Martial Mythology (1): Yim Wing Chun and the Hero’s Journey



For someone who doesn’t read classical Chinese, I spend a lot of time in seminars listening to presentations on ancient texts.  Cornell regularly invites visiting scholars to discuss their work.  While none of these individuals has ever given a talk on a martial arts related project, they almost always suggest points worth thinking about.

This last week Guolong Lai, a professor of archeology at the University of Florida, gave a fascinating talk on the translation of a Warring States era document.  Like many of the documents that survive from the period, these had been written on thin bamboo strips that were then buried in a tomb.  When the tomb flooded they were trapped in an oxygen starved environment.  After being stabilized each bamboo strip was surprisingly clean and easy to read.

Still, Professor Lai had a problem.  The various strips had been disassociated from each other and mixed with strips taken from other texts (possibly by the individuals who looted the tomb).  Previous scholars had attempted to do a basic reconstruction in which they sorted this mass of separate sentences back into piles representing a handful of documents.  Once you could be fairly certain which strips went together, one could start to reconstruct the narratives like a puzzle.  This part of the process is generally easier than you would think.

Indeed, Prof. Lai observed that it may be entirely too easy.  We should probably treat the speed with which entire texts are reconstructed with a certain degree of skepticism.  The problem is that the human brain is just too good at pattern recognition.  We naturally strive to find and reconstruct meaning.  And when its not there, sometimes we force things.  It turns out there are a number of ways to resurrect a physically deconstructed text, and many of them can be made to tell remarkably coherent stories.

Obviously this is a challenge for archaeologists and students of ancient Chinese literature.  How do you know that you put the sentences in the right order?  Or on a more basic level, how could you tell if an entire group of sentences was just missing?

Lai’s solution to the problem was to approach these texts not from the technical perspective of archaeology or linguistics, but rather through literary analysis.  To do so he turned to a group of (somewhat unfashionable) structuralist theories coming out of the field of narratology.  Looking at similar texts from the Warring States period its easy to find very popular, almost fixed, story telling structures shared across a wide range of texts.  Using these literary patterns as a map he could demonstrate with relative ease where the gaps (in the form of missing bamboo strips) were, and note where other scholars had forced readings and continuities on the text that may not have been there.  The anthropologists in the room were thrilled.  I am not sure everyone else was equally taken with this methodology.  I walked out of the room thinking “Score one for structuralism.”


Japanese high school students during the 1930s. Source: Author’s personal collection.


Finding the Universal in the Particular

Finding universal patterns in texts is a tricky business.  When we are doing genre analysis on a small group of similar texts all found in the same place, and all produced by a single social class, the identification of repeated patterns may not be much of a stretch.  The problem, however, is that we (being obsessed with pattern recognition) will almost immediately start to find that same pattern in lots of other places as well.  We are then faced with a dilemma.  Do we really have a sound theoretical reason to expect to see this correlation, or are we simply allowing our imagination to get the best of us?

I was struck with these questions as I listened to Lai.  The burial text that he was reconstructing told the story of a religious debate in ancient bronze age China.  It related that after a battle had been fought in which territory was gained at the expense of lives, the natural order was upset.  The kingdom was gripped by a drought, and the King’s sages told him of a river god in the newly conquered territory that was no longer being honored.  The court then faced a dilemma.  Could the king go out and sacrifice to strange gods (separate from his own ancestral and territorial cults) in an attempt to appease them?  Or was this a situation that called for an exorcism of the vanquished gods and ghosts?

It should be remembered that this is a very early text, predating the establishment of the political and religious logic of Empire.  As such the King opted for spiritual warfare rather than appeasement and all was right with the world.  Yet I could not help but reflect on that fact that (while the final solution was different), this was a very familiar story.  It was a dilemma that I had heard many times before.  But I knew the story from Ming dynasty novels (such as the Canonization of the Gods and Water Margin) in which Chinese communities enacted rituals to transform the ghosts of vanquished soldiers and gods into local deities so that they could receive regular sacrifices without upsetting the social order.

On a theoretical level there is very little connection between popular religion and literature in the Ming dynasty and the coffin texts of the Warring States period.  I have no idea how to draw those dotted lines.  Do we postulate the existence of “universal symbols” within “Chinese” culture, or do we do our best to ignore the fact that very similar discussions keep popping up in very different times and places?

