A Sense of Purpose
I was taking notes when I heard one of the most interesting comments to come up in the session. “I am not just another person, I have a purpose.” I wasn’t part of this particular conversation, and in truth the women weren’t speaking about the martial arts (at least not directly). Still, her comment triggered a momentary flash of recognition. No one else had articulated this sentiment quite so succinctly, but it was something I had been hearing in all sorts of conversations all week. I immediately stopped what I was doing and made a mental note to log the statement in my daily notes.
As a social scientist I am struck by the notion that having a purpose makes somebody singular or unique. Humans are inherently social animals and modern capitalism ensures that we will all spend our days producing goods, information or services that are useful to several other people. Within a modern economy we all have many purposes, most of which we are only vaguely aware of. Of course, no one derives much psychological comfort from the fact that they are doing their bit to grow the quarterly GDP numbers. Simply being socially useful does not appear to be the same thing as having “a purpose.” The achievement of the later stabilizes one’s identity, providing both a foundation of self-esteem and a set of guiding norms when making decisions. The former does not.
This is precisely what so many martial arts instructors have promised their students. In exchange for time, resources and the pain of inevitable injury and sacrifice, they promise a purposeful life, one that rises above the mundane. Even if we never fully escape our daily toil, we are promised that we will see it from a higher vista. We will have an opportunity to be an agent, rather than simply an object, of change. It is not enough to have an “identity.” It must enable something.
The construction of identity is much discussed in the martial arts studies literature. Yet in truth everyone has many (sometimes competing) identities thrust upon them. That is not enough to ensure any degree of life satisfaction. People are searching for an empowered identity, or, to put it slightly differently, a sense of purpose.
It is easy to observe the ways in which all of this manifests within the texture of daily martial arts practice. Hours spent in training, or even the foregone pleasures of desert, are no longer pointless deprivation. They are a sacrifice made tolerable by the acceptance of our larger purpose. It may take many forms. We may be training for a fight, carrying forth the charge to open a branch-school in a new city, or simply showcasing the benefits that our style could bring into the lives of other potential students. We derive a degree of satisfaction from taking on these responsibilities. When we become martial artists, we don’t just add another layer of identity over an already cluttered public image, we experience a new sense of “purpose.”
Not all individuals will respond to the promise of social reasonability in the same ways. Some of us already have all of the “purpose” that we can bear. There is probably a good reason why many individuals go to the gym simply looking for a competent personal trainer, while a much smaller group are searching for their own personal Yoda. There are all sorts of selection effects that must be considered as we theorize about why only some individuals seem to love kung fu. Still, it is my observation that a new (or renewed) sense of purpose that comes with martial arts training is highly valued by those who remain.
Individuals enjoy this feeling so much that they may even look for ways to protect or insulate their newfound sense of purpose. That suggests a need to think a little more deeply about the purpose of our chosen (and constructed) communities. Indeed, as I listened to the ongoing conversation about “self-worth” and “purpose” that introduced this essay, my thoughts turned to Ip Man and all of the places that now seemed to be haunted by his memory.
A Sense of Place
How might the construction of a sense of place reinforce and insulate the comforting experience of purpose within in a martial arts community? Or to rephrase this question on a much more basic level, why do martial arts communities go to such great lengths to associate themselves with geographic places to begin with?
At first this might seem like a common-sense proposition. Everyone is, after all, from somewhere.
Yet fighting styles are not individuals. Wing Chun itself is more of conversation, or even a debate, about how a violent encounter is likely to unfold and (given a set of core concepts) how one might respond. Such debates are, by their very nature, universal. While Leung Jan may have first articulated his version of the debate in Foshan, I would be willing to bet that at least some of his teachers, training partners or opponents came from much farther afield. Indeed, the militarization of Southern Chinese society that accompanied the Opium Wars of the 1840s suggests that at least some of the social currents that the region’s martial arts were responding to were not even Chinese in origin. It was the sudden appearance of European militaries that helped to destabilize the region and inspired the explosion of gentry led militia units. Many of the best and most dynamic conversations about hand combat take place at the margins of social, cultural and even civilizational conflict. What emerges is always hybrid and rhizomic.
Nevertheless, the need to tame, define and localize these conversations is also deeply rooted in both psychological and social needs. Perhaps nowhere is this more clear than in recent treatments of Wing Chun. Three examples come to mind which I would like to explore in no particular order.
