Given that many of the readers of Kung Fu Tea come to this blog to read about the history or development of traditional fighting systems, I am willing to bet that each and every one of us has complained about the way that our beloved fighting systems are sometimes shown in Kung Fu dramas or big budget Hollywood action films. I know that I have. The impulse is inevitable.
There is something about these systems that reminds me of western “Geek Culture” though I have never quite been able to put my finger on what it is. Getting the details “right” is certainly important. You can’t leave movements out of a taolu, and if you do them sloppily you can expect to be called out by individuals who have invested decades into the connoisseurship of this type of embodied knowledge. Many of these systems base arguments for their authenticity not in any type of competitive encounter, but rather in mythic historical narrative. And that means that for a certain sort of student, getting the “historical” details right is critical. To forget them is to call the legitimacy of your own practice into question. How seriously would you take a TCMA instructor who can’t tell you who their teacher’s teacher was? For a baseball coach it might not matter. But within the Wing Chun world such ignorance would be disqualifying.
No doubt there are also substantial differences between martial arts subcultures and the sorts of fan subcultures that we see in popular culture. But it is interesting to me how well theories designed for one realm seem to fit the other. Thus, when we learn that in the latest installment of his long running franchise Ip Man will be sailing to America to save Bruce Lee from racists and to single handedly fight the entire US Marine Corps, a certain amount of nerd rage is to be expected.
It is all enough to make one put down the Kung Fu films and curl up in front of a solid martial arts documentary. After all, if fictional cinema is busy promoting exactly the sorts of myths that MMA fighters keep knocking down on YouTube in the most embarrassingly possible ways, perhaps some good solid documentaries will put it all into perspective, demonstrate the actual beauty of these arts, and maybe promote them in the current marketplace of ideas.
Or maybe not. It’s worth remembering that the first great decade of documentary film making was during the 1930s, and those same years also saw the widespread appropriation of the documentary style for blatant propaganda purposes as Germany, the United States, Japan and the Soviet Union hurled toward the Second World War. Indeed, the creation of documentary films has long been understood as an exercise in ethical paradox. The medium requires filmmakers to present their project as a cohesive and legible narrative to audience. Yet reality itself rarely conforms to the “heroes’ journey” or any other narrative trope. It is so complex and full of contradiction that we need to turn to historians, theorists and filmmakers to simplify and focus the story so that we can understand what “really” happened. Yet what the human brain is capable of understanding is often pretty limited compared to the complexity of the physical or even the social world.
The very first definition of the term “documentary” was given by the Scottish filmmaker John Grieson. He noted that the purpose of the genre was to present a “creative treatment of actuality.” Thus, there has from the very beginning been an acknowledged gap between what really happened and how we attempt to talk about it, even when we are at our most disciplined. And that gap always does some sort of social work. Indeed, it is the elements of the story that are left out which make it digestible and legible to the audience.
Perhaps before going on we should recenter this discussion a little more explicitly around the promises and perils of martial arts documentaries. Or maybe I should just admit what inspired me to start thinking about pitfalls of the documentary method. Before proceeding readers should follow this link over to the South China Morning Post’s YouTube channel and watch this short (4:50) documentary titled “Bruce Lee: The True Creator of MMA.” Spoiler alert, this film will argue that, contrary to the conventional wisdom, “many people” are now concluding that MMA was not invented in America. Rather it was invented by Bruce Lee.
While I quite like the production values that went into this short film, it gets so many basic historical facts wrong that one really questions whether its worth diving into. For instance, it seems to imply, without any evidence, that the British colonial authorities had banned the practice of Kung Fu in the city in the 1940s. This is entirely untrue, though one doesn’t have to think for too long to come up with reasons why such a misunderstanding might be an attractive narrative point in terms of the city’s Kung Fu folklore. What had been banned (or more accurately, not licensed) were large public challenge matches between Kung Fu masters. The documentary notes however that all of this changed in the early 1950s when it shows artwork depicting the famous fight between Chen Kefu and Wu Gongyi. Yet that is also deceptive as the match actually happened in Macau, and not Hong Kong, precisely because the colonial authorities refused to issue a permit allowing it to go on.
