Social media is rarely surprising. Its popularity derives from administering small doses of reassuring comfort, most of which suggests that the world is just as we had always imagined it. There is actually something a little perverse about turning to a medium like Facebook to advance a project like Martial Arts Studies. Our job, as a field, is to argue that things are never quite as simple and as comfortable as they seem. Yet all of our announcements about new articles, conferences or blog posts are quickly assimilated into that stream of predictable daily updates that we all derive comfort from scrolling through.
Every once in a while, you do run across something that it a bit surprising. I (somewhat belatedly) posted a link to a South China Morning Post article on KFT’s Facebook titled “How Ip Chun, son of Hong Kong martial arts titan Ip Man, is carrying on his father’s legacy at the grand age of 95.” To say that the response to this was overwhelming would be an understatement. It may well have gotten more likes and shares than any other link that I have ever put up. You can read the original article out here.
This response made me curious. The South China Morning Post, as Hong Kong’s paper of record, publishes quite a few articles on the Southern Chinese martial arts. Wing Chun is a perennial popular topic for reporters looking to document a slice of life within the city. I discuss many of these articles regularly, both on the Facebook group and in the monthly news updates here on the blog. Nor is this even Ip Chun’s first appearance within their pages. As the oldest son of Ip Man, he has become a popular subject of interest among some of the paper’s readers.
I think that it is basically impossible to guess why something goes viral. It might all just be a matter of dumb luck and black box algorithms. Nevertheless, it might be profitable to think about this article a little more carefully in an attempt to understand why it gripped the attention of so many readers.
The title must certainly claim much of the credit. One suspects that Ip Man (always the properly modest gentleman) would have pushed back against any suggestion that he was a “titan” of Hong Kong’s martial arts scene. That heroic status is really a result of the art’s rebranding that began with Wilson Ip’s 2008 break out “bio-pic.”
Again, life is nothing if not ironic. Ip Man spent much of his teaching career decrying martial arts myths of wandering monks, fantastic heroes and superhuman powers. As he explained to Clausnitzer, he (and most of his students) saw Wing Chun primarily as a modern and effective combat art (Wing Chun Kung Fu: Chinese Self-Defense Methods. Crompton 1969. p.10). This is an important point to bear in mind.
But this article isn’t one of those pieces where the title gives away the entire story. Ip Chun does make a number of appearances but it isn’t, technically speaking, about him. Instead it is an announcement of a new 45-minute documentary produced by Lee Ka-man of Hong Kong Shue Yan University. She won a modest grant ($14,000 USD) from the Lord Wilson Heritage Trust and used the funding to spend years shadowing Ip Chun, collecting interviews, and producing a project titled The Legacy of Ving Tsun. Parts of the documentary are being debuted at the University this weekend and the entire project will be screened for the public later this year.
Needless to say, congratulations are in order! Dr. Lee hails from a Journalism and Communications department and should be ideally situated for undertaking a task like this. It is yet another example of the various ways in which scholarly researchers around the globe are exploring the concerns and communities of martial artists. And as a long-time Wing Chun student and fellow researcher, I can only say that I am intensely jealous of anyone who enjoyed such an opportunity. I hope that this project will make important contributions to our understanding of the practice of Wing Chun in modern Hong Kong.
The rest of the SCMP article was basically a promotional piece. It sought to whet the appetite of potential viewers by showcasing interesting morsels of Wing Chun history. I don’t think that individuals who follow these conversations closely will find much of this surprising. She reveals, for instance, that it was Wong Shun Leung, rather than Ip Man himself, who carried out most of Bruce Lee’s day to day training. Likewise, Ip Man’s rather famous refusal to allow Lee to film some training material is once again rehearsed. While Ip Chun knew of the incident, he does not seem to have any additional insight into why his father shot down the request (other than the fact that he found Lee’s offer either annoying, condescending or both).
Still, the real value of a project like this is not so much what it tells us about the famous figures of previous generations. Rather, it is found in its ability to illustrate the ways in which an art functions in the here and now. One wonders whether the 2008 Ip Man film hasn’t been something of a double-edged sword for Wing Chun. It has certainly raised the profile of the practice, attracting many new students. Yet it has also rhetorically repositioned Wing Chun (and even the ever practical Ip Man) as something that exists more in the realm of local legends and supposed super human abilities.
The world is a vastly different place now than it was in 1960s and all things, even the martial arts, evolve and move. I am not sure that when Ip Man characterized his practice “as a style of boxing highly relevant and adaptable to modern fighting conditions” (quoting Clausnitzer 10) that he was imagining quite the same thing as a current reader who has grown up watching UFC matches. But I am also unsure what he would have thought of his art being promoted primarily as a cultural project. That is one of the strains of rhetoric that we see more frequently in Wing Chun discussions.
