We all love clickbait. Sure, we say we hate those gimmicky titles that populate our YouTube play lists. And none of us would willfully admit to clicking on “108 Facts about Rick and Morty” or, “20 Things that You Didn’t Know About Wing Chun”, but advertising dollars don’t lie. Just check out the viewership on these videos. Yeah, we all clicked on them.
The human mind loves a list. These discrete, bite-sized, bits of predigested information slot seamlessly into our larger matrix of beliefs and world views, all while invisibly reinforcing our subconscious predispositions. Nor should we ignore the competitive appeal of a good list. The mastery of ever more arcane facts is a great way to reinforce the credibility of one’s chosen Geekdom. Indeed, if we take a step back and look at that YouTube feed again it quickly becomes apparent that information itself has become an easily consumable commodity; one capable of conferring a certain type of credibility or status.
Rather than challenging these popular conventions the current post intends to subvert them. What follows is the first half of a list of 16 facts that you may or may not know about the Chinese martial arts. In their own way each entry asks us to think a little more deeply about what we know about these practices. And I am afraid that none of them are all that easily digestible. But they do come with hints or links for further investigation.
It is the nature of any such list to flirt with chaos. If the topic is drawn too narrowly there is not much of interest to say. Drawn too widely and you quickly lose the threads that hold the various observations together. To keep our list manageable each of our sixteen facts was drawn from one of four categories: places, personalities, “firsts” and concepts (hey, this is an academic blog, of course we were going to talk about ideas). The first two of these topics, places and people, are tackled in today’s post. Enjoy!
- Shaolin Really Was a Martial Arts Powerhouse
While the title explicitly promised 16 things you didn’t know, the truth is that some of the biggest surprises come when we discover moments of continuity with popular legends. The Shaolin temple is a good example of something that both challenges and confirms the popular wisdom on the Chinese martial arts. Maybe that’s why so many of us continue to be tantalized by its history?
The notion that Bodhidharma introduced the martial arts to the venerable institution is a complete myth. But it is absolutely true that the temple functioned as a martial arts training college during the second half of the Ming Dynasty. And the monk’s favorite weapon really was the staff. But their interest in pole fighting likely had little to do with the expected pacifism of Buddhist monks. Indeed, they taught classes on the use of all of the major weapons at Shaolin, including swords, spears and archery. Rather, the many lay students who traveled to train at Shaolin would often go on to become officers in the military or the creators of local militia forces. Both of these groups needed to be well versed in the training of new troops. During the 16thcentury the staff was the favored implement of military basic training camps across China. It was believed that once a soldier mastered the staff he had acquired the basic skills and discipline needed to take on any other weapon.
And Shaolin’s staff was deadly. Period reports note that the temple’s warrior monks would go into battle against the Woku (Japanese pirates) armed with either long hardwood or pure iron staffs. Do you want to know more about Shaolin’s impact of the development of the modern Chinese martial arts? Check out The Shaolin Templeby Meir Shahar.
- Shaolin is Still a Pioneer Today, in the Art of Tourism
The story of the Shaolin Temple is one of destruction and rebirth. Indeed, the temple has been rebuilt many times in its history. In its current incarnation it is one of the largest domestic and international tourist attractions in all of China. The revenue that it generates has been vitally important to the region of Henan province characterized by slow economic development and a lack of good jobs. The Shaolin Temple has been so successful that provincial and local governments across China have rushed to “rediscover” their own martial arts history in the hopes of attracting investment, tourists and students. In some cases, this has been easy. Chen Village (the historic home of Taijiquan) is not that far away from Shaolin and it also depends on visitors. In other areas governments have rushed to excavate and rebuild forgotten temples as direct competitors to Shaolin. For instance, there are multiple tourist sites in Fujian and Guangdong province (and probably other places as well) all vying to be acknowledged as the as home of the mythic “Southern Shaolin Temple.” When it comes to the booming martial arts tourism business, individuals are much more interested in consuming the notion of place rather than its actual history.
Not everyone is enthusiastic about Shaolin’s embrace of the tourist trade. Many commentators have taken to criticizing the materialism of the temple’s monks and leaderships. Indeed, the current abbot has been embroiled in a number of scandals over the years. Yet Shahar points out that even this is not a new development. Students of Shaolin’s history have discovered even earlier accounts decrying the disorder and din caused by tourists at the temple, during the Ming dynasty!
- Foshan Was a Martial Arts Mecca.
Foshan (a small city in the Pearl River Delta) is another location that has done quite well by the boom in martial arts tourism. The city’s ancestral temple is home to small museums dedicated to both Wong Fei Hung (perhaps the best known Southern martial artist of all time) and Ip Man (Bruce Lee’s sifu and a Wing Chun master who rose to prominence much more recently). In recent Kung Fu films, the city is always shown as a hotbed of martial arts activity with a dozen schools competing with others in a tightly packed marketplace.
