Chinese Sword Dance. Vintage postcard. Source: Author’s personal collection.



That Special Time of Year

It must be that time of year again.  December is the season in which Disney unleashes a new Star Wars movie on an eager public, complete with a weaponized marketing campaign. Sitting in the sacred dark, viewers are transported backwards to a realm of childhood heroes.  There is also the small matter of Christmas.  If New Years looks towards a hopeful future, Christmas is marked with the experience of nostalgia in a way that no other holiday can hope to match.

Nor do we all experience nostalgia in the same way.  Some individuals derive a sense of comfort from these longings, whereas for others the memory of the past can be painful (a sensation that is more in keeping with the term’s original definition).*  Very few people have strong feelings about President’s Day or Labor Day.  They do not inspire individuals to hate-tweet movie directors or corporate marketing offices.  Such cannot be said for December’s revelries.

I think that this periodic trial might be a good thing.  If nothing else, it gives the general population a small taste of what it is like to be deeply involved with the traditional Chinese martial arts.  If the rest of society finds itself seasonally immersed in nostalgia, it is the sea in which we move and breath and have our being.  Nobody does nostalgia quite like Kung Fu students.  You cannot escape it. One suspects that we actively seek it out and even manufacture new ways of experiencing it.  This sensation of yearning for the past has become, itself, an object of desire.  It is seen as something to be stoked and cultivated.

This is not to say that one cannot find a heavy dose of nostalgia in other places within the martial arts.  You can, but it is far from universal.  Consider again the recent essay in which I surveyed the results of image searches for major topics within the martial arts. The photographs generated by search terms like “self-defense” or “mixed martial arts,” were markedly devoid of anything that resembles a longing for the past.  Likewise, searches for the Filipino martial arts tended to be grounded in the day to day reality of current training practices.  The top image results for “Chinese martial arts,” however, revealed an explosion of “traditional” uniforms, ancient temples, martial monks, exotic landscapes and masses of individuals moving in balanced primordial harmony.

As I noted in that essay, this specific imagery was not a coincidence.  Most of these photographs had come out of, or were being circulated by, government led efforts to promote the PRC’s “Kung Fu Diplomacy” strategy.  It is very much a curated vision of the traditional Chinese martial arts, rather than a random sampling of what is out there.  And it might be interesting to think about the ways in which this admittedly small sample deviates from a more organic public perception of these arts.  But there is no doubt that a nostalgia for a quickly fading past would be very much present in both cases. That is universal.

These notions powered the “Kung Fu Fever” of the 1970s and were very much present in the David Carradine’s T.V. series.  Even more remarkable is the realization that these sentiments were already present in some of the earliest Western descriptions of the Chinese martial arts produced during the 19th century.  That is critical as it suggests that the strong association between the traditional Chinese martial arts and nostalgia (as well as the notion of their rapid disappearance) was present from the very moment of their creation and emergence in the modern world.  One could even argue that the Chinese martial arts (as we know them today) are the product of both a general feeling of nostalgia for the past, and attempts by cultural and political elites to reshape those sentiments (along with indigenous fighting traditions) in ways that they found useful.

But on a more theoretical level, what is “nostalgia” and how should we approach it?


A martial arts performance at a marketplace in Shanghai, circa 1930. Source: Huan Fei Hung Museum.



A History of Pain

I do not normally begin my essays by recommending that people head over to Wikipedia.  Yet in some ways their entry on nostalgia is quite interesting.  It may not definitively answer any fundamental questions as to what nostalgia is.  Readers will learn, for instance, that it is a desire or yearning for the past (usually centered on a place or people).  For some individuals this experience is painful and unpleasant, while others find it to be enjoyable.  A literature review suggests that psychologists and some social scientists have studied nostalgia as a personal phenomenon, while critical theorists have been more interested in understanding the impact of these sentiments on society as a whole.  Likewise, scholars are mixed on the fruits of nostalgia.  Some have focused on how the sentiment can be manipulated by corporate marketers or unscrupulous political leaders to get people to act against their own best interests, whereas modern psychology suggests that it may be an important and powerful coping mechanism inspiring individuals to solve problems and take actions that improve their overall level of well-being.  In short, we learn that nostalgia may be examined at either the social or the individual level, the sensation of these desires may be painful or pleasant, and it can play an either destructive or constructive role in our lives. In short, the very notion of nostalgia is fundamentally contested.

This does not mean that the concept has been neglected.  Indeed, the current reassessment is enough to make one nostalgic for the good old days of nostalgia.  That was probably in the 1980s or 1990s.

