Ip Man and his best known student, Bruce Lee.

The Master Said: “I transmit, I do not create. I trust and love the ancients…”
-Confucius, The Analects 7.1

I’m not in this world to live up to your expectations and you’re not in this world to live up to mine.
-Bruce Lee (Quoting Fritz Perls)


When describing a cultural practice anthropologists sometimes differentiate between “emic” and “etic” accounts. To oversimplify, an emic account is one that comes from inside the group. It is a subjective description of how something functions from an insider’s perspective. An etic account is usually produced from an outsider’s point of view. It often poses as an objective description of why something “really” happens. Thus an anthropologist and her key interlocutors may give two very different accounts of the same phenomenon.

Perspective matters. One does not have to be committed to cultural relativism to understand why some actors might view the same process differently. Indeed, I have often noted a very similar division within discussions of the martial arts. Basically there are three groups of individuals who might want to talk about these fighting systems on a more abstract level. First we have practitioners themselves. Next we have members of society who know about the martial arts, and may even interact with them on a discursive level, but do not actually practice them. And then you have students of martial arts studies.

I will return to this last group at the conclusion of this essay. For the moment, lets focus on the perspective of martial artists and how they may differ from their non-practicing neighbors and fellow citizens.

Within the traditional fighting systems of China and Japan, “history” plays an important role organizing the identity of any school or community of practice. This isn’t necessarily the sort of history that general readers in the West might be familiar with. Instead what practitioners tend to discuss are lineage traditions in which the pedigree of the current generation of martial artists is laid out in extensive detail.

Occasionally these genealogical discussions are accompanied by a body of folklore which attempts to distill the “life lessons” of past masters into a handful of legends. In the case of the Chinese martial arts these kinship ties between the living students and the departed masters may even be memorialized on a wall of photos found in a school’s “ancestral shrine.” Ritual observance serves to both cement relationships within the current body of the school, as well as to remind individuals of their relationship with the past.

As Paul Bowman has observed, not every martial artist is equally interested in, or able to, absorb the full details of this folk history.  Yet the very existence of such a “history” cements the identity of school in the present, and thus those with little knowledge of such matters (new students) are typically expected to defer to the individuals who have mastered the arcana (the instructor and senior students). In any case, the basic ideological argument is clear. A perfect fighting system was created at some moment in the past (by the Yellow Emperor, during the Song dynasty, fighting pirates in the Ming, or in a warehouse in LA), and the role of the instructor is to convey a stabilized set of practices. Students are expected to absorb such lesson’s rather than to innovate. Indeed, this basic pedagogical theory is seen in all sorts of subjects throughout the Confucian world.

If the process of transmission within each generation is perfect, then outside events rarely need to enter into a school’s history. Many schools pass over major events in Chinese social history in absolute silence. It can be a challenge to figure out which generation lived through the collapse of the Ming or saw the rise of the Taiping Rebels. If any solid sources exist, historians can sometimes figure this out (Doug Wile’s work on the Taiji Classics comes to mind). Yet unless these events directly imperiled the transmission of the tradition, they tend not to make it in the folklore.

The end result is something of a paradox. This allochronistic haze means that it is possible to extensively study the “history” of a given Chinese martial arts, yet learn practically nothing of the nation’s actual social, political or economic development. From an emic perspective the traditional arts appear to exist in an eternal “once upon a time in China.”

Still, this development is not entirely negative. While we often focus on the secrecy of the traditional arts, in truth these systems spread very quickly from the final years of the Qing dynasty onward. If all that mattered was one’s interest, physical ability and loyalty to the school, than the martial arts were free to function as fairly open pubic institutions.

Yet that is not how their neighbors typically perceived them. A quick survey of martial arts novels, radio programs, early films, operas and even newspaper articles suggests that the rest of society tended to view these practices as always sectarian and exclusive. These stories also obsessed over precisely the sorts of political and social questions that are largely missing from lineage accounts. Society demanded that the martial arts represent their interests and identities, in either a local or national guise.

