What at first appears new is often something remembered. The human mind has trouble categorizing and finding meaning in anything that is truly unique or alien. Good storytellers know that originality is not always a virtue. The construction of meaning is rooted primarily in what we feel to be familiar.
The symbolic building blocks of popular culture do not change so much as they are transposed, placed in a new setting, or revealed to a different segment of the audience. It is precisely the memory of everything that came before which allows the “new” to be subversive, even when the images themselves are very familiar. This is certainly the case with Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It is equally true of the constantly evolving iterations of the martial arts which have appeared in global markets for the last five decades.
One would not necessarily guess this given the slew of articles that have been published over the last week celebrating the 20th anniversary of the first airing of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. While the show (which was produced by the WB) never won the huge audiences reserved for programing on the major networks, Buffy managed to create both a devoted following and to capitalize on the early development of on-line fan communities. The show became something of a cultural event. It even spawned an entire cottage industry of academic books and articles as scholars in fields like cultural studies, sociology and philosophy sought to parse the show’s layered discourses or discern what it suggested about the nature of social change in the post-Cold War period. Yes, “Buffy Studies” is a thing.
I should hasten to add that it is not necessarily my thing. Which is not to say that I have not been a fan of the show. I first became aware of Buffy the Vampire Slayer as a freshman in college. While I have never loved the horror genre, I was captivated by the shows’ witty writing and the fearless ways in which it delved into social debates. A single episode might introduce a theme being played out in the lives of the (human) cast, which would then find odd echoes in the main plotline. That usually involved saving the world from some sort of demonic menace. Then, just to provide a third layer of meta-commentary, the show’s more ancient heroes and villains could often be seen to discuss events like some sort of divine (or demonic) chorus in a Greek tragedy.
Combined with the evolution of characters and storylines that can occur during a seven-year run, the result was the creation of topical stories that defied the TV’s normal urge to underestimate its audience. Given the self-conscious way Buffy dealt with themes cherished by cultural and media studies scholars, it is really no surprise that so many of them seem to have fallen in love with the series. In fact, a study conducted by Slate in 2012 found that (as of that year) more academic literature (at least 20 books and 200 articles) had been produced on this show than any other popular culture property.
I will admit to being blissfully ignorant of most of this literature. I was always attracted more to the show itself. Every fan has their favorite episodes. Hands down mine would have to be “Hush,” a symbolically fought tale in which a group of traveling “Gentleman” (escaped from either a fairytale or a nightmare) have stolen the voices of an entire city’s inhabitants. With their first task complete they then proceed to collect the hearts of seven residents in glass jars. Of course, the only thing that can defeat the Gentleman is the sound of a human voice. Every couple of years I break this episode out and watch it on Halloween.
Unfortunately, I won’t have time to delve into a narrative or social analysis of Hush in this post. And even if I did, I am not sure that it would really tell us much about either Buffy or the place of the martial arts in modern society. That story is scary precisely because its villains are so alien in nature as to be basically inscrutable. They certainly feel like something that escaped from a fairytale, but it was clearly a story that the Brothers Grimm neglected to write down (possibly with good reason).
Instead I would like to ask what Martial Arts Studies might reveal about the shows popularity and its enduring legacy decades after its first release. Joss Whedon deserves a huge amount of credit for his ability to tap into young adult interests and insecurities, and to draw from them universal stories about growing up and growing old, finding your place in the world, and then discovering that this is daily process rather than a singular glorious achievement. He deftly wove together horror, comedy, adventure and drama in a way that few have.
Yet even the most casual visitor to the Buffyverse would quickly notice that the martial arts were one of the most important tools employed in telling these stories of victory and stoic defeat. For a demonically empowered group of superhuman predators, the average vampire in these episodes expressed a notable interest in taekwondo. One newly risen fiend even bragged about having studied taekwondo in college! (He did not last long, but I still found the reference fascinating).
The martial arts appeared throughout the series in many modes. Even though Buffy’s calling as “the slayer” gave her access to superhuman strength and reflexes, it was very clear that diligent training and a killer instinct were the actual keys to her success. Her on-screen martial arts were enhanced with gymnastic feats, wide telegraphed kicks and punches (similar in style to those used by Chuck Norris), and an abundance of weapons. The show also made use of Hong Kong style wirework and often exaggerated throws. The audience saw the martial arts not only in instances of pitch combat, but also in training sequences. The ensouled vampire Angel even turned to Taijiquan as part of his physical and psychological rehabilitation program after a quick trip to hell.
