A Jeet Kune Do class in Harlem. Source: vice.com, Photo by Adam Krause


Regulating Kung Fu in Canton

The brave new world of electronic databases and digital humanities is certainly opening many doors to new and exciting types of research.  Increasingly scholars can sit down at any university terminal and access previously unimaginable numbers of primary documents, in more languages than one can count, in libraries around the world.  This has had a profound effect on the way that research is conducted.  While scholars may have struggled in the past to get access to a handful of sources necessary to complete a project, increasingly I am finding that the big challenge is coming up with better ways of screening and analyzing the deluge of documents.

Still, one must be careful that the informational filters are not woven too tightly.  A few months ago I was searching digitized newspaper collections from South East Asia for information about how China’s performance in the 1936 Olympic Games, including their widely touted martial arts exhibition, was viewed.  This region was a frequent target of “Kung Fu Diplomacy” during the 1920s and 1930s, so I thought it might be interesting to see how local elites were responding to China’s efforts to win over Western audiences with the same strategy.  Being a political scientist these are the sorts of questions that keep me up at night.

While looking through my search results I came across the following short notice:


Two $500 Guarantees Required in Canton

In order to prevent civil disturbances which may be stirred up among various Chinese boxing schools as a result of their contests, the Bureau of Public Safety in Canton has drawn up a set of regulations governing [the] organization of these boxing schools in the city, thus restricting their activities.

Under the new regulations, boxing schools are required to produce two guarantors who are duly registered business firms with at least $500 in capital each.  As a result of these restrictions, some of the schools have been closed voluntarily while others are forced to remove outside the municipal limits.

It is understood that restrictions will be applied to those boxing schools in Honor Island as well.

The Straits Times, July 11, 1933 page 5.

My initial impression upon reading this notice was confusion followed by a pang of disappointment.  This story was dated three years before the event I was interested in, and it made no mention of the Olympics.  I am still unsure why some algorithmic daemon decided that I needed to see it.

The disappointment stemmed from the fact that, while seemingly unrelated to my current “Kung Fu diplomacy” book project, this was exactly the type of source that would have been helpful when I was researching my 2015 history of the southern Chinese martial arts.   Unfortunately these resources had not been made digitally available when I was working on that book.

Still, I doubt that this notice would have changed anything about my conclusions.  There were multiple attempts made to regulate and restrict the practice of the folk martial arts of Guangdong province in the late 1920s and 1930s.  In general they seem to not have been very successful (which is probably why this particular effort eluded notice).  Nor were they always a product of a concern for public safety.  In my previous study (co-authored with John Nielson), we discuss at some length a much more serious effort, backed by the provincial government, which would have banned the creation of any non-Central Guoshu Institute associated school.  That effort did get recorded in Chinese language histories of the region.  

Among practitioners there is a common belief that the restriction and regulation of the traditional Chinese martial arts was a policy unique to the ethnically Manchu government and their efforts to prevent rebellions by the Han people.  While its true that the Qing restricted martial practices at certain points, the same can be said of the Ming dynasty before them and the Republic that came after.  A wide variety of Chinese governments have sought to regulate the martial sector in an attempt to promote their own policy goals.  As such this 1933 effort should not be seen as a surprise, and I quickly forgot all about it as my attention returned to the Olympics.


Masters Kernspecht and Leung Ting. Source: Texas Wing Tsun Kung Fu.


How Wing Chun Became a German Martial Art

Recently, however, this incident has been on my mind.  My curiosity about the policy was sparked by a different project.  Two colleagues were kind enough to invite me to work on a paper with them looking at the early history of Wing Chun in Germany.  This particular paper is focused on the 1970s and 1980s and the creation of the EWTO.

The subject is interesting for a number of reasons.  Bruce Lee’s rise to superstardom ensured that Wing Chun would be among the best globally known Chinese arts (surpassed only Taijiquan).  Still, the system has not been equally successful everywhere.  While the art is popular in the USA and Canada, its success in Germany has been spectacular in comparison.  I suspect that there are more Wing Chun students (or former students) per capita in Germany than anywhere else in the world (including China). 