Ultimately this version of history may not be much more informative than individual lineage accounts. When looking at contemporaneous documents its clear that having proved one’s revolutionary credentials by “standing up to the Qing” played much better in post-1912 stories than it did in pre-1910 novels. Yet the basic point remains. As the martial arts increasingly came to be seen as avatars for regional and national identity in the Republic period, the public expected that they would respond to and be involved with the pressing issues of the day. As the Jingwu reformers noted, the ultimate destiny of kung fu should be noting less than “national salvation.”

This politicization of the martial arts tended to create new pressures around questions of identity. If such a thing as “Hakka arts” can exist (as opposed to a set of local arts taught in predominantly Hakka villages), should it be taught to Cantonese students? If kung fu was really a means for “national salvation” should Chinese teachers take Japanese or Western students? And was it it even possible for foreign students to “master” such quintessentially Chinese practices?

While actual martial artists were less likely to be defined by such concerns, the ways that these practices came to be talked about by non-practitioners became increasingly politicized during the 20th century. And once political leaders in both Japan and China decided to adopt these practices as tools of nationalism and state building, this difference in perspective ceased to be merely academic.

Yet the lineage based understanding of martial arts “history” persists. Despite the pressure from national reformers on the one hand, and the academic students of martial arts history on the other, when two Wing Chun students first meet they will ask about lineage. This remains the defining feature of their mental map of the traditional hand combat community.

It would be easy to dismiss this view as historically outmoded or of “no use in the octagon.” Yet it remains an oddly persistent social fact. What sort of theoretical lens can be brought to bear in explaining this pattern? And how might that same lens help us to understand the social meaning and emergence of new schools, lineages and styles?

For instance, were Bruce Lee’s attempts to establish Jeet Kune Do in his adoptive home of America fundamentally similar to, or different from, the strategies that his teacher had employed in creating his own approach to Wing Chun after fleeing to Hong Kong? Setting the obvious generational issues aside, what can we make of the way that they discussed these efforts? If we can locate a theoretical lens which provides insight into these questions, it might also suggest some overlooked truths about the nature of the traditional martial arts themselves.




Harold Bloom and the Importance of Misreading the Masters

Before we can delve any further into these questions it is necessary to take a few moments to think about Western Romantic poetry. More specifically, we are interested in the process by which this poetry has been read and criticized by successive generations of critics, consumers and especially other artists. During the 1970s Harold Bloom built one of his seminal arguments around an observation structurally very similar to the one that I outlined above. As he obsessively studied the Romantic poets he noted that there seemed to be some fundamental differences in how the critics read these works compared to the ways in which other poets approached and understood them. He outlined his ideas in two, basically impenetrable, books. The first of these was titled The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry (Oxford UP 1973) and its companion volume was A Map of Misreading (Oxford UP 1975).

In these works Bloom proposes that poets have a bit of an adversarial relationship with the past. One would not necessarily guess this when you read their poems which are full of intertextual engagements, allusions and borrowings. Bloom found the relationship between Milton and the Romantic poets to be particularly interesting in this regard. Like the Confucius quote above, the Romantic vision claims to transmit the glory of a forgotten past, rather than a new and innovative vision of the present. Yet in truth Confucius won students, and the Romantics earned readers, precisely because they were innovative. Again, this situation seems to echo the common case of martial styles that while only a few decades old, claim to transmit the wisdom of past millennia.

Bloom notes that the received body of literature can be a hindrance to the creativity of young poets who, seeking to establish themselves, must find a unique (rather than purely derivative) voice. One learns to be a poet by reading other poets. Yet you cannot appeal to an actual audience without having something original to say. Being too deeply steeped in the received canon can complicate this process.

Younger poets deal with the anxiety over the influence of past masters in a number of ways. Drawing on Freudian psychology, Spanish Kabbala and a close reading of the Romantics, Bloom proceeds to outline six strategies by which new creators seek to deal with the legacies of their predecessors.