While almost everything else in these films is historical fiction, that basic image is remarkably accurate. Due to a number of specific economic factors (reviewed by myself and Jon Nielson here) Foshan was a regional center for martial arts activity. In the case of Southern China it was a strong manufacturing economy that led to a demand for martial arts training.
How famous were Foshan’s schools? Well, its love of martial arts training was so well known that short discussions of the situations even made it into China’s English language newspapers. That was a pretty remarkable feat for the time as these papers tended to focus on economic news and international events.
- The Rooftop School is Dead, Long Live the Rooftop School!
Our last entry in this category is not so much a specific location, as a type of place. During the post-war years millions of refugees streamed into Hong Kong. Several important martial artists were among their numbers. As the city became more crowded they tended to set up small schools that met in their own (usually tiny) apartments in Kowloon or the New Territories. If a school was particularly successful and it needed more space it often found relief by retreating to the building’s roof top. This was one of the few inexpensive open spaces that Hong Kong’s less affluent residents could rent. Of course, they were cheap for a reason. They tended to be cramped and incredibly hot during the summers. But marginal spaces such as rooftops, basements and empty warehouse spaces played a critical role in the development of the city’s martial arts scene.
All of this is now a thing of the past. Skyrocketing rents have led to urban redevelopment and gentrification. Many neighborhood schools have lost their locations and everyone’s rents have increased. A decline in demand for traditional martial arts instruction is not the only, or even the greatest, challenge that these systems face. Nor is the problem confined to Hong Kong. The amazing rise in global real estate values during the last few decades has changed the face of cities from Guangzhou to London. As economies are reconfigured the martial arts are forced to find new ways to propagate themselves and build their communities.
- Bruce Lee almost followed in the footsteps of Charlie Chan
The modern Chinese martial arts are more than simply urban geography. They have also produced an incredible assortment of colorful personalities who have shaped the development of these systems. Indeed, popular martial arts history sometimes seems to reduce down to an endless stream of biography.
If there is any one lesson that we might take away from all of these biographies, it is the radically contingent nature of the Chinese martial arts. Consider the following fact. No individual had a greater role in popularizing the Chinese martial arts in the West than Bruce Lee. He is also remembered as an individual who used his roles in both TV programs and films to shatter the stereotypes that had followed Chinese Americans for decades.
Yet as Matthew Polly points out in his recent biography, Bruce Lee didn’t come to Hollywood to play an action hero in the Green Hornet. Instead he was initially recruited to play Charlie Chan’s son in a detective film. Obviously that gig fell through, and Lee was left to scramble. But if Lee had been cast he would not only have found himself playing a more cerebral detective, but he may well have ended up prolonging the life of a franchise that had promoted many harmful stereotypes in the past. Still, you have got to wonder what sort of detective Bruce Lee would have been!
The twists and turns of an individual career can reveal how fundamental social forces have forced the martial arts to adapt in a given time and place. I have always found Ip Man to be helpful in this regard as his life was grounded in two very different times and places. In the 1910s and 1920s the southern Chinese martial arts were closely tied to specific local and group identities. The organizations that supported martial arts instructors, whether unions, corporations, clan associations or political parties tended to control local resources and as a result many (though not all) martial arts associations were closely tied to a specific place and social interests.
When Ip Man fled to Hong Kong he found himself in a very different, and much more fluid, urban landscape. A review of his career shows that he moved apartments frequently (every couple of years in some cases) and taught his Wing Chun classes in literally dozens of ever shifting locations. Ip Man was constantly on the move.
The peripatetic nature of urban life required him to change the way that Wing Chun was taught in order to retain his equally mobile students. But it also encouraged him to change the sorts of equipment that his schools used. Fixed wooden dummies, permanently buried in the ground, reflected the nature of life in generationally-stable Foshan. Yet they were not well adapted to life in a Hong Kong apartment.
When discussing Ip Man’s dummy we tend to fixate on how his plan for hanging it changed its action and the quality of its play when struck. What is often missed in these discussions is the much more basic fact that creation of a wall mounted dummy takes any Wing Chun school and makes it mobile. Such a dummy can be moved from one location to the next on a yearly basis. In short, the types of dummies that we all use now (almost none of which are actually buried in the ground) are a powerful symbol of the increasingly mobile and fluid nature of Chinese martial arts, forever detached from their geographic point of origin. All of this was set in motion by Ip Man who commissioned his own dummies as he struggled to find ways to make Wing Chun relevant in an ever-changing environment.
