Green bamboo among the fall leaves. Tenryuji Momiji, Japan.  Source: Wikimedia,


Martial Arts and Globalization in late 19th and early 20th century China.

In my previous post I proposed a framework for using globalization and the liberalization of China’s economy in the 1980s and 1990s to understand the progressive “medicalization” of the martial arts.  Traditionally fighting styles were viewed as a job skill for those who were interested in a military career, or possibly as a physical culture regime to strengthen and improve the health of the nation’s high school students.  Hand combat instructors were not held in high esteem and society was, in general, quite suspicious of those who espoused and promoted “martial virtue.”  This may have had something to do with their frequent association with youth delinquency and organized crime.  The Cultural Revolution did not help matters.

All of this changed after the rise of Bruce Lee in Hong Kong, and the release of the movie “The Shaolin Temple” in mainland China during the early 1980s.  These positive portrayals of the traditional martial arts on the silver screen (and the general retreat of the state after 1980) opened a space where the martial arts could once again flourish.

Nevertheless, it was not until the 1990s and Qigong’s explosion in popularity that we saw a general movement to “medicalize” the Chinese martial arts.  During the period of rapid economic modernization in the 1960s and 1970s hospitals had been built and a record numbers of people got access to at least some modern, western style, health care.  These treatments were expensive, and when the government decided to switch to a “fee-for-service” healthcare model as part of their economic reforms in the early 1990s the vast majority of the Chinese population found itself without healthcare for the first time in decades.

This combination of loosening rules on entrepreneurship and the denial of medical care to the working class (or anyone who suffered from a chronic condition) led to an explosion of interest in Qigong, a system of health promotion that focused on slightly hypnotic breathing and visualization exercises.  Modern Qigong is mostly the product of a brief period of state support and experimentation in the early 1950s, though it does draw on China’s ancient Taoist and shamanistic practices.

In the current post I would like to extend and enlarge this basic framework by looking at the evolving relationship between Wing Chun and traditional Chinese medicine.  It is well worth remembering that “globalization” is not a recent phenomenon.  It happens any time that there is a rapid increase in trade and social exchange between societies.  In fact, the first great era of globalization actually happened in the late 19th century, exactly the same time that Wing Chun was first coming together as a martial art.

While we often think of China as being isolated and exotic, the truth is that by the middle of the 19th century it was a major player in the increasingly complex trade network that sustained the economies of all of the world’s major economies.  Globalization had just as much of an impact on China in the late 19th and early 20th century as it is having today.  By looking at the evolution of civil society and voluntary associations (such as martial arts groups) social scientists and historians hope to gain a better understanding of how these fundamental economic forces have affected Chinese society in the past, and what they are likely to do in the future.

Why Wing Chun?  Southern China was more quickly integrated into the global economy than the remote northern or western areas of the country.  The commercial and cosmopolitan nature of cities like Shanghai and Guangdong make them a good test bed for theories on globalization.  Further, Wing Chun was deeply enmeshed in economic and social conflicts that accompanied the modernization of Guangdong province.  If we can see the effects of shifting economic fortunes anywhere in the martial arts, it should be here.

Sign for a Chinese Traditional Medicine clinic in the New Territories, Hong Kong.  Source: Russell Judkins.

A Typology of Traditional Chinese Medical Practices

In my previous post on this subject I concentrated almost exclusively on Qigong in the 1990s.  Further, when discussing Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) I treated the category monolithically and defined it in opposition to the western biology based model of medicine.  For the purposes of the current post it is necessary to provide a little additional nuance to our discussion.

There are a number of conventional ways to classify the various branches of TCM and what I am about to propose fits none of them.  Since I am proposing an economic model of TCM’s relationship with the martial arts I found it necessary to develop a typology of various treatments that focused primarily on their mode of social organization and cost to the patient.  This particular typology should help to illuminate a subtle shift in Wing Chun’s evolving relationship with TCM which might otherwise evade our detection.  Readers should note that while the association between TCM and Wing Chun starts strong, fades, and then returns, different treatments are favored in both the first and last periods of the following case study.  Why Wing Chun practitioners favor different types of TCM in the first and third time periods is the critical question that we are seeking to answer.

Briefly we can start by classifying different TCM strategies into two categories.  There are “external” treatments (cures that focus on an agent or remedy that is external to the patient) and “internal” practices (treatments that attempt to regulate some aspect of the patient’s health only through means that are embedded directly in the body or psyche.)