There are, nevertheless, a few lines that I found particularly interesting in the remainder of the article. Some touched on the question of place. For much of the 1980s through the 2000s the geographic center of Wing Chun practice swung decisively from Hong Kong to the West. There were probably more students of the art in Germany than anywhere else in the world. Thanks in larger part to the Bruce Lee phenomenon, Wing Chun was also very popular in the UK, North America and Oceana. Indeed, this trend caused a certain amount of consternation in the 2000s as masters in Hong Kong were forced to wrestle with the geographic decentralization, and in many respects westernization, of their art.
This situation may have once again started to change. While Wing Chun is deeply culturally identified with Hong Kong, and it is likely that the city will remain (like Foshan) a point of pilgrimage, growth has begun to explode in other quarters. Increasingly the art is being taken up throughout mainland China, and not simply in southern provinces where one might expect it to find a greater degree of cultural resonance. Within a decade it might once again be a predominately Chinese art, though its center of practice is likely to wander far beyond the cities of the Pearl River Delta which gave it birth. Indeed, the seemingly improbable rebirth of Ip Man as a nationalist hero has made Wing Chun desirable to wushu hobbyist throughout the PRC in a way that few other Cantonese or Hakka folk arts can match.
Nevertheless, what really stood out to me was Ip Chun’s final quote.
“As the bearer of this intangible cultural heritage, I have the responsibility to pass down Wing Chun. My hope is that its nature will never change, that it will continue to be preserved,” Ip says.
Obviously Wing Chun will continue to change and evolve in the future, just as it has evolved in the past. Whether this impinges on its central “nature” seems to be an entirely subjective judgement. It is worth remembering that Ip Man’s Wing Chun succeeded precisely because he was willing to adapt the system and change how it was taught after he arrived in Hong Kong in 1949. Ip Chun obviously knows this. Indeed, Martial Arts historians (like myself) know about Ip Man’s alterations at least in part because of Ip Chun’s first-hand accounts of these facts, many of which were recorded in the 1990s. I suspect that his statement here is best understood as a nod to the traditional Confucian values that any filial son is expected to have, and not as an attempt to rewrite history. As the often repeated saying goes, “I transmit but do not create.”
The timing of various accounts and discussions also seems somewhat relevant here. Wing Chun was growing in popularity during the 1990s, but it was prior to explosion in media exposure that came in 2008. It was also prior to the rise of “Intangible Cultural Heritage” as a conceptual category that might color our understanding of certain martial arts. That is another lens which values the complete and “proper” transmission of traditional practices, but not necessarily their adaptation to work “in the octagon.”
This bring us to the question that I posed in the title of this article. When exactly did Wing Chun come to be understood (by at least some individuals) as an intangible cultural practice? After all, those weren’t terms that Ip Chun (or anyone else) used in interviews in the 1990s. And what are the implications of this for the future development of the art?
On one level the answer to this question is very straightforward. The UN Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage (originally negotiated as a means for countries in the global South to be able to protect indigenous practices that did not receive the same recognition and funding as historic places or artifacts found primarily i the North) was only ratified in 2003. Popular consciousness of this concept exploded within global civil society during the middle and later years of that decade.
Of course, venerating one’s native literature, music and culture has long been a pastime of nationalists around the globe. Anyone interested in consolidating local identities for political purposes has been aware of these categories. Yet the thought that these things could be cultivated within a global context is much more recent. In many ways a renewed consciousness of the value of ICH is result of the debates about globalization, and the spread of a monolithic form of Western capitalism (the so called “McWorld” phenomenon) that began to take root in the early 2000s. The creation of a UN Convention on ICH (as well as the funding and awareness that would go along with it) was seen as a way to push back against this loss of cultural diversity in the face of western global market pressure.
Given the tight association between regional identity and martial practice, one might assume that the martial arts would always be prime candidates for acknowledgement and preservation. Some practices have received recognition, but the number is generally fewer than one might expect. Both Silat in Indonesia and Taijiquan in China have been debated for inclusion on the ICH lists, but both are still in a holding pattern. Muay Thai, the national art of Thailand, is an interesting example of a globally popular (and commercially successful) art that has been awarded full ICH status.
However, individual states and even local regions have also been busy creating their own lists of ICH properties in need of recognition and preservation. In 2014 the government of Hong Kong released an extensive report on the region’s cultural heritage that sited several martial arts which were both key to the area’s identity and deemed worthy of inclusion. Unsurprisingly, Wing Chun was right at the top of that list. And while I don’t have any inside information on Dr. Lee’s project, one strongly suspects that this government designation proved helpful when she applied for grant funding from the Lord Wilson Heritage Trust. That is one of the ways that an ICH designation works to confer benefits on a community of practitioners.