How did this come about? This sort of variation in outcomes is important to social scientists as it suggests a mechanism to explain the successful globalization of trans-cultural practices more generally.

Yet when you first sit down to start thinking about this outcome, a puzzle immediately presents itself.  Many of the specific factors that appear to be the most important in the German case can also be seen in the story of Wing Chun in every other Western country.  In my discipline, such variables are said to be “systemic” in nature.  The advent of a global film industry after WWII ensured that Bruce Lee was not just famous in Hong Kong or America.  He was famous everywhere.  Likewise, the transition from a manufacturing to service based economy that gripped the German economy in the 1970s and 1980s was not unique to that state alone.  Similar trends could be seen in every advanced capitalist economy as increasingly open flows of foreign direct investment pushed manufacturing jobs to Japan and then other parts of Asia.

In short, the economic forces of globalization, and the types of social dislocation that they created, can go a long way towards explaining the success of Wing Chun in every market I can think of.  One might even see the explosion of interest in Wing Chun as a harbinger of the so-called “McWorld effect” where increasing flows of information, capital and culture homogenize vast areas of the global market.  Indeed, culture itself can be commodified.  As Slavoj Žižek suggested, even a practice as seemingly benign as Buddhism can be made complicit in the march of advanced capitalism.  We seek to escape technological and social entrapment by turning to seemingly “post-materialist” or “traditional” practices.  Yet all we really succeed in doing is self-medication through the purchase of a different set of consumer goods. In the strong formulation of the dilemma there is no escape from the neo-liberal logic of market rationality and its flattening effects.  

Still, I have always had my doubts about the imminent arrival of a homogenous McWorld.  While living in Japan as a student in 1990s I recall some of my American friends complaining that the country had become increasingly “Westernized,” resulting in what they saw as the loss of “authentically Japanese culture.”  Upon hearing these statements I often wondered whether we were living in the same country. 

Yes, there were a lot of red and yellow themed fast food restaurants in Japan that bore an uncanny resemblance to McDonalds.  But they also served hamburgers made of krill and green tea flavored milkshakes.  Yes, all of my Japanese friends wore jeans on the weekends.  During the 1990s they were the ultimate symbol of American consumer culture.  Yet it was also painfully obvious that the youth culture they were expressing through their fashion choices was quite different from anything that one might encounter in an American high school or college.  Certainly the Japan of 1994 bore little visual resemblance to the country in 1894, but what does? I remained unconvinced that my friends had somehow become less Japanese because of their engagement with global markets.  Granted, national identity, like all social identities, is a moving target.  But it seemed that they were simply using a different, hybridized, set of symbols to express what it meant to be Japanese at a very specific moment in time.

This suggests another model for thinking about globalization.  Rather than creating a single homogenous market, the increased flow of communication, capital and technology might induce a process of widespread cultural hybridization.  Individuals might gain access to both new technologies and cultural signs that would help them to both respond to the local dislocations that global markets bring, as well as to express a new understanding of what society’s relationship with the state should be.

Of course we have already seen this narrative within martial arts studies.  While modern martial arts schools frame their practices as timeless, historical analysis suggests that almost all of the practices that we currently possess are a product of modernity.  Andrew Morris has documented the ways in which the Jingwu Association harnessed the creation of a modern print industry in China to create the first truly national martial art brand.  Likewise Denis Gainty has argued that, far from being stooges of the state, Japanese martial artists drew on the tools available to them to advance their own unique vision of what modern society should become.  Aspects of this vision were adopted by the government, but only after decades of extensive lobbying.  The mere existence of structural variables does not rob actors of their agency.  Indeed, both of these factors, structure and agency, are deeply implicated in the modern practice of any fighting systems. (Incidentally, it was the need to balance these factors that, in part, led Wacquant to focus on the concept of habitus in his study of urban boxing).

