of these stories, like the martial arts of Southern China themselves, emerged from a period of when the character of “modern China” was being actively debated.

During this period the traditional martial arts argued for a specific vision of the future by creating an idealized past.  Within it the holistic nature of Chinese culture need not give way to teleological dreams imported from the West.  As Liu observed, and Jon Neilson and I attempted to document in the area of physical practice and social organization, they crafted a vision of Chinese modernity in which action would be organized according to the principals of Minjian “between people” as opposed to the universal, centralized and always state dominated frameworks inherent in the idea of Tianxia, or “all under heaven.”[34]

Liu suggested that this was the real reason for the May 4th Intellectuals opposition to the supposedly “feudal” Wuxia genre.[35]  Similar concerns also seem to have motivated much of the Central Guoshu Institute’s anxieties about the China’s thriving local martial arts marketplaces in regions like Guangdong and Fujian.[36]

It was not that these stories and practices, as they came to exist in the 1920s and 1930s, accurately represented China’s ancient past.  Rather they represented an alternate view of the future.  It was one in which the state would serve the interests of a diverse and robust society, rather than an artificially homogenized society being placed at the disposal of a technocratic and highly centralized state.  Other intellectuals, deeply invested in models of modernization that privileged a strong state, found these (extremely popular) notions threatening.

The social history of the Southern Chinese martial arts matter because they reveal moments when these institutions, practices and reformers stood at a crossroads.  A close examination of any of the Asian martial arts will show that these things never existed in a vacuum.  Nor have they been motivated by a timeless and inscrutable morality uniquely their own.

Our account of Wing Chun demonstrated that the region’s martial arts have always functioned in conjunction with other social, economic, political and even aesthetic impulses.  For instance, it is just not possible to tell the story of this style without also exploring its relationship with Guangdong’s yellow unions, or its close alignment with bourgeois social interest within a landscape marked by class struggle.[37]  In China, but also in other places in Asia, individuals have become involved in the martial arts precisely because they have sought a voice in ongoing debates as to how we should react to the ongoing challenges of globalization, modernization and rapid social change.[38]

As we review these debates, or examine the life histories of masters like Ip Man, we are reminded that many aspects of these practices, and the values that seem to underpin them, are radically historically contingent.  The traditional Chinese martial arts could have evolved in many ways over the course of the 20th century.  And the changes have been striking.

Rediscovering this history is important as it reminds modern martial artists that they also have choices to make.  They must choose, just as their predecessors did, where to innovate and when to adhere to tradition. In social and political discussions, they must choose how these fighting systems will be presented to the public.

What sorts of values will the modern martial arts advance?  Will they be governed by the principal of Minjian, attempting to reach out horizontally, creating broad based coalitions of cooperation within civil society?  Or will the martial arts put their resources at the disposal of those seeking to rebuild the hierarchies of awesomeness by supporting violent, illiberal or simply exclusionary ethno-nationalist ideals?

I do not pretend that a study of the past can offer definitive guidance in the present.  As we read about the actions of those who came before we are reminded that the choices made now will have consequences.  Likewise the ways in which scholars chose to write about the martial arts may have important implications for our understanding of not just these practices, but of ourselves as well.



Works Cited

Almond, Gabriel and Sidney Verba. 1989. The Civic Culture: Political Attitudes and Democracy In Five Nations. Sage.

Amos, Daniel. 1983. “Marginality and the Heroes Art: Martial Arts in Hong Kong and Guangzhou (Canton).” PhD Diss.,University of California.

Bennett, Alexander C. 2015. Kendo: Culture of the Sword. Los Angles: University of California Press. 123-162.

Berg, Esther and Inken Prohl. 2014. ‘“Become your Best”: On the Construction of Martial Arts as Means of Self-Actualization and Self-Improvement.” JOMEC Journal 5.

Boretz, Avron. 2011. Gods, Ghosts and Gangsters: Ritual Violence, Martial Arts, and Masculinity on the Margins of Chinese Society. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.

Bowman, Paul. 2016. Mythologies of Martial Arts. New York: Rowman & Littlefield.

Bowman, Paul. 2015.  Martial Arts Studies: Disrupting Disciplinary Boundaries. New York: Rowman & Littlefield.

Cass, Vitoria. 1999. Dangerous Women: Warriors, Grannies and Geishas of the Ming. New York: Rowman & Littlefield.

Channon, Alex and George Jennings. 2014. “Exploring Embodiment through Martial Arts and Combat Sports: A Review of Empirical Research.” Sport in Society: Cultures, Commerce, Media, Politics. 17:6. 773-789.

“Chinese Boxing.” North China Herald. July 13th, 1872.

Farrer, D. S. “Efficiency and Entertainment in Martial Arts Studies: Anthropological Perspectives.” A Keynote Address Presented at the June 2015 Martial Arts Studies conference held at Cardiff University.

Farrer, D. S. 2015 (b). “Efficacy and Entertainment in Martial Arts Studies: Anthropological Perspectives.” Martial Arts Studies 1. 43.