The first of these is also the most recent. Wing Chun students who read this blog will already be familiar with Ho Kam Ming. One of Ip Man’s long-term students, Ho states that he learned the entire system from Ip Man in roughly three and half years, and then worked as an assistant instructor, helping out with classes, for another three and half years. Still, Ho Kam Ming is most often remembered for the vibrant Wing Chun school that he opened in Macau immediately after leaving Ip Man’s tutelage. His school had a reputation for producing students who could fight. It also produced a famous series of photographs showing Ip Man visiting Ho’s roof top school. In fact, these are the only photos that I am aware of showing Ip Man in an “class-room” setting. That makes them important historical documents.
Recently the Macau Wing Chun Chinese Martial Arts Federation has been working on an independent documentary film to preserve and commemorate the importance of “Macau Wing Chun.” The trailer for their film looks fantastic and if you haven’t seen it I highly recommend dropping what you are doing and checking it out. It is one of the more inspirational bits of non-fiction film making that I have seen in some time. I cannot wait to see the final product and suddenly feel inspired to ask all sorts of questions about Ho Kam Ming’s career.
Still, after re-watching the clip a number of times what stands out the most is the degree to which this project places Macau itself, and not just Ho Kam Ming, at the center of the Wing Chun story. One gets a sense that the city itself might be an important character in this documentary. That is a fascinating, and not necessarily an obvious, editorial choice. After all, Ho Kam Ming actually learned his Wing Chun in Hong Kong, a city that he called home for much of his life. Nor is Macau his only adopted home. Like so many other Chinese martial artists he immigrated to Canada in the 1990s and set up a school in Toronto. Yet the branding of this documentary really emphasizes that this will be the story of “Macau Wing Chun.”
That doesn’t mean that Hong Kong or Toronto are ignored. It appears that each of these other cities receives some treatment. They all get own airial “establishing shot” in the trailer (suggesting yet again that the cinematography in this documentary will be beautiful). Nevertheless, it appears that each of these places will be shown as spokes on a wheel. Present certainly, but emphasizing Macau’s place as the indispensable hub.
Given Hong Kong’s decades long project to brand itself as the home of Wing Chun, that emphasis may not be intuitively obvious. Indeed, Hong Kong’s residents seem to have taken to the fighting system precisely because it makes a unique contribution to the city’s sense of place, rootedness and authenticity. In purely numeric terms one suspects that vastly more of the city’s children study Taekwondo or Karate than any type of traditional Kung Fu. And among the older set, one is more likely to encounter Taijiquan practitioners in the park than anyone doing serious chi sau. Still, Wing Chun has become the subject of many movies, TV programs and advertising campaigns precisely because it provides Hong Kong with a sense of authenticity and “purpose” as the leading city of the Southern Chinese cultural sphere.
This is where Herman Yau reenters our story. Of the many Ip Man bio-pics to be made since Wilson Ip opened the floodgates in 2008, Yau’s 2013 Ip Man: The Final Fight has got to be my personal favorite. While global audience may have found his older and more studious Ip Man’s less compelling than the younger and more kinetic version played by Donnie Yen, Yau understood what his domestic audience really wanted. He made the streets of Hong Kong a major character in Ip Man’s personal story. He beautifully captured the feeling of sundrenched cafes, slums crowded with refugees, the violence of the era’s labor unrest and even the destructive power of the seasonal monsoons. If one leaves out the final spectacular showdown, his film has an almost ethnographic feel to it. True, its opening scene establishes that Ip Man (and Wing Chun) were displaced exiles. And yet by the end of the film they have become not just part of the city, but guarantors of its moral order.
In this vision Wing Chun is the quintessential Hong Kong art because it has the quintessential Hong Kong story. Yau’s film is my favorite of the bunch because it so beautifully illustrates how geography becomes community, and how community is experienced as a sense of purpose at the individual level. In his vision Hong Kong itself is the hub that holds the spokes of Wing Chun together.
Foshan might also make a similar argument. As one bit of martial mythology after another is debunked, it is actually somewhat comforting to learn that this small city really was a hotbed of martial arts innovation in the late 19thand early 20th centuries. Wing Chun was only one of many martial arts practiced there, and as Jon Nielson and I have demonstrated elsewhere, the art’s public profile was limited prior to the 1920s-1930s. The city’s main claim to fame prior to 1928 was its vibrant Choy Li Fut community, which dwarfed pretty much everything else in terms of sheer size.