What can the study of the martial arts reveal?  Again, different scholars will have their own research agendas.  But as a political economist I hope that they might tell us more about the strategies that domestic society adopts in the face of systemic shocks.  More to the point, what sorts of approaches are most likely to be successful (like the EWTO in Germany), and what can happen when they fail (say, the Boxer Uprising)?  We can learn much about the human costs of globalization by studying modern martial arts communities.

Much like my previous experience in Japan, I have come to suspect that while certain Asian martial arts can now be found pretty much anywhere in the world, they do not carry the same meanings, or function in quite the same ways, in all of the places where they have found a home. In my previous research I had an opportunity to think quite a bit about how Wing Chun functioned in Hong Kong during the 1950s and 1960s.  And in some broadly structural senses, both Hong Kong and Germany faced similar challenges.  Both areas found themselves rebuilding from one conflict while being caught up in a quickly escalating Cold War.  Both were impacted by the uptick of trade in the 1960’s and underwent profound social and economic changes.  And citizens in both areas eagerly turned to all sorts of martial arts (not just Wing Chun) in an attempt to deal with these challenges.

Yet the different historical trajectories, regulatory environments and market conditions in these countries had a profound effect on how the systemic forces of globalization were felt at the individual level.  The results of this within the martial arts community are fairly predictable.  While Wing Chun proved to be wildly popular in both Hong Kong and Germany, it developed along very different organizational and social lines, their shared love of Bruce Lee notwithstanding.  Indeed, the huge success of the EWTO’s Wing Chun in Germany reveals much about the specific currents of social anxiety that were starting to grip that nation in the late 1970s.


Keep practicing! Nima King Wing Chun School in Hong Kong. Source: SCMP



It is easy to look at the spreading influence of Western culture or economic institutions and predict that the long feared emergence of a homogenized McWorld is beyond the horizon.  Yet a close study of the way that the Asian martial arts have established themselves in specific environments, and the roles that they have been called on to fill, suggest that the picture is actually much more complex.

Yes these “traditional” practices are being extracted from their original cultural environment and marketed as consumer goods.  Yet when we set aside our romanticized notions of a timeless Bushido or Wude, we quickly discover that most of the arts that any of us will ever encounter never existed a pristine realm isolated from market forces.  It is precisely the potential emptiness of these practices as consumer goods that allows individuals in different countries to construct their own meanings and narratives around them.  It is this very emptiness that gives these practices their utility in a global market. The social networks that underlay martial arts organizations can be employed to solve unique problems in two different states, or they might address the same issue in two different ways within the same state. 

This last point returns our attention to the short notice in the Straits Times which introduced this essay.  While one can certainly track national level trends in technology or ideology within the Chinese martial arts, I have always believed that these practices are best understood through the lens of local, or regional, analysis.  One does not even need to compare far off countries to see how martial arts communities can evolve differently despite being subject to shared systemic forces.  Simply consider the case of Guangzhou (Canton), Foshan and Hong Kong, three commercial cities located along a single stretch of the Pearl River.

On a systemic level the geographical placement of these three cities dictated that each would be subject to shocks emerging from the global trade system.  And (partially in response to this) each developed a rich martial arts tradition in the late 19th and early 20th century.  Yet the brief notice in the Straits Times helps to illustrate just how different these communities could be.

In a sense its not a surprise that the local government would attempt to regulate the martial arts schools of Guangzhou by tying them to large local businesses.  In truth the martial arts within this city had always had a strongly corporate character.  Most schools had been backed by large guilds, merchant associations, lineage associations or secret societies.  Indeed, martial arts schools were often the means by which these social factions either provided public goods or contested the control of shared civic spaces.  All of this was most visible in the tensions that occasionally erupted around lion dancing, but the underlying trends were certainly visible in other places as well.

As the 20th century progressed increasingly these more traditional forms of social organization were rechartered as modern commercial corporations.  Hence a regulation like the one proposed in 1933 was really just a formalization of an implicit collective responsibility that had long been a feature of civic life within the capital.  Smaller groups were excluded from maintaining their own schools, and the larger organizations (which the local government relied upon) were reminded that any disturbances would be costly to all members of the corporate group.