Farrer, D. S. and John Whallen-Bridge. 2011. Martial Arts as Embodied Knowledge: Asian Traditions in a Transnational World. Albany, NY: SUNY Press.

Foucault, Michel. 1977. “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History.” In Language, Counter-Memory, Practice: Selected Essays and Interviews. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Frank, Adam. 2006. Taijiquan and the Search for the Little Old Chinese Man: Understanding Identity through Martial Arts. New York: Palgrave.

Gainty, Denis. 2015. Martial Arts and the Body Politic in Meiji Japan. Routledge.

Garcia, Raul Sanchez and Dale C. Spenser. 2014. Fighting Scholars: Habitus and Ethnographies of Martial Arts and Combat Sports.  New York: Anthem Press.

Hamm, John Christopher. 2005. Paper Swordsmen: Yin Yong and the Modern Chinese Martial Arts Novel. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press

Henning, Stanley. 2003. “Martial Arts in Chinese Physical Culture, 1856-1965.” In Martial Arts in the Modern World, edited by Thomas A. Green and Joseph R. Svinth. London: Praeger. 13-35

Hurst, G. Cameron. 1998. Armed Martial Arts of Japan: Swordsmanship and Archery. New Haven: Yale UP.

Ip Chun and Michael Tse. 1998. Wing Chun Kung Fu: Traditional Chinese Kung Fu for Self-Defence and Health. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin.

Ip Man. “The Origin of Wing Chun.” accessed 9/18/2017.

Judkins, Benjamin N. 2016. “The Seven Forms of Lightsaber Combat: Hyper-Reality and the Invention of the Martial Arts.” Martial Arts Studies. 2. 6-22.

Judkins, Benjamin N. “Does Religiously Generated Social Capital Intensify or Mediate Violent Conflict? Lessons from the Boxer Uprising.” Presented at the 67th MPSA National Meetings in Chicago, IL, April 2-5, 2009.

Judkins, Benjamin N. and Jon Nielson. 2015. The Creation of Wing Chun: A Social History of the Southern Chinese Martial Arts. Albany, NY: SUNY Press.

Kennedy, Brian and Elizabeth Guo. 2010. Jingwu: The School that Transformed Kung Fu. Berkeley: Blue Snake Books.

King, Gary, Robert Keohane, and Sidney Verba. 1994. Designing Social Inquiry: Scientific Inference in Qualitative Research. Princeton University Press.

Lee, James Yimm. 1972. Wing Chun Kung Fu: Chinese Art of Self Defense. Santa Clarita, CA: Ohara Publications.

Liu, Petrus. 2011. Stateless Subjects: Chinese Martial Arts Literature & Postcolonial History. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University, East Asia Program.

Lorge, Peter. 2012. Chinese Martial Arts: From Antiquity to the Twenty-First Century. Cambridge UP.

Miracle, Jared. 2016. Now with Kung Fu Grip! How Bodybuilders, Soldiers and a Hairdresser Reinvented the Martial Arts for America.  Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland.

Morris, Andrew. 2004. Marrow of the Nation: A History of Sport and Physical Culture in Republican China.  Berkley: University of California Press.

Putnam, Robert D., Robert Leonardi, Raffaella Y. Nanetti; Robert Leonardi; Raffaella Y. Nanetti. 1994. Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions in Modern Italy. Princeton University Press.

Rogowski, Ronald. 1989. Commerce and Coalitions: How Trade Affects Domestic Political Alignments. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Scott, James C. 1985. Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Shahar, Meir. 2008. The Shaolin Monastery: History, Religion, and the Chinese Martial Arts. Honolulu: Hawaii UP.

Vaccaro, Christian. 2015. Unleashing Manhood in the Cage: Masculinity and Mixed Martial Arts. Lexington Books.

Walkman, Frederic Jr. 1997. Strangers at the Gate: Social Disorder in South China, 1839-1861. Los Angles: University of California Press.

Waltz, Kenneth N. 1979.  Theory of International Politics. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Wacquant, Loïc. 2003. Body & Soul: Notebooks of an Apprentice Boxer. Oxford University Press.

Wert, Michael. 2016. Review of: Alexander C. Bennett.  2015. Kendo: Culture of the Sword. UC Press. The Journal of Japanese Studies. 42:2 (Summer). 371-375.

Wetzler, Sixt. 2015. “Martial Arts Studies as Kulturwissenschaft: A Possible Theoretical Framework.” Martial Arts Studies. 1. 20-33.

Wong, Doc Fai and Jane Hallander. 1985. Choy Li Fut Kung Fu: A Dynamic Fighting Art Descended from the Monks of the Shaolin Temple. Burbank CA; Unique Publications.

Zhao Shiqing. 2010. “Imagining Martial Arts in Hong Kong: Understanding Local Identity through ‘Ip Man’.”  Journal of Chinese Martial Studies 1, no. 3. 85-89.

[1] Judkins and Nielson 2015, 179-186; 211-263.

[2] Ip Man. “The Origin of Wing Chun.” accessed 9/18/2017.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Hamm 2005, 34-36.