This is not to say that the fight scenes in the show were always great. Indeed, the action choreography in Buffy is one of the elements of the show that has not aged well. I remember my Sifu using Buffy fights as an example how not to execute a throw. While one can build great dramatic tension by throwing your opponent across the room (thus giving them a chance to get up and recover), it is much more efficient to simple drop them straight down and then stomp on their neck. In short, I don’t think that anyone should be turning to this show for self-defense advice. Yet it seems likely that it inspired many fans to take up self-defense or martial arts training.
The campy quality of many of the fights notwithstanding, it cannot be denied that there was something wonderfully subversive about the entire exercise. Who is going to take a blond high school cheerleader seriously? As so many other commentators have noted, such people are the fodder of horror films, not their heroes. Indeed, there is some evidence that large parts of the potential TV audience refused to take the show seriously simply because the name “Buffy” was used in the title. It seemed to signal a mixture of triviality and feminine values that society finds easy to ignore. Yet if you tuned in, what you found was a very relatable and complex female character saving the world on a weekly basis with little more than her friends, a wooden stake and her trusty arsenal of taekwondo kicks.
Nor was Buffy (played by Sarah Michelle Gellar) forced to carry this burden alone. The show advanced an entire set of female heroes and villains, each more interesting than the last. Faith, a somewhat fallen Slayer, was every bit as kinetic as Buffy but suggested what she might have become without her family and support system. Willow Rosenberg preferred to do combat with magic rather than her fists, yet she was also a complex individual with a dark side of her own. The show’s villains also reinforced this same feminist discourse. In the first episode a teenage boy, and seemingly nervous girl, can be seen breaking into a deserted high school at night. The audience naturally assumes that the male has the upper hand in this fraught teenage situation. Yet the tables are quickly turned when it is revealed that the “girl” is actually the coquettish vampire Darla and the boy is lunch.
A common thread seems to run through the dozens of articles that have come out in the last few weeks celebrating the cultural impact of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. While a few raise critical notes (highlighting, for instance, the show’s lack of racial diversity, or its campy fight choreography), almost all of them locate its innovative genius in its portrayal of strong female heroes and villains. Indeed, Buffy’s script writers went beyond duels with the powers of darkness to explore themes like consent, abusive relationships, systemic discrimination and intergenerational conflict.
Yet how original was this? The 1960s and 1970s generated an entire legion of fearless female heroes and adventures. They seem to have been mostly forgotten in the current crop of Buffy inspired think pieces. It may be the case that Buffy appeared to be very novel to a new generation of fans who had grown up in the 1980s. This was a decade in which the traumas of the Vietnam war ensured a turn towards increasingly masculine heroic figures. It is easy to name the male martial arts and action stars from the period (Bruce Lee, Chuck Norris, Steven Seagal, Van Dam and Sylvester Stallone), but coming up with a list of their female counterparts is more difficult. For a generation of teens in the 1990s, Buffy may have felt very new.
Yet Joss Whedon was tapping into a more fundamental shift in cultural currents rather than creating a trend on his own. In terms of television shows, Buffy’s appearance was matched by other iconic hits like Xena Warrior Princess and La Femme Nikita. Perhaps victory during the Cold War helped to heal the cultural neurosis left over from the loss of the Vietnam war. It is thus helpful to remember that the original source material for the Buffy series was the less successful 1992 feature length film. Or maybe it was something else altogether?
This is where a certain awareness of recent trends in the martial arts becomes especially helpful. As I sit at my desk I can look across my study and see an entire bookshelf full of modern publications on Wing Chun and other forms of Chinese martial arts. If you flip through these books it quickly becomes apparent that their production is not scattered evenly over the last 40 years. Rather they have come in distinct waves. The early and middle years of the 1970s saw the first big wave of Kung Fu books. This was followed up by another wave in the early 1980s.
Yet the current era of martial arts discussions really seems to have begun in the late 1990s. That is when I see the first wave of books, both Wing Chun manuals and even academic studies, that I personally identify as being truly “current” in feel. Ip Chun helped to kick this era off in the Wing Chun literature with his co-authored volumes with Michael Tse and Donny Connor. Rene Ritche’s Yuen Kay-San Wing Chun Kuen: History and Foundations, is also a classic. And the list could easily go on.
What is interesting to note about these books is that they were published within a year or two of the debut of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Each was practical in nature, yet they also showed an increased appreciation of history, attempting to draw on interviews and new theories to “set the story straight.” In the context of Wing Chun, that meant a lot of discussion and debate of the legend of Yim Wing Chun.