Attentive readers may have noted that the Wikipedia article in question tended to focus on psychological (or even clinical) studies.  Yet in previous decades critical theorists also addressed the social meaning of nostalgia.  Nor did they seem to suffer the same level of confusion regarding its normative status and ethical implications.

It is all too easy to note, for instance, that nostalgia is basically a type of misremembering of the past, and therefore also a selective forgetting. Such a possibility was enough to make thinkers like Paul Ricoeur uncomfortable.  Stewart went so far as to characterize all of this as a “social disease.”  And when you look at the various ways that massive political efforts to preserve the nation’s “intangible cultural heritage” have undercut and actually damaged their supposed objects of veneration its not hard to see how the critical theorists of the 1990s could come to such a negative conclusion.

Nor do I wish to contradict them.  Their studies of memory and forgetting raise many incredibly important points.  And as we know, the preservation and practice of the martial arts are in many ways also an exercise in both the selective remembrance of the past as well as it’s erasure.  To remember Shaolin’s “traditional Buddhist arts,” to make them part of China’s cultural diplomacy efforts, we must forget that the temple’s martial monks fought with rifles, and not their fists, during the 1920s.  To “remember” that taekwondo is Korea’s national art we must forget, or at least set aside, its origins within Japanese efforts to spread karate in its occupied territories.  As Ernest Renan might suggest, all such discourses are “a daily plebiscite” focusing on acts of social memory and forgetting.

A frequently reporduced photograph of Ip Man, in traditional dress, standing in his Hong Kong studio.


Ip Man and the Power of Nostalgia

Still, I suspect that some additional clarity can be brought to this situation by exploring one of the seeming contradictions that I raised previously, at least as it relates to the martial arts.  What is our unit of analysis here?  Is nostalgia properly experienced by individuals or is it fundamentally a social phenomenon?

At the outset I should admit that I find this question interesting as it relates to my prior research interests in social capital formation and the question of how it is that activities like the martial arts form such strong, generally trusting, communities.  I also suspect that the best way to explore these ideas is through a case study.  More specifically, how might Ip Man have been inspired by a sense of nostalgia, generated by his self-imposed exile to Hong Kong, as he went about reformulating and teaching Wing Chun in the 1950s.  And how might the experience of nostalgia have been different for his younger students who had never seen Imperial, or even Republican, Foshan?

Admittedly this will be a speculative exercise.  Even though many of our period accounts record Ip Man reminiscing with friends from the martial arts community and his home region, I don’t think that I have specifically encountered the use of the word “nostalgia” in these discussions.  His children have noted that he was often sad and that holidays were an especially difficult or lonely time for him.  As such, it seems plausible that he experienced the sorts of homesickness or yearning that ground many discussions of nostalgia.

Indeed, it would be more remarkable if these feelings were totally absent.  Multiple social scientists have noted that there is a strong relationship between social disruption and a yearning for the past.  Such a relationship seems intuitively likely, and its hard to imagine a more “disrupted” region than Southern China in 1949.  As the 1950s dawned it became aparent to the many individuals who had fled to the city that this was not going to be another “temporary crisis.”  They would live the rest of their lives in the shadow of a profound rupture with the past.

Those who study nostalgia as an individual psychological phenomenon have noted that it is often triggered by physical, rather than a purely conceptual, processes.  This emotional response can be linked to sensory stimulation.  Christmas music is designed to elicit a sense of nostalgia in the audience.  Sometimes it seems to have no other theme or meaning.  Scents and smells can also trigger strong emotional memories.

Certain tactile sensations have a similar effect.  This is where Wing Chun enters our story.  You do not need any expensive training gear to practice the art, but one must have training partners and fellow students.  The style’s many “sensitivity drills” (the most famous being chi sao or sticky hands ) could well trigger memories of similar situations, old friends, past engagements and the process of learning the art from a generation of long-lost masters.

Chi sao interests me as it seems to encapsulate certain conversational qualities.  In idiomatic Cantonese one even hears the expression to “speak with my hands.”  At its most basic level this embodied conversation would begin with Ip Man asking his student “What will do when I punch like this…” and then feeling the response.  Yet most conversations are rich with subtext and hidden meanings.  And when they are not there we often attempt to create such supplementary connotations whole cloth.  This is seen within the martial arts and combat sports as we so badly want our engagements to transcend their status of simple acts of violence.  We desire a deeper and more profound type of social meaning.

It was precisely this desire for meaning and identity, and the ease with which it can be extrapolated from martial arts training, that drew a generation of teenagers to Ip Man’s door.  Chu Shong Tin, one of his earliest students, has remarked that he and others were attracted by the “Confucian glamour” that the then elderly Ip Man seemed to radiate.