You can find a quick synopsis of each of these approaches on Wikipedia. But to really get a sense of what Bloom was attempting to accomplish (and the complexity of his work) I would instead suggest investing some time into Edward Said’s 1975 review of A Map of Misreading, published in the literary section of the New York Times. Said captured Bloom’s essential insight (drawn from Luria’s Kabbalistic theory) that the process of creation starts with an act of withdrawing, followed by a rupture with the past and an attempt to establish a new synthesis.

This process can take on several different basic forms, but certain fundamental strategies seem to be dictated by the laws of human psychology and the basic structure of effective rhetoric. Hence it make sense to speak of a “map of misreading” rather than an infinite spectrum. As a social scientists (and someone who does not seek to speak on literary criticism with any authority) I think I would prefer the term “typology.”


An excerpt of a letter describing the making of Bruce Lee’s now famous tomb stone plaque. Source: BruceLee.com


Putting the “Art” in the Martial Arts

The first point that must be established before going forward is whether Bloom’s typology can be profitably applied to the traditional Asian martial arts. On the surface this is not immediately evident. Obviously he was engaged in an explicitly textual study in which he examined the dependence of one poem upon another. Drawing his conclusions to their natural endpoints, Said notes that for Bloom the poem as the traditional object of critical analysis (a stable text with a knowable interpretation produced by a single author in response to documented personal or social events) vanishes, and all one is left with is a genealogy of literary relationships, both positive and antagonistic in nature, streaming through the generations of writers.

It goes without saying that hand combat is not poetry (though in China many classic martial arts manuals were accompanied by extensive poetic discussions). Still, once we reach a certain period it becomes clear that like writers, the creators of new martial arts styles and lineages wanted to be acknowledged for their skill and remembered as “masters.” Indeed, self effacing talk of humility notwithstanding, this was essential if one wished to establish an economically viable school that could succeed in a competitive marketplace.

It is also clear that by the early 20th century at least some martial artists were starting to see their performance styles as a type of identity work. In many cases their promotion of a style of physical culture was meant to argue for a specific definition of either regional or national identity. But in other cases it was clear that skills were also expected to reflect one’s individuality, drawing closer to the western definition of artistic expression. Bruce Lee discussed this notion at length, and the work of other contemporaneous Chinese martial artists, actors and fight choreographers suggests that he was not alone in this understanding. Thus there are both structural and social reasons to expect that the literary strategies that Bloom noted may find important parallels within the modern Chinese martial arts.

The second issue that must be addressed is the potential scope of this model. In the initial drafts of this argument Bloom seemed to suggest that these anxieties were a modern phenomenon (hence their association with the Romantics). This position has since been revised and he now claims to finds traces of the same process in the early modern period as well.

I suspect that a full investigation would reveal something similar within the Chinese martial arts. It would not be hard to argue that individuals like Jet Li, Bruce Lee or even Ip Man exhibited many of the tendencies that Bloom has noted. They have all structured discussions of their careers in such a way to argue that they should be regarded as masters of “the tradition.”

Yet as I read through Blooms various arguments, I am also reminded of the early Qing biographies of late Ming martial artists, and even the boastings of figures like Yu Dayou and Qi Jiquang. Both of these individuals also suffered visible anxieties about their dependence on such low class individuals as prior generations of boxing masters (even if some of those masters might be found at the Shaolin Temple) and employed very predictable rhetorical strategies to deal with it. As such Bloom’s typology might, in some cases, be a useful critical lens for thinking about discussions as far back as the Early Modern period in the West, or the Late Imperial era in China.

Still, my personal research interests lay mostly in the first half of the 20th century. Lee would seem to be the obvious case of a Chinese martial artist who sought to establish himself as a master by adopting the trappings of the Chinese tradition, while simultaneously reacting against it. Indeed, it is very hard not to read his eulogy to the “Once Fluid Man” in anything other than Oedipal terms.