Yim Wing Chun herself was not new to Western martial arts culture. She had been discussed in magazines and books since the 1960s. Knowledge of her story appeared at roughly the same time that the Southern Chinese martial arts gained popularity. Yet while some individuals were certainly interested in her story during the 1960s and 1970s, she does not appear to have acquired the status of an easily recognizable “feminist icon” until the 1990s. While a few women studied with Ip Man in Hong Kong, the vast majority of his students were male. Their interests in the story (to the extent that they cared at all) were likely historical and philosophical in nature.
By the late 1990s much has changed. Arts like Wing Chun have become much more accessible in the West, and an ever-increasing number of female students were deciding to train in these systems. As the audience consuming these stories changed, so did their inflection and meaning. Publishers in the late 1990s were producing a new generation of books only because there was already a new generation of students waiting to buy them. And this social shift was underway prior to, but in the same basic era as, Buffy’s release on the small screen.
The Buffy-verse directly addresses the Chinese martial arts on a few occasions. As was previously mentioned, the ensouled vampire Angel turns to Taijiquan as a healing practice during the series. Perhaps the other significant exploration of the Chinese martial arts occurs in the episode “Fool for Love.” After a close call with a local villain, Buffy turns to the relatively experienced (and at this point semi-domesticated) vampire Spike to learn how he had been able to defeat two previous slayers during his dissolute demonic “youth.” By going through the exercise Buffy hoped was that she would learn something that would allow her to guard against a similar fate.
After revealing parts of his own backstory, Spike proceeds to narrate his first victory. In 1900 he and a small group of fellow vampires had gone to Beijing to revel and feed in the then erupting Boxer Rebellion. As the city burned around them Spike managed to corner a Chinese slayer (who was, as one would expect, a phenomenal martial artist) named Xin Rong, in a Buddhist Temple. Xin Rong, played by the Wushu performer and stunt woman Ming Qiu, repeatedly advanced on Spike with elegant jian techniques, and managed to cut him above one eye. But a random explosion in the street caused her to lose her weapon just as she was about to finish him. Spike used the opening to kill the slayer as she reached for her fallen weapon.
Even though the audience knows that Spike is narrating the death of a previous slayer, Xin Rong’s death hits the viewer like a slap. The entire premise of the series has been that seemingly weak, underestimated and female characters can come out on top. Of course, this is the same promise that has drawn so many generations of Eastern and Western students to the martial arts.
Played by the talented Ming Qiu, the audience is left with no doubt about this slayer’s martial abilities. Yet in this case both spells, the martial and the occult, are broken. Predatory masculine strength wins the day. One is also forced to ask if the English vampire’s murder of the teenage Chinese martial artist is meant to be read as a post-colonial commentary on the vast destruction of life that consumed Beijing as the Western forces faced off against (and ultimately defeat) the traditional Chinese boxers and the imperial army in the summer of 1900.
Adam Frank has noted that when imagining the ideal Chinese martial arts teacher, most individuals, in both China and the West, seem to conjure up nearly identical images of a “little old Chinese man”, wizened by age but driven by an unseen well of vitality. That very idea, in pop culture garb, even makes an early appearance in Buffy when Spike, confronting his former vampiric mentor, shouts angrily “You were my Sire. You were my Yoda!”
Yet in Joss Whedon’s universe the frame of reference, while basically familiar, has subtly shifted. He, like so many other Chinese martial arts students in the 1990s, seems to turn to a figure very much like Yim Wing Chun as the ideal Kung Fu hero. Both Xin Rong and Wing Chun are young females, marginal members of rigidly patriarchal societies, staving off predatory male advances against the backdrop of Buddhist imagery and memory.
Yet Whedon reminds us that even the best training cannot always compensate for random chance. The terrible truth of Buffy’s world is not that there are monsters who do bad things. The reality that she is forced to confront (most notably with the death of her mother) is that often the worst events come to pass for no discernable reason at all. Part of the warrior ethos, in both Buffy’s universe and the real martial arts, has always been learning to accept that much will always be beyond one’s control, but choosing to fight anyway.
A quick comparative study of the lore surrounding Yim Wing Chun and Buffy reveals both important parallels and differences. Taken as a set these may help to shed light on the growing popularity of both figures at roughly the same time. Both Buffy, the blond cheerleader, and Yim Wing Chun, an adolescent female refugee living in a province far from her birthplace, began their martial journeys as somewhat marginal figures. Obviously, Buffy enjoys a degree of economic privilege that Wing Chun does not share. Yet it is probably significant that both come from single parent homes in societies that values the nuclear family and heteronormativity above almost all else.