Ip Man’s gentry background, formal education and kung fu experience made him a highly visible beacon of certain values.  He projected a vision of what China had been and what it could be again. There were many teachers at the time who were more famous or economically successful than him.  Yet he was a paradoxically charismatic figure.  On the one hand he was a conservative Chinese gentleman, representing the values of a world that had all but vanished.  On the other, he was teaching Wing Chun not as a culture relic or a “traditional practice”, but as a “modern fighting art” ideally suited for everything that social displacement and imperialism might throw at it.  Is it any wonder that individuals like Chu Shong Tin, Wong Shun Leung, or even Bruce Lee would want to be part of this embodied conversation?

This is where discussions of nostalgia once again become interesting. The things we yearn for are typically somewhat distorted images of the past, rather than actual events (warts and all).  As such, it is only a short step to developing a desire for someone elses’ memories, and from there a shared vision.  This detachment from personal experience has been given various names including “vicarious” and “social” nostalgia.  Many historians have warned against it as idealized images of the past are easily (and often) manipulated.  Yet the human ability to create a shared sense of yearning is also a critical aspect of the formation of complex social groups, and ultimately national identities.

Quite a lot can (and has) gone wrong in this process.  I doubt anyone needs to be reminded of the dangers of toxic nationalism.  Still, the more recent psychological literature notes that at a lower level of analysis this process may be an important part of dealing with the underlying reality of social disruption.  Rather than simply rehashing the past, nostalgia can become a means for critiquing and critically examining the present.  James C. Scott has reminded us that telling tales of a nostalgic past is often a favored “weapon of the weak” in times of social upheaval. Multiple studies by social scientists have noted that nostalgia also creates a greater sense of agency in individuals while at the same time facilitating a greater degree of social engagement with other individuals within the community.

The forgetting of the past is dangerous not because it’s a threat to scholarly book sales.  Rather, those sorts of conversations were only ever about the shape of the community in the present, and by implication the future.  This is precisely why unchecked “social nostalgia” can be such a troubling phenomenon.

Still, the development of Wing Chun reminds us that it is not only elites who are empowered by such a process.  Nor is the social function of nostalgia within the Chinese martial arts confined to an endless rehashing of the past.  In truth the Wing Chun which Ip Man was inspired to teach in Hong Kong was different what his Sifu had shown him in Foshan.  And who knows how much things have changed from the time of Leung Jan and the Red Tuban Revolt?

Rather than returning to roots of “tradition,” a yearning for a strong and stable community (not subject to the double imperialism of the mainland Communists and the British colonial administrators) inspired Ip Man and his students to reimagine Wing Chun as a “modern combat art.”  In their hands it became a tool for the future. It can be difficult to discern when a collective myth is simply a distortion of a historical fact, or if it functions instead to release a repressed and more fundamental truth.  Yes, the myths of the martial arts must be identified.  That is one part of our job as students of martial arts studies.  But it is even more important to come to terms with the social functions that they perform.

This suggests a final point for consideration.  Any one of us can be swept up by an unexpected wave of emotion, memory and yearning.  That is simply human nature. Yet we are the ones who will decide where that wave takes us.  Nostalgia is a sometimes-dangerous emotion precisely because its powerful.  It can even overwhelm the realization that we are constantly making choices about what we and the traditional martial arts will become.  Like Walter Benjamin’s Angel,** nostalgia seems to look always backwards, towards a past that we are unable to critically examine.  Yet history is caught in its wings, propelling us forever into the unseen future.




* In 1688 the physician Johannes Hofer created the term “nostalgia” to describe a medical disorder afflicting Swiss mercenaries in France and Germany.  In this original usage nostalgia was a pathological emotional condition (basically a very strong case of homesickness) that impaired a soldiers ability to function within a military context. It continued to be seen as a pathology within the military until approximately the time of the American Civil War. We are not the first students of martial matters to take up the question of nostalgia.



** “There is a painting by Klee called Angelus Novus. An angel is depicted there who looks as though he were about to distance himself from something which he is staring at. His eyes are opened wide, his mouth stands open and his wings are outstretched. The Angel of History must look just so. His face is turned towards the past. Where we see the appearance of a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe, which unceasingly piles rubble on top of rubble and hurls it before his feet. He would like to pause for a moment so fair, to awaken the dead and to piece together what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise, it has caught itself up in his wings and is so strong that the Angel can no longer close them. The storm drives him irresistibly into the future, to which his back is turned, while the rubble-heap before him grows sky-high. That which we call progress, is this storm.”

Walter Benjamin, On the Concept of History (1940)