On one level, this is all just historically irritating. It also needlessly sloppy. All one has to do is to pick up a copy of Judkins and Nielson’s one volume history of the Southern Chinese martial arts to get a much more detailed and nuanced view of government and public opinions of the Chinese martial arts in Hong Kong during the 1950s, and how all of that related to Chen and Wu’s grudge match. Yet in this case nuance and accuracy are actually the problem. While my book carefully breaks down contradictions in popular sentiments towards the TCMA by economic class and ethnicity, five-minute documentaries need a tight narrative structure. And we can even guess what it will be. Some action or value will go from being peripheral and marginal to centered and valued. And that is exactly what we see here. The actual facts of the social and governmental attitudes towards the martial arts are simplified (and distorted) precisely so they can be fitted to a preexisting narrative structure.
This is a good example of the analytical gap between representation and reality that Grieson’s definition warned us of at the inception of the genre. But rather than simply noting the existence of historical distortions, we must go on to discover what sort of work these simplifications are being called on to do. Or to be more specific, what values and identities are these film makers attempting to emphasize in support of their stated goals exploring Bruce Lee as the true creator of MMA?
This short documentary hits its stride between minutes 1:50 and 2:10 in which we learn of Bruce Lee’s post-Wing Chun career. Oddly, the narrator does not clearly state that Lee has left Hong Kong and is working in America with a number of American martial artists (individuals like James Yimm Lee) at this point. Instead it is simply stated “In the years that follow, Lee would study many fighting styles.” These would be combined into Jeet Kune Do. Further, the central values of JKD were 1) gaining maximum effect for minimum effort 2) fluidity in combat.
Again, none of this wrong per se. Yet they are also very likely to be interpreted by audiences in ways that are not historically accurate, but which do fit the director’s overall narrative structure. For instance, the only martial art that Lee ever formally studied was Wing Chun. Ip Man was the only Master he called his teacher. While Lee familiarized himself with boxing, fencing, wrestling and other systems, he didn’t undergo the same sort of systematic coaching and correction. Instead he read books, watched films and worked things out with his friends. And despite the narrator’s efforts to center Taijiquan in this eclectic mix, much of what Lee brought together in JKD was not Chinese.
Likewise, the description of JKD itself is somewhat slippery. It is certainly true that Lee’s style favored economy of motion (getting the greatest effect at the minimum effort) and fluidity. But what martial art doesn’t? These same principals are found in Lee’s previous Wing Chun training. But they are also found in Western boxing, and in wrestling, and in pretty much everything else. Or to put it differently, is it even possible for a martial art to exist that values putting maximum effort into a technique in order to get the smallest possible effect? Nor have a I ever seen a martial art argue that flow in combat is a bad thing.
What was presented to viewers as a technical description of JKD was actually a bit of a truism about fighting systems in general. What varies from art to art is a belief about how one generates maximum efficiency in motion (leverage vs. angular momentum vs. gravity), or the best way to train flow. One suspects that the only reason that JKD was introduced at this level of rhetorical generality was to connect it to the Chinese martial arts on one hand (after all, Taijiquan values these things) and MMA on the other. But this sort of rhetorical slight of hand obscures quite a few important differences between all of these same arts.
This sort of sophistry seems to go right to the heart of the documentary’s evidence. Even if for the sake of argument we accept that JKD was the origin of MMA, wouldn’t that still imply that this combat sport was created by an American citizen (Lee was born in San Francisco and held an American Passport), while living on the West Coast in the 1960s from an amalgamation of mostly non-Chinese fighting systems after he became disillusioned with the failure of his Wing Chun?
Indeed, this entire documentary seems to be based on a category error that it is simply assumed most viewers will subconsciously ignore. We are told that “most people” believe that MMA was invented in America (a country) but that “some people” increasingly believe that it was invented by Bruce Lee (a person). The fact that both of these statements could logically be true at the same time never seems to enter the narrator’s mind as Lee has been fundamentally transformed. He is no longer an American martial artist struggling to find work in Hollywood. Now he is the embodiment of China’s resistance against American efforts to culturally humiliate them. Lee is the mechanism by which the serial defeat of Chinese traditional martial artists at the hands of MMA practitioners will be redeemed. There is no longer that much rhetorical distance between the implication that Lee somehow invented MMA in Hong Kong, and that Ip Man come to California to fight American racism.