- Wong Fei Hung put the Southern Chinese Martial Arts on the Map
Bruce Lee ignited a storm of interest in the Asian martial arts. And more recent bio-pics have made his teacher, Ip Man, a widely recognized figure. But it was Wong Fei Hung who created the modern world of Southern Chinese martial arts culture that would later immortalize these other men. The historic Wong was a practitioner of Hung Gar and traditional Chinese medicine who lived and worked for much of his career in Foshan. Following the death of this son the respected martial artist became a recluse, but that seems to have only contributed to the amazing outpouring of serialized newspaper articles, radio shows and eventually films that attempted to capitalize on his legend. According to his Wikipedia filmography, at least 123 films starring Wong Fei Hung have been produced. Nor does this number include his many TV appearances, or the various projects focusing on his famous disciples.
Yet Wong Fei Hung has always been more than an action hero. He was also an important folk hero who represents changing notions of Cantonese identity. Many of his early films went out of their way to include ethnographic performances of authentic martial arts techniques and lion dances. Even when this material disrupted the films narrative flow, audiences saw it as a way of preserving and editorializing on local culture and values. And these films were all the more potent given that Wong was a widely known historical figure.
All of this paved the way for the creation of later “real-life” folk heroes. Indeed, it is interesting to speculate on how the current myths of Bruce Lee and Ip Man would be different if they were not following on the footsteps of Wong Fei Hung.
9. Chu Minyi: “The Chinese martial arts (Guoshu) bring glad tidings to all of the world…”
If there is one spice that has flavored the popular discussion of the Chinese martial arts, it is the consistent belief that these systems conceal some great ancient secret. After all, secrecy is a powerful advertising strategy. And there may even be some truth to it. Many systems (though we should hasten to add, not all) reserve certain techniques and discussions for “indoor students.” And disseminating advanced material only to those students with the capability to deal with it might just be good pedagogy. But does all of this mean that the Chinese martial arts are truly “secretive”?
That question takes on a special urgency for students of martial arts studies who are interested in the global transmission of these systems starting in the middle years of the 20thcentury. We frequently hear the claim, sometimes coming from within the martial arts community, that kung fu was never taught to “outsiders” prior to the 1970s because of the extreme secrecy and ethnic chauvinism of the Chinese-American community. As Paul Bowman has noted, this claim is problematic as it paints the Chinese-American community, which had been the victim of legislative and social campaigns of racism and persecution, as being responsible for its own fate. A more balanced history of the martial arts in America might start with the post-WWII re-imagination of the Chinese as a “model minority,” as well as the rise of various counterculture movements, and ask how these changed the demand for traditional Chinese culture.
In any case, there is not much evidence that the Chinese tried to actively hide their traditional fighting system from the West. To the contrary, during the 1930s the Chinese government went out of its way to promote the image of the Chinese martial arts abroad. This was done through goodwill tours, newspaper articles and even the staging to a wushu demonstration at the 1936 Olympics.
The Western trained physician Chu Minyi was a driving force behind some of these efforts. He demonstrated his Taiji Calisthenics at physical education conferences in Europe where he distributed instructional material that had been translated into English and French. He commissioned a short German language documentary on the Chinese martial arts to be entered into the 1936 Berlin film festival (which accompanied the Olympics later that year). He even helped to open a martial arts class for Western students at a theatrical club in Shanghai. Chu and other reformers believed that the Chinese martial arts had universal benefits that should be shared with all of humanity. His campaign was ultimately cut short by the Japanese invasion of China in 1937. Yet when addressing his vision for the Chinese martial arts he noted:
…Our goals in working to promote guoshu[national arts] are to gather together all those who excel in martial arts and all of the finest points of martial arts. Then we can give this organized, systematized, scholarly, and methodological guoshu to all of the people of the world…Spreading Chinese guoshu to all of the people of the world will mean glad tidings for humanity.
Quoted in Andrew Morris, 220. Chu Minyi. 1928. “Zhongwei Chu Minyi shi zhi datan guoshu—feng wei renlei de fu-yin.” [Central Committee Member Chu Minyi’s Great Hopes for Guoshu: Presenting glad tidings to all humanity.] Jiaoyu Zazhi (Educational Review)20:12 (20 December 1928): 3-4.
Chu’s subsequent actions in the 1930s suggest that these were not empty platitudes. The success of such efforts was certainly hampered by limited budgets and other more pressing problems. Still, it is clear that the limiting factor in the early globalization of the Chinese martial arts was the lack of interest among Western populations rather than the impenetrable secrecy of the martial arts community. Indeed, Chinese reformers and policy makers noted the West’s interest in Japanese judo and jiujitsu and were very interested in winning a similar level of legitimacy for their own arts. Do you want to know more about these efforts? Then be sure to watch out for my upcoming book on place of the martial arts in China’s public and cultural diplomacy efforts.
Watch for part two of this post soon!
If you enjoyed this list you might also want to see: Five Moments that Transformed Kung Fu