China is not the only region that presents such challenges.  Starting in the late 19th century (the era that saw the high water mark of Western imperialism) several writers, including Edward Taylor and James Frazer, began to examine comparative collections of mythology and folklore.  They noted that certain patterns seemed to repeat themselves in stories that were generated by cultures who had no contact with one another, or who had even existed at different times.  Taylor stated that stories of wandering heroes often shared a remarkable number of elements.  The goal of this early research was varied, but some scholars wanted to be able to map the plot elements of story sequence with the same sort of precision that one might chart the elements of grammar in a sentence.  The hunt was on for seemingly universal aspects of the narrative process.

This basic insight found expression in a several theories.  Anthropologists and those interested in rituals identified universal structures, expressed in van Gennep’s tripartite pattern of separation, liminality or initiation, and return.  The nascent field of psychology also found inspiration in these shared narrative patterns. Yet rather than exploring the differences of human culture they tended to fixate on supposedly universal aspects of the human psyche, the problem of the subconscious, and the process by which children became mature individuals.  Being rooted in fundamental structures of biology, the stage was set to transition from a search for the universal rules to narrative construction, to the discovery of humanity’s universal narrative, or monomyth.

Writers such as Otto Rank (a follower of Freud) and Carl Jung, laid the intellectual foundations for such a move.  Yet it found its most popular and widespread expression in the writings of Joseph Campbell.  Campbell was deeply familiar with Jung’s body of work and was a student of world mythology.  Critics have accused him of being a “mere popularizer” of other’s work, and someone who failed to sufficiently research or cite the many story traditions that he drew on.  Certain elements of this critique have merit, but Campbell’s work cannot simply be reduced to Jungian insights and might be better understood as a creative extension and synthesis of intellectual currents that were then popular.

One of the most fruitful hypothesis to emerge from Campbell’s career is the notion that a universal story can be found in the “hero’s journey.” On a purely individual and psychological level, the hero’s journey can be thought of as a metaphor for a universal coming of age process that all human beings experience.   Yet, according to Campbell, the universality of the process has also found expression in a startling wide range of mythic stories.  The basic narrative structure of the hero’s journey can be found in seemingly different traditions such as the life of Christ, the Chinese tale of Mulan and the much more modern adventures of Luke Skywalker.


A rough outline of the hero’s journey. Source: Wikimedia.



The universality of this structure notwithstanding, there is a good bit of confusion as to how to describe it.  Campbell has inspired an entire school of followers, each attempting to make minor improvements on his pattern.  As such, the hero’s journey might have 3, 4, 8, 12 or 17 stages depending who one asks (more on that later).  Further, not every narrative will necessarily include every stage.  This is especially true of the more detailed theories.  Sometimes a stage is omitted, or it may be doubled for increased narrative impact. Yet the various stages are almost always encountered in the same progressive order.

In the interests of time I will only review a very simple version of the hero’s journey, focusing on what might be thought of as five of Campbell’s main stages.  Those wanting to delve deeper into this subject are free to check out his book The Hero With a Thousand Faces, or watch any action/adventure movie made in Hollywood during the last two decades.

Campbell noted that the hero’s journey almost always starts with a “call to adventure.”  It might seem innocuous, such as Gandalf leaving a rune scratched into Bilbo Baggin’s door in the first scene of J. R. R. Tolkien’s Hobbit.  Or it may be more fully developed as a miniature narrative; think of Harry Potter’s battle with the Dursleys to receive his acceptance letter from Hogwarts.  In the case of Star Wars, Luke’s “call to adventure” came in the form of a literal call, pre-recorded by Princes Leia and loaded in R2D2’s memory banks.   The call may be eagerly accepted (Harry Potter) or initially rejected (as in the case of Bilbo.)  Yet psychological maturation, rituals of initiation and narrative structures will not be put off.  Eventually our heroes find themselves swept up into a larger world, far removed from the parochial realm of family and daily affairs where we first met them.

It is interesting to consider how these narrative structures might express themselves in the creation myths that surround the Chinese martial arts.  One suspects that these myths can entrap the imagination of Western students precisely because they contain, or can be read as building upon, similar structures.  The story of Yim Wing Chun as told in the post-Ip Man Wing Chun community would seem to be good candidate for analysis precisely because it self-consciously narrates a heroic journey to maturity through China’s hinterlands of “rivers and lakes.”