Whether the intended target of his criticism was his father (a traditional trained operatic performer and student of Taijiquan) or perhaps even Ip Man (the only individual that Lee ever called “Sifu”) is unclear. Lee performed his basic filial duties towards his father (no matter how strained the relationship) and, according to his wife, continued to hold Ip Man in great respect.

Perhaps the true target of his anger was not an individual teacher per se, but an entire system of martial development that had become inward looking and failed to keep pace with global developments. Indeed, Lee seemed to supplement his still incomplete training in Wing Chun (he never learned the system’s swords, and hence much of the actual footwork) by turning to Western sources (olympic fencing and boxing) rather than other Chinese arts that were available in the area. In this sense Lee’s basic complaint about the state of the “classical mess” is very similar to the critique of the Guoshu reform movement of the 1930s.  Yet he shows less cultural confidence (or chauvinism) in his search for solutions.

Bloom identifies a very similar rhetorical strategy on the part of number of poets which he (in reference to Lucretius) terms “Clinamen.” For our purposes I would propose that we could just as easily think of this as “the sharp left-hand turn.” Basically the young poet (or martial artist) deals with their anxieties of influence by directly attacking their predecessors. He or she tends to claim that the masters were on he right path until they made a fatal mistake, leaving them a spent artistic and cultural force. The newcomer’s job thus combines innovation in the present with the restoration of a past as it should have existed. Not only would Lee’s hybridized art be superior to the traditional Chinese schools of his own day, but by clearly seeing and dealing with the central failures of the tradition, he would establish himself as a master worthy of acknowledgment.

There were several elements in Lee’s life and career that made this more confrontational rhetorical strategy a good fit. On a psychological level he had exhibited problems with traditional models of authority from a young age. Indeed, his parents encouragement to start over in America should probably be understood as a tacit acknowledgement of that fact. Further, while located on the West Coast, Lee could not continue his Wing Chun training. He progressed and evolved as a martial artist, but increasingly this was in dialogue with the theories, techniques and practices that were commonly available in post-war America.

Ip Man was a much more traditional person that Bruce Lee in a purely cultural sense. He had been born into Southern China’s “new gentry” and received both a Western and traditional Confucian education. Yet the myth-making that surrounds him (mostly a product of the many films that have come out in recent years) tends to obscure the fact that when it came to the martial arts, much like his most famous student, Ip Man was very much a modernizer.

He believed, and explicitly stated in his interview with R. Clausnitzer, that Wing Chun was fundamentally a modern combat system. Ip Man’s teaching methodology relied on practical sensitivity drills (including Chi Sau) and a certain amount of actual street fighting, rather than pure forms practice. In that sense its not surprising that Lee and Ip Man maintained their master-student relationship.

Yet its interesting to note that Ip Man would explicitly characterize his practice as “modern” in a rhetorical sense. This implies a clear differentiation between his teaching and other “traditional” forms of kung fu that one might find in Hong Kong. Nor is it clear that Ip Man’s teachers, let alone more distant figures such as Leung Jan, would have been able to understand, or accept, such a claim. Ip Man also sought to innovate and express himself through his own understanding of hand combat.

Still, the older master was more limited in his rhetoric. He was also likely influenced by the ideals of the Guoshu movement. For instance, Ip Man abhorred secrecy within schools and always spoke out against legendary tales of wandering monks with fantastic powers. One can only guess what he would make of his ever more fantastic resurrections on the big screen. Yet he also lived in an environment where people actively linked the local martial arts with both regional identity and Chinese nationalism. Further, he was surrounded by people who either knew what Wing Chun had looked like in Foshan during the 1930s, or who may have studied one of its many regional cousins.