Its interesting that the article states that a number of smaller schools were forced to reorganize themselves in outlying areas.  In his study of the growth and urbanization of Republic era Guangzhou, Virgil K. Y. Ho noted that the city’s residents tended to view outlying areas and the countryside as a dangerous and unregulated environment.  And while far from lawless, its clear that the martial arts community in Foshan was much less regulated than the capital.  Rather than shutting down kung fu schools that might compete with the agenda of the Guoshu program, local officials in Foshan seemed content to ignore them, or possibly co-opt them through the establishment of the regionally important Zhong Yi Association.  Indeed, one suspects that vibrancy of the city’s martial arts scene may have had something to do with the fact that many small schools were allowed to compete with relatively little oversight.

Once again, the administrative situation in Hong Kong was different.  While the British were generally content to stay out of associational life within the Chinese community, at times they felt forced to act.  One of the most important of these periods was marked by the growing fear of social unrest in the late 1960s.  Those who are interested in the topic can read about it in much greater detail in my book.  But the upshot of this fear was the creation of new laws designed to limit and control the behavior of local martial arts groups.

While the goal of the British civil servants was not all that different from their Cantonese counterparts three decades earlier, its interesting to consider how their efforts differed.  Chinese officials sought to control the behavior of martial arts groups by promising collective punishment against broader sectors within civil society that may not even have been directly involved in the martial arts.  That strategy probably never occurred to British bureaucrats trained in the Western, individually focused, legal tradition.

Rather than restricting schools based on size or social influence, the British required the creation of formal martial arts associations that could be registered with the government.  Further, every member of a school had to have an individual membership document that would allow any trouble causers to be quickly identified and held accountable.  

The city’s Sifus certainly got the message that they would also be held accountable for their students misbehavior.  And yet one suspects that this single instance of legislation is really just the tip of the iceberg, suggesting how radically different commercial and associational life had become on these two sides of the Pearl River. Rather than seeing Ip Man’s school in the 1960s as reflecting “primordial” Chinese or Confucian values, it is instead necessary to understand its development as a specific strategy for articulating what it meant to be a modern Chinese person within the context of post-war Hong Kong.

On one level such an assertion seems simple enough.  Yet a moment’s thought suggests that it problematizes a strong tendency to seek ever more ancient, authentic and legitimate expression of the “real” Chinese martial arts.  Indeed, all we are likely to accomplish is to multiply our knowledge of local traditions and temporally bounded expressions.  And that, I would argue, is a good thing.  The notion that a unified “Chinese” or “Japanese” (or “Korean” or “Indonesian”…) martial arts tradition ever existed is really a product of 20th century nationalist projects.  While martial arts studies scholars can certainly study these discourses, we should not unconsciously advance them in our own work.

An understanding of the martial arts that takes seriously the notion of hybridization will focus not just on the global spread of these fighting systems, but the process by which they became “localized” within a specific time and place.  Indeed, from a social scientific standpoint, how this occurred in Germany in the 1970s is every bit as interesting and informative as the ways in which Ip Man negotiated his own challenges in Hong Kong in 1950.  Good martial arts history is, to a large extent, local history.

I am not sure that this makes life any easier for students of martial arts studies.  It suggests, for instance, that study of the Chinese or Japanese (or Filipino, or historical European….) martial arts are not the exclusive province of a small group of area studies scholar.  Indeed, the critical sources may not always be written in Chinese and Japanese.  When we remember that we are dealing with modern practices within a global marketplace, the critical languages may turn out to be German, French, Swahili, Spanish, Russian and English. The theoretical toolkit necessary to deal with all of this may become equally complex as well.  

Many of the most interesting future projects within martial arts studies will require collaborations between teams of scholars with a diverse range of backgrounds and skills. We would not be the first field to come to this conclusion, and in some ways we are well positioned to tackle these projects given the robustly interdisciplinary nature of our project.  Yet an increased emphasis on regional and local questions is likely to reveal that the social impacts of the martial arts are far more complex and nuanced than most casual observers would ever suspect. 



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