Still, in strictly cultural terms, this remains a Chinese story.  Its opening phase revolves not so much around the agency of Yim Wing Chun as her father, the head of the household.  The family’s collective call to adventure comes when he is falsely accused of a crime in Guangzhou sometime after the death of his wife.  Given the vagaries of Qing justice, he decided to flee the city (itself the capital of Guangdong) and to head for White Crane mountain on the far Western edge of the empire.  This flight would take the small family out of the mundane world of the well-ordered empire, and into the mythological realm of heroes, villains and wandering Kung Fu masters.  In this case Yim Wing Chun was either too young or too dutiful to resist the call to the fantasy-land of outlaws and warriors termed the “Rivers and Lakes” in Chinese popular literature.

Campbell noted that no apprentice hero would last long without aid (often divine) and a mentor who can either instruct, or ritually initiate, them.  The need for mentors is still felt quite strongly in modern societies.  I suspect that many individuals sign up for martial arts classes precisely because they are searching for their own personal Yoda or Obi-wan Kenobi.  Adam Franks’ ethnographic work on the Shanghai Wu Taijiquan community suggests that this desire is also experienced cross-culturally.  Even Christ receives his initiation into the realm of the spirit through the administration of John the Baptist.  Everyone, it seems, needs a mentor.

Like so many other young individuals in Kung Fu legends, Yim Wing Chun found assistance in the form of a wandering Shaolin monastic figure.  One suspects that Joseph Campbell would have had much to say on the narrative of the burning of the Shaolin temple, and its many global resonances.  Unfortunately, such a digression would take us beyond the confines of the current essay.  Its sufficient to say that the former Shaolin Abbess Ng Moy, herself in hiding from the Qing government’s watchful eyes, befriended the Yim family shortly after they moved to the region and set up a small tofu shop.

The true nature of the helper is not often revealed until a moment of crisis.  Given that we are discussing heroic narratives, such conflicts are not rare.  The major source of opposition comes in the form of what Campbell termed the “threshold guardian.”  The idea of threshold, or a liminal space, is a rich one, regardless of whether these narratives are approached from a ritual, cultural or psychological perspective.  The crossing of a threshold often symbolizes the process of death and a descent into hell where one must confront some repressed, dark, aspect of the self.  Perhaps there is no more potent threshold guardian in modern mythology than Darth Vader who combines in a single menacing package the promise of death and the rage of being abandoned or betrayed by one’s own parents.  It is clear that the version of Luke Skywalker that we have come to know lacks the mental strength and self-control to face such an opponent. That identity must pass away so that a better version of Skywalker, one that has confronted and mastered his hatred and the need for revenge, can move on.

Wing Chun’s threshold guardian is manifest when her latent sexuality begins to appear.  A marketplace bully, apparently the leader of some sort of local gang, takes an interest in the increasingly beautiful young girl and demands that she “marry” him.  The intrusion of this unwanted proposal sets the rest of the narrative in motion.

To a Western student a “marketplace bully” may not appear to be that important of a threat.  Chinese readers, on the other hand, have a rich library of prior legends and novels to draw on.  Having such a character demand a young woman’s hand in marriage is a common narrative trope. Yet Wing Chun was espoused to be married by her parents shortly after her birth.  Breaking off such an engagement was a serious violation of one’s social duty.  Further, abandoning her father without support in his old age would also be a violation of the Confucian norms of filial piety.

Readers might also recall that in an opening chapter of the Ming novel Water Margin (which basically functions as the Old Testament of the TCMA community) an analogous situation can be found.  Here the “Flowerly Monk” (a different type of escaped monastic) comes across a situation in which the bully’s “proposal” is a thinly disguised metaphor for abducting the girl from her father and using her as a prostitute.  His solution to the problem is characteristically direct, involving only a steel pole and a lot of beating.  In that case it is the monk who is the ostensible hero (or more properly, the antihero) of the narrative.

But this is not the way that the Abbess Ng Moy operates.  In Shaolin stories, she is often the tactician.  Beating one marketplace bully to death, while satisfying, would not really solve Yim Wing Chun’s underlying problem.  The River and Lakes are full of similar characters, and she would be no closer to fulfilling her social duties.