Indeed, the “call to adventure” (to borrow a phrase from Joseph Campbell) issued to both characters comes because each has been marked as a potential victim. It is their struggle for safety and normalcy (Yim Wing Chun wished to go through with her childhood betrothal, fulfilling Confucian expectations, while Buffy just wants to live long enough to graduate from high school) that forces them to step out into the larger world.
Both Buffy and Yim Wing Chun are given a guide along the way, and in both cases these are bookish, quasi-monastic figures (the Shaolin Abbess Ng Moy vs. the aggressively English Watcher Rupert Giles). Buffy has the benefit of super-human abilities that Wing Chun does not possess, but so do her enemies. Ultimately both figures become not just skilled warriors, but also “culture heroes” (meaning individuals who transmit a new set of values to a community of followers).
It is no coincidence that this happens at the moment of their transition between adolescence and adulthood. Both seize the fertile potential inherent in the moment of liminality and grow into something more than what their parental figures and local social elites anticipated. Both then vanish rather abruptly leaving the audience to contemplate their accomplishments but giving little indication as to what came next.
Who are the real villains both stories? In one instance we have local gangsters, and in the other considerably more colorful demonic forces. Yet both stories are broadly relatable because the immediate villains can be seen as stand ins for other types of systematic oppression that robs one of agency. These were stories meant to empower. But whom, and for what purpose?
Perhaps we can learn more by considering the endings of both stories in more detail. In the seventh and final season, Buffy unleashes a generation of “slayerettes” by using magical means to empower all of the potential female slayers in the world to rise at once. In so doing she created an army and assured that no one girl would ever have to fight the darkness alone again. Yim Wing Chun, on the other hand, is both the first and last step in an esoteric, quasi-monastic, martial tradition that sees Wing Chun spread first (in legend) throughout the Rivers and Lakes of the Pearl River Delta, and then (in reality) throughout the entire globe in a remarkable 50 year period between the 1930s and the 1980s.
Yet there are also some important differences to consider when thinking about the villains of these two stories and how the protagonists responded. It is hard not to read the legend of Yim Wing Chun, and many other Shaolin focused martial arts legends, as examples of late 19th and early 20th century nationalist mythmaking. At the end of the tale Yim Wing Chun receives the commission to oppose the Qing (China’s foreign Manchu rulers who had come to be seen as oppressing the people) and to restore the Ming (which appears to have simply been a stand-in for Han ethnic rule). Interestingly, some of the old secret society lore (explored in depth by ter Harr and others) sees the Qing as a fundamentally demonic force that must be fought as much through exorcism as on the battlefield. Indeed, it’s a world view that Buffy would be comfortable with. Yet the story of Yim Wing Chun itself (probably composed in the 1920s or 1930s) provides a more straight forward nationalist gloss on the issue.
Buffy, by comparison, is not concerned with questions of nationalism or imperialism. Rather the main conflicts that drive the narrative are social and cultural in nature. The vampires and monsters are as much a personification of our personal and social dark-side as anything else. Buffy can be a feminist iconic, rather than just an action hero, because the show quite self-consciously enters this territory as it explores the nature of the monstrous realm.
In that sense, we would seem to have a clear distinction. The Yim Wing Chun of the early 20th century inspired a community to train to face an external enemy, and became a marker of local identity. Buffy assembled her forces for what was ultimately a more introspective task. Yet stories cannot travel through geographic and temporal space without being in some way transformed. As such, when Yim Wing Chun captured the imagination of a generation of Western students in the 1990s, she was no longer being read as a symbol of Chinese nationalism in the face of foreign (often Western) imperialism, or even local identity. Instead she too was transformed into a figure promising social empowerment, and the creation of a different type of community.
Thus we find a deeply recursive relationship between the worlds of Buffy and the Asian martial arts. Far from being unique, Buffy drew on images and stories of unassuming female martial artists defeating fearsome foes which had been circulating throughout Western popular culture since the late 19th century. Indeed, without the figures like Yim Wing Chun one wonders whether Buffy would have existed at all, and if so, how she would have been different.
On the other hand, Buffy revealed changes in how these stories came to be read in the post-Cold War period. The massive popularity of this show provided a template by which a new generation of martial arts students would encounter traditional Asian figures as symbols of social, rather than national, empowerment. Buffy the Vampire Slayer both illustrated and helped to popularize new trends in the Asian martial arts. Yet to do so it drew on some of the most popular 20th century images of these fighting systems, including China’s rich traditions of sword maidens. If she could have seen the show, I suspect that Yim Wing Chun would have been a fan.
If you enjoyed this you might also want to read: Through a Lens Darkly (22): Heavy Knives and Stone Locks – Strength Training in the Traditional Chinese Martial Arts