Figure 1: Traditional Chinese Medicine

“External” Treatments

“Internal” Treatments

Herbal Medicine Bone Setting Acupuncture Therapeutic Exercise Qigong (Breathing Exercises)         Neijia Martial Arts (Taijiquan)  Meditation and Visualization

Typical “external” treatments usually involve a visit to a doctor who prescribes an herbal or animal based medicine from China’s vast traditional cornucopia.  Often herbal remedies are prescribed preventatively in an attempt to maintain a favorable homeostasis within the patient’s body.

While probably the most commonly acknowledged branch of TCM, herbalism does have some significant drawbacks from a patient’s point of view.  Many of the ingredients used are very expensive.  Further, there is the general belief that the longer one continues treatment the higher the dose that must be prescribed to maintain the drug’s efficacy.  This is a problem for those with chronic conditions such as arthritis or cancer.  Additionally, there is a growing awareness that some traditional and popular herbal remedies can actually be harmful.

Anyone taking traditional herbal medicines should make sure that they know exactly what is in the preparations they ingest.  Multiple studies in America and Europe have shown that not all of the ingredients in Chinese herbal medicines are always listed or even legal.

The most common herbal preparation used in Wing Chun circles today is Dit Da Jow.  Applied as a topical anti-inflammatory to relieve bruising and swelling, Dit Da Jow can be quite helpful.  However, many traditional practitioners maintain “secret” recipes and the additional ingredients added to these brews are not always effective or even safe.  It is ultimately the patients responsibility verify the ingredients of any traditional medication that they use.

TCM doctors may also prescribe a number of different “external” treatments. Acupuncture uses the insertion of small needles along meridian lines to aid or restore the flow of Qi (the body’s natural energy in TCM).  Alternatively, “cupping” involves vacuum sealing a bowl or cup to different areas of a patient’s body.  Both of these practices are fairly commonly encountered.  While they do not use exotic ingredients they are performed by trained professionals in specialized clinics.  Once again this tends to increase the costs of “external” medical interventions.

More popular in recent years have been “internal” (neijia) treatments.  These practices attempt to heal by focusing on elements embodied within the patient or her psyche.  Breathing exercises (Qigong) are probably the most commonly encountered internal practice.  By focusing intently on their own breath, practitioners hope to gain control over their emotional or physical state.  Breathing exercises have a long history in Chinese medicine.  When accompanied by certain landscape-based visualization exercises they form an important part of Taoist religious ritual and immortality exercises.

The mainland communist government briefly promoted Taiji Quan and other internal practices in the 1950s as they seemed to present an inexpensive and uniquely Chinese alternative to western medicine.  In fact, the term “Qigong” does not appear in the classical Chinese literature at all.  What is so often observed in public parks in China today is a neologism dating to no earlier than the middle of the 20th century.

While there was a brief period of florescence in the 1950s these practices quickly faded as western medical treatments became more widely available.  It wasn’t until the end of the Cultural Revolution in the late 1970s, followed by the privatization of medicine in the late 1980s and early 1990s pricing most consumers out of the market, that Qigong reemerged as a viable healthcare strategy.

This reemergence was aided by the creation of new institutions and traditions that helped these practices to thrive in a modern free-market economy.  In the past spiritual teachers or martial artists who taught Qi manipulation were referred to as “Laoshi” or “Shifu.”  In the public marketplace of the 1990s these figures tended to lose their spiritual and martial orientation and were usually referred to by the term “Daishi” (great teacher).

While some individuals spend a great deal of money on seminar tickets and books, Qigong training is fairly inexpensive.  Almost all approaches to the art emphasize “self-healing.”  Further, the study groups that form around the art can become important social networking and support structures.

Exotic medical ingredients at a market stall for herbalists in Xian. Source: Wikimedia.

Wing Chun and Traditional Chinese Medicine, 1900-1949.

For all of the popular mythology surrounding Ng Moy and the revolutionary opera singers of the Red Boats, it is critical to understand that the first three or four generations of verifiable Wing Chun practitioners were resolutely bourgeois.  Leung Jan was a successful medical practitioner and merchant.  This, much more than his martial arts, was what he was remembered for by the local community.  Likewise Chan Wah Shun took up a medical practice and managed to make a comfortable living between that and his occasional martial arts instruction.

The so called “three Heroes of Wing Chun” (Ip Man, Yuen Kay San and Yiu Choi) were all from wealthy families and did not personally feel the need to work for much of their early adult lives.  Lai Hip Chi fits into the same mold as well.  Other important early Wing Chun students, such as Jiu Chow and Jiu Wan, had coveted jobs with the local branch of the Nationalist Party (GMD) which afforded them time to research and teach the martial arts.