Ng Moy instructed the Yim family to accept the marriage proposal with the following amendment.  Mr. Yim was to apologetically note his daughter (who had never studied the martial arts) was fond of boxing, and would only marry an individual who could beat her in single combat.  The father suggested that the Bully come back in a year, and they could resolve the whole question on a raised platform in the marketplace.

With the trap properly baited, Ng Moy took the young girl to the mountains and instructed Wing Chun in her own variant of the Shaolin tradition.  As we all know, this combined the soft and hard, taking full advantage of the yin, or feminine, traits to overcome “hard,” purely masculine, strength.  The marketplace bully had no idea what he had agreed to, and a year latter he found himself on the wrong end of a public thrashing at the hands of a teenage girl.  One can only imagine that this might decrease his standing in the social register of the River and Lakes.  Wing Chun, on the other hand, had proved to be a master of this dangerous realm.

This is where we are often tempted to end our stories with a “happily ever after.”  Yet Joseph Campbell would remind us that the most important stage of the hero’s journey was still to come.  He noted that these were not simply linear stories, in which a traveler went from point A to B.  Rather, the critical journeys were psychological and social in nature.  We can see the same basic structure in rituals and rites of passage.  First the individual is separated from society, then they are initiated and their social status is changed.  Lastly, they must return to community so that they can fulfill their new role.  And in so doing society itself is also transformed.

Looking at these narratives through a psychological lens, Campbell believed that the individual faced a suppressed or dark aspect of the self in the confrontation with the threshold guardian.  By overcoming this challenge, the hero wins a “great boon” that they then have a responsibility to return to society.  In real life, this takes the form of greater joy, wisdom, service and community participation.

While we often move beyond the marketplace confrontation rather quickly, it is worth considering how these ideas play out in the Yim Wing Chun narrative.  The orthodox version of the story (as related in the Ip Man lineage) says little about the rest of her life.  But we do know two important pieces of information.  From a cultural and a structural standpoint, both of these facts are critical.

First, we know that Yim Wing Chun returns to the world of mundane life and marries her childhood fiancé, who is now some sort of salt merchant.  Put slightly differently, our hero leaves the enchanted world of Rivers and Lakes for a life that affirms conventional social values.  Yet her choice to return also has an impact on the world around her.  She retains her martial arts skills and passes them on to her husband.  From there they begin to make their way around the busy Pearl River Delta where they eventually come down to us, along with Ng Moy’s charge that we should “Oppose the Qing and Restore the Ming.”

At the first cut it might seem that the boon that Yim Wing Chun brings is the martial arts system that bears her name.  Still, the revolutionary charge at the end of her story suggests that something more is going on here.  After all, the Qing were not her threshold guardians.  She never confronted them.  Yet they play an outsized role in all of the early 20th century creation narratives to emerge out of the region’s martial arts subculture.

It is no coincidence that this was also an era of increased imperialism and colonization.  Southern China’s involvement in the Opium Wars meant that they were well ahead of the curve on this issue.  But by the turn of the century the empire’s rapid defeats by the Russians, Japanese and the allied coalition (responding to the Boxer Uprising) left little doubt as to how dire the military situation really was.  In only a few hundred years the Chinese had gone from being one of the most militarily powerful empires the world had ever seen to a seemingly helpless victim of imperialism, unable to even secure the sovereignty of its own borders or economy.

Douglas Wile, in his pioneering work on the Taiji Classics (another collection of late 19th century martial arts texts), notes that we should not underestimate the impact of all of this on the Chinese psyche. The nation had become so weak that one could not save it by directly opposing the foreign powers.  Rather a different sort of strategy was necessary, one in which the wisdom of China’s culture was preserved and called upon in such a way that the forces of misdirection, femininity and yin might overcome the western advantages of science, military might and masculinity.

It would be overstating things to assert that there were no female martial artists in Chinese history.  Still, prior to the 1920s-1930s, this was overwhelmingly a man’s world.  As such its very significant that during the final decades of the Qing Dynasty we see a sudden explosion of interest in stories about female heroes and the use of weakness to overcome strength.  Such narratives gained popularity not because they were a sign of emerging feminist values (though that is how they are often read by martial arts students in the West), but because many of these female heroes could be read as metaphors speaking to the national condition.