It is also interesting to think about what sorts of martial arts are never considered to be “cultural heritage” practices. Many of the most popular practices of the day are missing from the UN (and even national) lists. Unsurprisingly, no one has nominated MMA or western Kickboxing. Krav Maga and Judo are also missing from any of the lists that I have seen. And while Brazilian Capoeira has earned an ICH designation, I don’t think anyone has suggested anything similar for Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.
That last point is revealing. One might argue that BJJ could not qualify for a list as it is not really a “traditional” practice, having its origins in the first decades of the 20thcentury. Or perhaps it is seen as too derivative from other practices (such as Kano’s Judo). Yet Wing Chun isn’t really that much older. While it may have gotten its recognized start in the generation of Leung Jan (mid and late 19thcentury), it wasn’t until the 1920s that the art came to be practiced publicly on a wide scale in Foshan. And of course, the Wing Chun that most of us do today is really a product of the 1950s (or, more properly, how Hong Kong’s 1950s were reimagined by individuals in the 1990s).
There is something else, other than simply that the age of a practice, which seems to decide whether a martial art really qualifies as a “tradition” within this frame of discussion. Again, the central issue is globalization and the question of cultural diversity. All martial arts have creators, and that means that they emerge at specific times and places. Yet some have succeeded by actively becoming part of global culture. Judo is an Olympic sport. Krav Maga is taught in training halls around the world, most of which are not located in Israel. And BJJ has dominated discussions of grappling for decades.
Taken to a rhetorical extreme, practitioners of these systems may even attempt to escape the particular origins of their practices during the enculturation process. I was recently listening to a TEDx talk in which a black belt pontificated that the origins of his BJJ practices were unknowable. He placed their genesis first in ancient Greece (e.g., firmly within the classical Western tradition) and then accused the Japanese of “keeping them secret for centuries.” That is clearly not how any academically trained historian would tell this story. But we should also realize that within popular discussions this is not an uncommon tactic. Indeed, in a prior blog post we saw German Jiu-Jitsu students do something very similar in the 1920s and 1930s as they also sought to localize their practice.
There are thus certain martial arts that have come to be seen as representing the spread of a dominant global culture. Other practices have largely been understood as threatened by (or resistant to) them. While BJJ strives to be universal and scientific, Capoeira is intensely aware of its historically bounded roots and explicitly positions itself as resisting the forces of imperialism and injustice. Likewise, it is probably no mistake that in 2008 the mediatized Ip Man’s first assignment was to use a little known form of southern Kung Fu to show that the people of China could draw on their own cultural resources to resist the expansion of Japanese Karate and Judo. On one level these practices certainly represented Japanese imperialism during WWII. But they were also the first East Asian arts to find global success, and both will be included as competitive events at the Tokyo Olympics. Meanwhile Wushu, still struggling for recognition in the West, is once again left on the outside looking in.
In the 1970s and 1980s Wing Chun defined itself largely through a discourse that focused on practicality. While other local martial arts (Hung Gar and Choy Li Fut) became famous for the preservation of rich traditions (and sometimes their onscreen enactment in the region’s famous Kung Fu films), Wing Chun students were typically seen as both progressive and modern. The vision of Ip Man inaugurated in the 2008 films still brings his fighting techniques into the modern world. He fights distinctly modern opponents (whether Japanese military officers or Western imperialists). Yet there is no need for his training or fighting methods to evolve to meet these new challenges as the decades roll by. Indeed, it is their cultural purity (symbolically highlighting the dignity and strength of Chinese culture) which alone guarantees their success in each new film.
Ip Chun’s closing quote seems to signal a certain cultural convergence, seen in the Wing Chun community, but also drawing on larger trends. We see evidence of the renewed importance of Confucian thought within his characterization of the transmission of his father’s art. His frank acknowledgement of the current (and likely future) importance of mainland Chinese students points to the role of nationalism in the social repositioning of Wing Chun. And all of this is subtly reinforced by a nod to the idea of intangible cultural heritage, a now popular concept with UN backing.
A simple (mis)reading of the goals of ICH might be that it seeks to preserve practices as they existed in the past. In fact, the UN convention, as well as most individuals who work in the area, acknowledge that this is not how things actually work. To continue to be vital and relevant some aspect of any practice must adapt in each generation. The only arts that never change are those that are already dead.
Still, one wonders whether all of this portends an inward shift in which an increasing number of teachers (particularly those in Hong Kong and China) begin to see Wing Chun as primarily a national and cultural, rather than a practical, project. This balance has always been a topic of debate within the Wing Chun community. I touched on this topic in the final chapter of my book (with Jon Nielson) when looking at the past growth of the art in the West. But a similar dialectic will also be in play as Wing Chun continues to expand throughout the PRC. It will be interesting to see if Dr. Lee’s new documentary provides new insight into which way the wind is blowing.
If you enjoyed this you might also want to read: Ng Chung So – Looking Beyond the “Three Heroes of Wing Chun”