Through the 1930s Wing Chun was overwhelmingly aligned with the landlords of the “new gentry” class and the GMD.  It actively opposed the Hung Sing Association in its efforts to support the Communist party in the Hong Kong strike of the mid-1920s.  While a few working class individuals, such as Pan Nam, did take up the art, such individuals appear to be the exception rather than the rule.  They were also more common late in this period.

In fact, one of the things that makes the history of Wing Chun so interesting is that while most martial arts were popular only among the working poor during the early 20th century, here we have an institution that is consciously aligned with the most wealthy, conservative and even “reactionary” elements of Guangdong society.  Just look at the number of early Wing Chun practitioners who end up working for the police or military.  It is little wonder that the Communists took a dim view of the practice after 1949.

During this period western medicine was still being introduced and it was not yet widely available.  Most Wing Chun students had to rely on TCM.  Luckily Wing Chun was often taught in tandem with a sophisticated school of traditional medicine up through the outbreak of WWII.  After all, two of the art’s founding figures, Leung Jan and Chan Wah Shun, were respected medical professionals.

Given the relative wealth of the Wing Chun community in this period, we would expect them to be able to afford the best healthcare.  At the time the gold standard was herbalism.  This is exactly what Leung Jan, Chan Wah Shun, and later his son Chan Yiu Min, specialized in.  The medical practices of these men focused on the mixing and prescribing of drugs to prevent illness and re-balance the body’s natural homeostasis.  Only wealthy patients would be able to afford this sort of treatment, but that was not generally an issue as that was the social circle that these early Wing Chun masters moved in.  Likewise it was mostly wealthy individuals who could afford Wing Chun instruction between 1900 and 1939.

Clearly these early teachers were knowledgeable about other areas of TCM as well.  Wing Chun has an important Bone Setting tradition (a form of therapeutic massage or chiropractic healing) that dates to this period.  Given the prevalence of sports injuries in martial arts training, this skill has certainly served the Wing Chun clan well.  Further, there is some evidence of older breathing exercises going back to this time period.  The Yuen Kay San lineage has a number of Qi cultivation forms (kidney breathing) that may predate more recent trends in Qigong (more research is needed to confirm this).  Still, it is clear that the major medical emphasis within the Wing Chun clan during this early, and relatively privileged, period was the complex system of traditional herbal medicines.

Ip Man and an early group of students in the 1950s.

Wing Chun and the Fading of the Traditional Chinese Medicine, 1950-1990.

World War Two and the subsequent Japanese occupation did little to promote the fortunes of Wing Chun.  The art did recover somewhat between 1945 and 1949.  Unfortunately, this brief flowering was crushed by the ultimate Communist victory in China’s long running civil war.  The Communists had a lot of reasons to dislike Wing Chun.  This was a violent reactionary art closely tied to the reactionary land owners and rich merchants of Guangdong, their sworn enemies.  Further, a number of individuals in the Wing Chun community (including Ip Man) had served as police officers and detectives at the same time that the GMD was using law enforcement to investigate, interrogate, and even execute suspected Communists.  Not all Wing Chun teachers fled in 1949 (for instance Lai Hip Chi and Sum Num stayed), but Wing Chun was effectively crippled on the mainland.  It would not begin the process of recovery and rebuilding until the 1980s and 1990s.

The situation was different in other places like Hong Kong and Vietnam.  Ip Man managed to start a vibrant Wing Chun community after he fled into exile in 1949.  It is often said that he was the first individual to publically teach Wing Chun.  This commonly repeated assertion is mostly nonsense.  Many individuals had taught very publically before him, but the events of 1949 erased or helped to obscure their legacy.  Nor did they ever achieve the fantastic levels of recognition that Ip Man earned.  From Hong Kong he was in an ideal position to send students abroad at a time when the Chinese martial arts were just starting to trend in the global market.  While Ip Man was not Wing Chun’s first public teacher, he was certainly its most successful.  But what did he teach his students about medicine?

For the most part he seems to have ignored the subject.  The image of Wing Chun that emerged in the 1950s was that of angry young men fighting on rooftops and settling scores in secret challenges matches.  A less charitable reading of this period might instead characterize it as one in Wing Chun was closely linked to street violence and youth delinquency.  That is certainly how the Hong Kong police perceived the situation.