Granted, while I generally admire the SCMP’s coverage of martial arts stories, the documentary that we are critiquing here is instructive to readers precisely because it is so bad. It illustrates so much of what can go wrong with attempts to fit actual historical events to narrative patterns, yet it requires no more than five minutes of anyone’s time. If it’s final conclusion is taken at face value, that increasingly people in China are pointing to Bruce Lee as the creator of MMA, wouldn’t it have been better to create a documentary examining the sorts of people who make these arguments, their motivations and evidence? Again, it’s not really clear that the historical reality of Lee’s life has anything to do with this sort of current rhetoric. After all, Lee died decades before the first UFC match was ever fought, and its pretty clearly that this is the American invention that these individuals are seeking to reimagine and appropriate.
Again, I focused on this video as it’s short, recently produced, and fairly transparent with what it is trying to do. But it is far from alone. Pretty much every martial arts documentary that you will see, even my favorite ones, do many of the same things. The reality of invention, conflict and episodes of social change are just too complicated to sit back and take in.
Is Wing Chun a traditional art or a modern system of self-defense? That would seem to be the type of simple and straight forward question that a documentary might need to decide. Yet the only answer you can give is it “It depends.” It depends on the time period we are discussing or the school we are looking at. Even when you take an individual teacher, on some days she may obsess with self-defense questions, and the next it may be issues of traditional etiquette.
In truth many of us are drawn to the traditional martial arts precisely because of this richness. They seem to be capable of being multiple contradictory things at the same time, and to practice them is to learn to negotiate, and find freedom in, that tension. The traditional martial arts are one of the few sets of institutions within modern life to resist the Weberian imperative to rationalize and specialize.
But all of this presents documentary filmmakers (and academic theorists) with a problem. Narratives require “characters,” and those figures must play their role in a narrative plot. Under these analytical lenses, mercurial Masters are simplified to one or two dimensional beings, and the mass of motivations that animate their students generally vanish into the background. Everything can be defined, even if that means reducing it in complexity to the level of truism.
Fictional works also reduce their protagonists to one- or two-dimensional character studies. Still, the avowedly fictional nature of these works (we all know that Ip Man did not really go to California), invite us to read them in an open and symbolic fashion. Once the viewers imagination and personal experience are applied to these stories, they can begin to go in very interesting directions.
There is nothing forbidding one from also reading documentaries as symbolic texts. And given the degree to which they tend to reflect only a few chosen themes, perhaps it would be better if we did. But that doesn’t seem very likely. The strong claims to historical accuracy that the genera makes seems to get in the way. It may even be the need to reclaim and capture history, to possess it as a marker of the legitimacy of one’s practice, that drives this.
Can we escape this tendency, or at least limit its reach? I am not sure that the human mind can ever fully escape the need to form narrative structures. They seem to be critical to how we understand causality, even if physical and social scientists have made clear that this is not the way in which most physical and social processes actually work. What we can do is to become more sophisticated consumers of narrative. Obviously, that means spotting poorly constructed arguments. But it also means making room for other sorts of narrative structures that we are less comfortable with. Maybe Bruce Lee’s life story isn’t just a “triumph of the will.” How would we enrich our understanding of him (and the Southern Chinese martial arts) if we also embraced the hubris and tragedy of his short life?
Still, my favorite technique for dealing with these issues when writing history is not to abandon narrative (or theory). Rather, I find the most accurate accounts arise when we allow multiple layers of narratives to emerge in the same space and to interact with each other. For instance, when talking about the social perception of martial arts in Hong Kong in the 1950s, I explored the distinct views of working-class individuals, middle class professionals and colonial administrators. I didn’t do this to test the three views and accept one of them as true. Rather, I knew that to really understand what the martial arts meant in Hong Kong society one had to see and vicariously experience a bit of the complexity and contradiction that consumed these discussions.
Did I fully recapture the complex lived experience of Hong Kong’s residents? Probably not. Even the best history is also the “creative treatment of actuality.” But what I could do in those pages was to be very explicit about my goals in approaching these questions, and then to exercise my “creativity” in choosing which facts to discuss, and which to ignore, in a way that would benefit the reader. In my opinion the very best martial arts documentaries seek to replicate this same sort of narrative complexity. Whether one could do so and still produce a five-minute discussion of how Bruce Lee invented MMA seems to be another question entirely.
If you enjoyed this essay you might also want to read: A Tale of Two Challenge Fights – Or, Writing Better Martial Arts History.