As such Ip Man’s rhetorical strategy had to be more measured. Rather than claiming to break with the past he instead positioned himself as someone who “completed the work” of his predecessors. While his approach to teaching Wing Chun was new and innovative, he still kept the basic forms and exercises. As I have noted elsewhere, the metaphysical terminology of the system was simplified, but the actual names of the techniques do not appear to have been changed. Those who were familiar with Foshan’s Wing Chun schools (including Ip Man’s own children) expressed surprise when they saw his classes. Yet he claimed only to complete and properly implement what was already inherent in the art. Bloom refers to this strategy as “Tessera”, meaning a fragment from which the missing whole can be reconstructed.

These basic discussions do not exhaust the Bloom’s typology or their usefulness to the analysis of the Chinese martial arts. Consider again the opening quote from Confucius. If there had been a general consensus on what the “wisdom of the past” was, or that this was all he actually taught, there would be no reason to make this assertion.

In point of fact Confucius was an innovator. His understanding of the connection between “ritual” and “humanness” was a departure from how those terms were generally used at the time. Yet rather than accept the title of “creator” he instead embraced the totality of (a certain vision) of the influences that came before him, in effect allowing himself to function simultaneously as the missionary and author of this wisdom. In this way the totality of the received tradition was co-opted rather than refuted.  Yet it was also rebranded in an unmistakable way. Bloom notes a similar strategy in other places and refers to it as Apophrades or the “return of the dead”. Of course, it is not at all clear that this theory was meant to apply to classical authors, so it would be best not to push the hunt for parallels too far.


Bruce Lee wearing his iconic yellow track suit in “Game of Death.”



What new facts about the Chinese martial arts has this exploration of Bloom’s Anxieties of Influence suggested? First off, modern students of Wing Chun should be suspicious of popular narratives that see Ip Man as a traditional Chinese gentleman and Bruce Lee as a hot headed reformer who rejected his teacher’s transmission. In point of fact both men were reformers who believed that the Southern Chinese martial arts were best expressed as modern fighting systems capable of holding their own in a global context. Both figures wrestled with the inherited tradition and looked for rhetorical and embodied strategies to establish themselves as independent masters. Further, the strategies that they adopted reflected both highly personal psychological factors (Lee’s conflicts with authority figures/Ip Man’s frustrations in exile) as well as the communities that they were embedded within (California vs. Hong Kong).

Rather than seeing Ip Man’s Wing Chun as a set, stable, object of study, and Bruce Lee’s Jeet Kune Do as an easily defined derivation, Bloom would suggest that what really exists is a single continuous conversation dominated by a battle for influence between successive generations of teachers and students. Rather than a stable body of techniques, Wing Chun is basically a set of human relationships defined by both an obligation to those who came before and a persistent desire to innovate.

Perhaps this should cause to reflect again on the dichotomy between the etic and emic visions of the martial arts that opened this paper. At first it would appear that the more “objective” view of the non-practitioners is closer to the “truth.” While the masses may get the nuances of history wrong, at least they are asking about the right sorts of variables.

Yet to the extent that this asks us to take for granted the existence of set, stabilized objects called “Wing Chun,” “JKD” or “Taijiquan”, perhaps we should rethink this conclusion. In truth each of these styles changes, blends and bleeds from one generation to the next. I suspect that the lineage based view survives within the martial arts precisely because it captures something fundamental about the actual experience of being a member of these communities. And its something that Bloom sensed as well. .

Nor are students of martial arts studies exempted from these same processes and fears. Perhaps no area of life seems more beset by the anxiety of influence than modern academics. I suspect that Bloom came upon this theory at least in part because he was a professor who had once been a graduate student. In his own approach to literary criticism he strove to create an original vision, one that would separate him from his previous teachers and mentors.

Academic communities also tend to be small places where theories that may appear to be discrete and stable to the outside observer are understood as basically ongoing conversations and debates by those who are on “the inside.” The great utility of Bloom’s argument is that it provides us with a tool for understanding not just the rhetoric that surrounds the practice of the martial arts, but their scholarly study as well.



If you enjoyed this essay you might also want to read: Do the martial arts unite or divide us? Kung Fu and the production of “social capital”