[5] Waltz 1979, 102-116.

[6] Cass (1999) provides an excellent discussion of the inherent social tensions within Chinese images of archetypal female warriors.

[7] Adam Frank (2006, 35-36), among others, has discussed the tendency towards self-Orientalizing within the Chinese martial arts.  It is not hard to imagine some of the motives behind this development.  Once the martial arts came to be linked to the project of building a robust sense of Chinese nationalism in the 1920s and 1930s, the Central Guoshu Association and other actors showed a strong tendency to link these fighting systems with supposedly “essential” and “primordial” Chinese traits that they wished to promote.  Authors of Wuxia novels also marshaled idealized visions of the past to support their own vision of China’s future.  Nor has this project ever been totally forgotten.

[8] “Chinese Boxing.” North China Herald. July 13th, 1872.

[9] Judkins and Nielson 175-176.

[10] Practically all of the basic guidebooks on the Wing Chun system relate this story.  Chun and Tse 1998, 16-21.  Even James Yimm Lee’s notoriously taciturn manual, Wing Chun Kung Fu: Chinese Art of Self Defense, produced from Bruce Lee’s class notes, includes a brief summary of the story.

[11] The concept of “reality” plays an important part in popular discussion of the martial arts.  Bowman (2015) 109-135.

[12] Scott 1985.

[13] King,Keohane and Verba 1994.

[14] Key contributions in this literature include Wacquant 2003; Farrer and Whallen-Bridge 2011; and various contributors in Garcia and Spenser 2014.

[15] The definition of the martial arts (and whether focusing on the topic is even a good idea) is contested: Channon and Jennings 2014; Wetzler 2015; Judkins 2016; Bowman 2016. Nevertheless, all of these authors share points of agreement regarding the fundamentally social nature of these practices.  That is likely the proper place to beginning a historical exploration.

[16] Amos 1983; Boretz 2011. Perhaps the best known statement on marginality and the combat sports in North America has been provided by Loic Wacquant (2003) who approached boxing as a way to understand life in the Chicago ghetto. All of these works touch on the interaction of social marginality and masculinity.  Those topics have been taken up more directly by Miracle 2016 and Vaccaro 2015. Collectively this literature suggests that the martial arts can be seen as an exercise in individual and community self-creation rising out of the experience of exclusion and self-doubt. Berg and Prohl (2014) note that this is how these fighting systems have self-consciously described themselves and their mission in the modern era.

[17] Judkins 2009.

[18] This tendency seems particularly well developed in the folk history of Choy Li Fut.  See for instance Wong and Hallander 1985; Judkins and Nielson 92-99.

[19] While most emic accounts of Chinese martial arts history seem to focus on lineage creation accounts and emphasize the “purity” of martial practice, contemporary etic reports indicate that one was most likely to find serious martial artists gainfully employed in roles that focused on the management of social coercion and violence.  Examples of such careers might include working as a tax collector for the Imperial salt monopoly, being an enforcer in a gambling house, working in law enforcement or traveling as an armed escort protecting merchant caravans.  Judkins and Nielson 73-74; 125-129; 205-206.

[20] Ibid 265-281.

[21] For a classic statement on how the expansion of free trade exacerbates social cleavages (sometimes to the point of violence) and effects political outcomes see Rogowski 1989.

[22] Shahar 2008. Kennedy and Guo (2010), in an otherwise fine work discussing the Jingwu Association, illustrate some of the problems that arise from universal extrapolations based on only a single city or region. The best introduction to the Chinese martial arts has been provided by Peter Lorge (2012). Unfortunately, for our purposes, this volume lacks a sufficiently detailed discussion of Southern China.  Much of Lorge’s work also tends to focus on earlier eras of military history.  More focused examinations of the modern Chinese martial arts have been provided by Stanley Henning (2003) and Andrew Morris (2004).  Yet again, the history of the martial arts in Southern China and Hong Kong has gone largely unexamined.

[23] For a discussion of the ways in which a single case study can be used to test progressively more complex theories see King, Keohane and Verba 208-229.

[24]Foucault 1977; Michael Wert (2016) has recently noted that scholars of martial arts studies who are also practitioners of the disciplines that they research are not immune to these traps.

[25] D. S. Farrer 2015, 2015(b).

[26] Zhao 2010.

[27] For a discussion of the importance of martial arts humor see Bowman 2016, chapter two.

[28] Hamm, in his study of martial arts fiction, noted that radio dramas (now a mostly forgotten genre) helped to bridge the worlds of early martial arts fiction and modern Kung Fu films. 39-40.

[29] Bowman 2015, 155-157.

[30] Miracle 163-165.

[31] Morris 195-228; Hurst 1998; Bennett 2015.

[32] Liu 2011.

[33] Almond and Verba (1989) and Putnam (1994) provide classic, social-scientific, studies of the concept.

[34] Judkins and Nielson 16.

[35] Liu 8-9; 29-38; 39; 59-60.

[36] Judkins and Nielson 160-163.

[37] Judkins and Nielson 116-124.

[38] Gainty 2015.