Wing Chun is one art among many in a region of China that was known to be an incubator for the creation of new styles.  Yet the narrative of Yim Wing Chun addresses questions that go well beyond the creation of a single martial art.  This is fundamentally a story about rebalancing the relationship between society and the nation.  It speaks to a collective desire to confront the feelings of fear, alienation and powerlessness that wracked society in the Late Qing and Early Republic period.  Wing Chun itself is merely the vessel. The great boon that was restored to the people was a reintegration of martial, or Wu, values into the national psyche.  It promised that China, though apparently weak, could once again harness the destructive power of violence and become the “master of two realms.”

Yet this was no call to perpetual revolution.  On a personal level Ip Man was a conservative Confucian who by all accounts was left embittered by the failed nationalist revolution and the successful Communist effort that followed.  The strength that his version of the Yim Wing Chun tale advocates is the kind that emerges from the rectification of the self and the fulfillment of family and social obligations.  It is the doubling down on those things, combined with the restoration of Wu values, which defines this vision of modern Chinese society.  This should not come as a surprise.  As various critics have noted, these sorts of myths are often the expression of a conservative bias.


Many heroes, similar journeys.  What do all these stories have in common? Source:



The notion of the hero’s journey has become so widely dispersed that it is now a subconscious lens with which many of us try to make sense of our world.  Even if we have never read the work of Jung or Campbell, we have all seen countless movies and television shows created by writers who keep dogeared copies of their works close at hand.  It is a narrative structure that we have come to expect.  And because we expect it, we can see bits of it almost everywhere.

This bring us back to the problem of Warring States texts.  Whether approaching ancient literature or martial arts mythology, scholars are confronting fundamentally similar problems.  We just do not know how to read these texts because they were produced by cultures very different from our own.  In both cases we might turn to narratology for help.

Given the nature of the specific genre that he was working with, I think that Prof. Lai was on safe ground when he applied such a method.  I am not sure that the same can always be said for attempts to use structuralist theories to interpret martial creation myths.  The deeper one delves into these topics, the more one is forced to doubt the universality of the patterns that Campbell and others have claimed to find.

While the hero’s journey seems to fit the story of Yim Wing Chun, one can easily find stories within the annals of Chinese literature that would be a stumbling block.  For instance, we already drew an important contrast between the way that similar themes were dealt with in a turn of the century narrative and the much older Ming Novel Water Margin.  While western readers may find the narrative structure of Ip Man’s story intuitively appealing because of its seeming familiarity, much of what they will encounter in Water Margin is confusing, off-putting and even shocking.  These are heroes that do not conform to our Western expectations, embedded in story structures that seem chaotic.  Yet this is one of the most popular novels in Chinese history.

This realization should cause us to ask additional questions about our initial reading of the Wing Chun creation myth.  Did it really fit Campbell’s narrative structure, or are we simply making a few obvious aspects of the story conform by ignoring large swaths of subtext that escaped our notice as we are not early 20th century Chinese martial artists grappling with the fear that our country might be partitioned and carved up by the Western powers in much same way that they had just dispatched Africa and the Middle East?

The lax nature of the narrative expectations laid out in Campbell’s work (where any specific hero’s journey might exhibit four of his points, or all 13) makes his approach maddeningly difficult to test or falsify.  All of this leads me to doubt the actual existence of a single universal narrative.

Yet hero’s journey may still survive as a strategy for reading certain types of texts.  Thinking carefully about narrative and ritual structure may reveal points about a text that we might otherwise miss.  Properly understood, it should highlight the importance of cultural differences and variant outcomes, rather than obscuring them under the tautological labels of “universal values” and “human psychology.”

Yet it is the very ubiquity of these narrative patterns in modern popular culture that can lead to self-delusion and capture when we attempt to apply them in areas where we have no theoretical reason to expect to see them.  Far from revealing the universal aspects of the human psyche, one suspects that what Campbell may have illustrated is the ease with which an ethnocentric approach to story-telling can obscure the reality of the cultural differences that surround us.

Of course, the term “mythology” has been used many ways, and Campbell’s school of thought is not the only one that might help us to make sense of the narratives that surround these practices.  Critical theorists have developed other approaches for understanding these discussions.  Those will be the subject of an upcoming essay.



If you enjoyed this essay you might also want to read: Did Ip Man Invent the Story of Yim Wing Chun (a classic post from the early days of Kung Fu Tea).


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