Still, it is no surprise that from the 1980s onward the city would emphasize its connections with first Wong Fei Hung, and later Ip Man, the teacher of Bruce Lee. The city’s connections with these media legends would be immortalized through the construction of “sacred spaces,” set aside for the ever-growing flow of martial pilgrims, within the walls of the Ancestral Temple, a structure that already symbolized Foshan’s corporate identity. And given the increased importance of the martial arts as an element of Southern China’s “intangible cultural heritage” it was probably inevitable that the martial arts would become a featured presence in the city’s newly reconstructed “old town” district.
All of this was commemorated with the release of a 2012 documentary, explicitly examining the question of identity and social meaning in Wing Chun. Once again, the piece is beautifully produced and is well worth watching if you have not already seen it. I appreciate the fact that it goes to lengths to place Wing Chun within the flow of contemporary Chinese life, rather than dwelling only on the past. Again, the message is clear. Foshan is not simply the place that launched Wing Chun into the global arena. It remains at the heart of the art’s modern practice, and a fount of wisdom for those looking for guiding principles. Again, other places are mentioned. Hong Kong makes a number of appearances, and Ho Kam Ming’s lineage is prominently featured. But now the hub of the wheel is located in Foshan, with Wing Chun’s brilliance radiating outwards from it.
Conclusion: The Purpose of Place
I think that each of these cities can make a claim to residing at the center of the Wing Chun story. Yet the way in which they are discussed is far from unique. I have recently been involved in some conversations about the nature of “German” Wing Chun, and given the huge numbers of practitioners in that country compared to almost anywhere else in the world, such a label has its uses. Likewise, when I was studying with my Sifu (Jon Nielson) while at the University of Utah, we occasionally talked about “Salt Lake Wing Chun” in comparison to the branch of our shared lineage which was practiced in St. George, located in the far south of the state.
All of these labels are socially constructed. It is the universal and rhizomic nature of these arts which allows one group of students to identify their practice as “Macau Wing Chun,” whereas William Cheung students in Australia might casually refer to the same forms and footwork as typical examples of “Hong Kong Wing Chun.” This fungibility raises an obvious question, and one that has so far been overlooked in our discussion of how the martial arts are constructed as a marker of place. Why is this done? What social or personal work is accomplished by emphasizing geographic space while deemphasizing the many other possible markers of identity?
I suspect that the experience of purpose, and the need to defend or insulate that aspect of one’s identity, is critical to all of this. Any sense of identity that rests solely on our personal performance or attributes is inherently unstable. We all have good training days and bad. Fights are either won or lost. Our relationships with our Kung Fu brothers and sisters may be sustaining at some times, and fraught at others. In short, any number of changes in our personal circumstances could threaten the identity and sense of purpose that we have come to rely upon. And at some point, we all know that this must end. The martial arts are primarily embodied skills. Age, sickness and death will eventually strip all of us of any sense of purpose that is rooted solely in the personal mastery or performance of these arts.
Yet, as we saw above, geography has a funny way of becoming community. It fills this role so effectively because it becomes both a symbol for those who share our practice (the “Salt Lake Wing Chun community”) and the field in which we express our sense of purpose. Geographic place thus represents those forces that empower our identity, as well as the demands of social responsibility that we all feel. By allowing us to depersonalize these emotions, transferring them to a constructed social realm, we buffer our sense of purpose against both temporary and existential setbacks.
Like most things in life, there is a dark side to this mental machinery. The very fact that we can escape (if only for a moment) our personal characteristics by invoking a larger social identity suggests that someone else might call upon or reframe that same identity in an attempt to make unwarranted generalization about our personal practice. YouTube is full of videos designed to generate clicks through eliciting a sense of insecurity about one’s chosen style or lineage. Ironically, our projection of personal experience onto a socially constructed identity might end up threatening the security of our sense of self as easily as it insulates it.
These are precisely the sorts of discourses that marketing campaigns are made of. Hong Kong, Macau or even Salt Lake Wing Chun can all too easily become brands that are used to bat down or preemptively define others. We all seem to experience the urge to arrange these labels vertically. Such an exercise is inherently harmful as it makes the world a smaller and less interesting place without really explaining the variety and richness that we see.
I don’t think that means that all such labels are bad, or that geographical place should be struck from our lexicon. If we remember the rhizomic and universal nature of these practices, local identity (and localization) can illustrate the breadth and ever-changing nature of the Chinese martial arts. They can help us to acknowledge that our peak may not be as high as we once thought. That we all see only a single slice of this landscape. This is fundamentally a good thing. An appreciation for wonder and mystery has always been the necessary counterbalance to any sense of purpose.
If you enjoyed this essay you might also want to read: Spreading the Gospel of Kung Fu: Print Media and the Popularization of Wing Chun (Part III).