The sorts of students that came to Ip Man in the 1950s were, by in large, not very interested in traditional medicine.  Young people rarely are.  Further, Hong Kong had a relative abundance of high quality modern western medical care.  Certainly some students like Moy Yat and Ip Man’s children (to name just two examples, there were also others) expressed an interest in TCM and learned the old man’s art.  Most, however, did not.

It is remarkable how important health practices were to practitioners in the 1930s and how much they faded in the 1950s and 1960s.  Wing Chun was quickly and efficiently rebranded as a street fighting and self-defense art divorced from the world of traditional Chinese philosophy and cosmology.  It is often said that in Hong Kong Ip Man simplified the teaching system, removing the “five elements” and the “eight directions” as these were no longer helpful metaphors when coaching his modern, urbane, western educated students.  Yet without these metaphors it is impossible to master the complex world of Qi cultivation and traditional herbalism.

Nevertheless, there is one interesting development in this period.  Ip Man’s students and children report seeing him perform Siu Lim Tao very slowly (emphasizing the ‘Three Prayers to Buddha’ chapter) as a form of breathing exercise dedicated to building and (and presumably moving) his Qi.  This may have happened in his lineage in Foshan as well, but I have yet to find any direct reference to it.  It is suggestive to note that breathing exercises are observed in the Ip Man clan for the first time at about the same period that they are being promoted as a form of healthcare for the masses on the mainland.

Still, Qigong did not enter most Wing Chun schools.  To the extent that these practices were acknowledged they were generally treated as being esoteric (or private).  The primary emphasis of the art remained its fighting acumen and not techniques for self-cultivation.

The major exception to this trend was William Cheung’s 1986 book How to Develop Chi Power (Ohara).  The text starts with a basic introduction to Qi and the ideas behind Qigong.  Through a creative historical narrative Cheung managed to attribute the exercises in his book to both the ancient Chinese sages and Bodhidharma (an Indian Buddhist monk revered by some martial artists because of his legendary association with the Shaolin temple).  He then provides a set of simple exercises for building Qi with Wing Chun drills and the Siu Lim Tao form, much as Ip Man is reported to have done.

Cheung’s efforts on this front appear to have been slightly ahead of their time.  However, he was clearly responding to a perceived demand within the broader western Chinese martial arts community for a beginner’s introduction to Qigong training.  I think the most remarkable aspect of this work was how little engagement it received from the broader Wing Chun community.

A Falun Dafa group practicing standing meditation (second exercise) in a public space.

Wing Chun’s Careful Embrace of Qigong, 1990-Present.

The silence with which most Wing Chun instructors treated Qi started to crumble in the early 1990s.  This was just a decade after “Qigong fever” had gripped the newly liberalized mainland and seekers in the west were starting to be reintroduced to the possibilities of TCM through various “New Age” sources.  A survey of works from this period shows that some Wing Chun instructors enthusiastically embraced these trends and the general medicalization of the Chinese martial arts.  Other teachers comment on these events with some reservations.  Lastly, a large faction of Sifus rejected these practices altogether.

One of the more influential Wing Chun books to come out in the 1990s was Wing Chun Kung Fu: Traditional Chinese Kung Fu for Self Defense and Healing by Ip Chun and Michael Tse (New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 1998).  This short work ends with a chapter on Qigong practice in Wing Chun, advising students of the health benefits of regular and dedicated breathing practice.  They are instructed that this is best achieved by slowly working through Siu Lim Tao.

This opinion, however, does not seem to be shared equally by both authors.  Michael Tse, who wrote the English text of the book, is much more enamored with Qigong than his teacher and coauthor.  In fact, Tse founded a successful magazine in 1990 that ran for 20 years and actively promoted the mixing of a variety of martial arts (including Wing Chun) with the latest medical trends emerging out of China. The back issues of Qi Magazine (available for free online) are a wonderful resource for those interested in the growth of the market for TCM within the western martial arts community.

Ip Chun’s thoughts on these trends seem to be more faithfully flushed out in another work co-authored with Danny Connor, Wing Chun Martial Arts: Principles & Techniques (San Francisco: Weiser Books, 1993).  In an interview published in this text Ip Chun briefly explains the structure of Qigong and addresses its recent rise in popularity.  He advises his students that there are subtle pitfalls to the art including charlatans and he even alluded to “Qigong sickness,” a type of psychosis that became relatively common in Chinese mental hospitals after the massive movement towards TCM in the early 1990s.

This should not be interpreted to mean that Ip Chun thought that students should ignore the more subtle aspects of the art.  Instead, what he found most useful was the meditative elements of Chi Sau (sticking hands) and how this exercise encouraged students to develop not just their reflexes, but their mind.  Chi Sao requires absolute focus.  Ip Chun argued that it was this meditative focus and the light aerobic workout of Chi Sao that was the key to Wing Chun’s health benefits, not Qigong per se.

These subtle warnings do not seem to have had much of an impact on the growth of Qigong in western Wing Chun circles.  As the 1990s slipped into the 2000s, (and the psychological stresses of late capitalism mounted) there has been growing interest in the “healing” aspect of the art.  While this healing-discourse is usually understood as applying to chronic conditions in mainland China, in the West there seems to be a strong tendency to psychologize or spiritualize the rejuvenation that is expected.

Of course this is not universal.  While traditional herbalism has mostly disappeared from the Wing Chun community, there are still a number of lineages within the Ip Man family that teach the Bone Setting techniques.  These were initially understood as offering immediate physical relief from muscular or skeletal problems.  However, when combined with Qi cultivation and the idea of a “master’s healing touch” this starts to resemble the sort of thing that Nancy Chen described in detail during the 1990s (Breathing Spaces: Qigong, Psychiatry and Healing in China.  Columbia University Press: 2003).

Samuel Kwok typifies some of the possibilities and dilemmas that the medicalization of the Chinese martial arts presents.  A student of both Ip Chun and Ip Ching, Kwok has promoted himself as a representative and guardian of the “orthodox” approach to Ip Man’s Kung Fu.  His personal webpage never mentions Qi or Qigong.  Likewise, his major publication never discusses Qigong (Kwok and Massengill.  Mastering Wing Chun. Los Angeles: Empire Books. 2007).

However, Samuel Kwok has gone out of his way to cultivate a following based on his skills in the medical arts, including both Qi transfer and Bone Setting.  His skills in this area are promoted through special seminars advertised by his martial arts students, separate webpages, word of mouth and worshipful testimonials.

Much of this material seems quite alien to the traditional Wing Chun discourse that developed from the 1950s-1970s.  However, Kwok’s image in the medical realm follows the pattern for other “Daishi” established by Chen in her study of the spread of medical Qigong.

It is my general impression that the presence of Qigong in the Wing Chun community is increasing.  It seems that western students are ever more interested in “original” or “authentic” forms of Wing Chun.  This obsession with identity formation is in many respects symptomatic of the subtle social and economic dislocations of globalization.  As traditional markers of identity slip away, individuals rationally seek something else as an anchor in an increasingly hostile world.  The same forces that create the demand for “historical authenticity” in the Wing Chun community also open it to the healing discourse of modern medical Qigong.

These trends can also be seen outside of the Ip Man lineage.  Eddy Chong learned a form of Qigong from Pan Nam during his visits to Foshan in the early 1990s (the highpoint of the Qi bubble).  He now teaches these in his own school.  Likewise the Yuen Kay San clan is justly proud of their older breathing exercises, each with its own unique form, which may predate the current Qigong trend.

Tall buildings in the fog, New Territories, Hong Kong. Source: Russell Judkins.

Conclusion: Wing Chun, Qigong and the Global Economy.

The theory presented above and in my previous post does a good job of explaining the trends seen in Wing Chun’s evolving relationship with Traditional Chinese Medicine.  In its earliest incarnation between 1900 and 1940, Wing Chun was an overwhelming bourgeois pursuit.  TCM was important to the community as there were few, if any, alternatives in Foshan.  These treatments usually took the form of expensive herbal treatments.

Later from 1950-1990 Wing Chun moved in a modernist and reformist direction.  Much of the traditional Chinese philosophy that had been in Wing Chun was stripped out, especially within the Ip Man lineage.  This made the transmission of TCM difficult.  The availability of Western medicine and the youth of the student body made Wing Chun’s medical heritage a much less valuable commodity.  While a few students took up the study, most appear to have had little interest in the subject.

Finally, from 1990 to the present there has been a steady increase in TCM and Qigong in the Wing Chun community.  Spurred on by the explosion of Qigong practices in China, and fueled by promises of physical and spiritual healing, western Wing Chun students have started to demand Qigong training of their own.  This desire has been met with caution by some teachers, but others have embraced the trends seen in China with greater enthusiasm.  While TCM once again plays an important role in the Wing Chun community, it now takes a different form than it did between 1900 and 1940.

None of these changes were primarily driven by variables within the Wing Chun community.  Instead this case is a good example of how martial arts movements evolve and react to economic and global pressures.  It is impossible to understand any fighting or medical tradition without looking at the social and economic systems it is embedded in.