Chinese postcard showing a young girl studying a sword routine as her teacher looks on.

Why Talk About Gender in the Chinese Martial Arts?

In my years of teaching I have noticed that any discussion of “gender” will usually elicit great interest from a certain percentage of my students, while you can literally watch the remainder of the classes eyes glaze over as they mentally check out. We all know that gender is one of those trendy, oh so politically correct, subjects that you are required to discuss in college. These sorts of discussions are routinely held up as examples of “intellectual navel-gazing” that have no value in the real world.

Gender also comes up in quite a few academic studies of the martial arts, particularly among anthropologists or those who are interested in martial fiction and film.  Historians have generally been slower to tackle this question.  Henning and others have quite correctly pointed out that there is less variability here than one might suppose.  Historically speaking the vast majority of Chinese martial artists have always been young men. Nevertheless, I think that this is an incredibly important subject and we need to consider it very carefully.  Nor are my concerns solely academic (though they may shed some light on popular academic theories).

I love the traditional Asian martial arts, and it is increasingly impossible to ignore the fact that they are faced with a number of troubling trends in the west.  While a handful of martial arts are doing rather well, others are struggling.  Taiji and Wing Chun are doing fine, but Judo and traditional Karate are both declining.  Most Chinese martial arts have seen their student bases decline since 2000.  In the west this trend is evident among both traditional schools like Choy Li Fut and modern sport Wushu.  Tae Kwon Do, which for years dominated the commercial martial arts scene, appears to be in actual free fall and is going through a period of institutional meltdown.

Only two things appear to be doing well. On the one hand schools that focus on serious self-defense seem to be prospering.  Krav Maga is picking up steam, and this same trend seems to be supporting Wing Chun as well.  On the other hand, extreme combat sports like Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) and the UFC are exploding in popularity.

Gene Ching, an observer and writer on the martial arts whom I very much respect, has argued that it is not a zero-sum game between the traditional styles and MMA.  One could lead to greater vitality and strength in the other and both can prosper together.  I would like to believe that this is true, but I have recently seen some troubling trend data that seems to indicate otherwise.  Maybe the public only has so much time, money and attention.  Increasingly MMA is dominating the small percentage of their budgets that they are willing to dedicate to “combat sports.”

I am starting to suspect that we are not in a positive sum situation here. Individual schools and gifted instructors are always going to do well.  Yet from a systemic perspective it looks very much like MMA is about to consume the traditional martial arts in the west leaving a smaller, hallowed out, community.

I speculate that this may have something to do with gender and our inability to seriously deal with the subject in the western martial arts community.  In reality the traditional arts of China and Japan have always been very tightly tied to the performance of certain gender roles. Avron Boretz has demonstrated in great detail how martial arts schools in China function as workshops for the “self-creation” of masculinity among teenage boys and marginal adults that would otherwise be denied “male” status in China’s highly structured society.

An image of Hua Mulan wearing armor.

Kung Fu: It’s a “Yang” thing (most of the time).

While his book Gods, Ghosts and Gangsters: Ritual Violence, Martial Arts, and Masculinity on the Margins of Chinese Society (University of Hawaii Press, 2011) does not address the day to day minutia of life in a hand combat school, it is without a doubt one of the most important books on Chinese martial studies to be published in recent years. In it Boretz demonstrates how the idea of “martial virtue” and “eating bitter” constitute an alternate, or subaltern, discourse about the achievement of masculinity. To engage in martial arts training is almost a protest against dominant social values, but it is a very careful sort of protest.  Its purpose is not to overthrow the hierarchy, yet to assert that there is another way to the top.

And what is at the top? What values are the Chinese folk martial arts seeking to express? Overwhelming they are concerned with “Yang” or masculine virtue.  In Chinese folk religion these are seen as the central ordering and productive forces of the universe.  “Yin,” or “female” values, are not only not seen as being equally valuable, but they are often seen as a subversive representation of chaos, destruction and decay.  These “Yin forces” need to be contained through strict social legislation and ritualized exorcism.

This is very different from the sublimely balance of Yin and Yang imagined in Taiji theory or discussed by so many philosophically minded American martial artists. This shouldn’t really be a surprise as philosophical Taoism has never been all that popular in China or Taiwan.  Actual folk Taoism tends to be dominated by ritual rather than learned discourse, and one of the most common rituals practiced are public exorcisms to banish the dark and misty threads of Yin from the public sphere.  Beyond this ritual bias, the association of Yang with “virtue” is deeply embedded in many, maybe most, Chinese folk martial traditions.

I often find it somewhat humorous that so much of what western martial artists see as inscrutable Chinese mysticism is, at its essence, a means of actualizing and demonstrating gender.  All of that “eating bitter” that seems useless under the logic of modern western athletic training?  The stuff that seem like needless sadism?  Yeah, it is useless.  It was never supposed to build up your body.  It was supposed to build up your…(cough)…Yang.  Lets call it “character” for lack of a better term.  Of course the Chinese are by no means the only society that has sought to refine masculinity through asceticism.

I can’t review everything that Boretz discusses in his book, but that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t know it. So go order this book and read it.

In the meantime, here are a few issues to consider. How we imagine gender in the US today is very different from how it is constructed in the “Rivers and Lakes” of contemporary Chinese culture. To further complicate things, how gender is constructed and expressed in China today isn’t even the same as how the project was pursued a hundred years ago.

Much of what goes on in a “traditional” Kung Fu class is tied to the production of masculinity, but these symbols and pathways make no sense to an American teenager or young adult seeking to develop or express his masculinity in a different cultural context.  Most of the time no one really explains what is going on, and even if they did, would the average American teen really believe that hard Qigong training makes them “more of a man?”  It is doubtful that this line of thought, which is pretty commonly discussed in Chinese sources, would make any sense to them at all.  Do you know what does make sense? MMA.

MMA is an engine for a certain type of gender construction, which turns out to be vastly more important to your average teenage boy than actually learning how to box or wrestle.  Those are indirect means to an end.  The MMA lifestyle is like bottled testosterone.  It will be much more appealing to a large group of youngsters who in a prior generation might have taken up Judo.

Likewise a lot of the female students I have dealt with are very interested in real, practical, self-defense strategies.  I strongly believe that the traditional martial arts have a moral imperative to help these people. Making the weak strong, dispelling the darkness with knowledge, that is what we do. If we can’t do this the martial arts don’t really have much of a reason to exist.

Still, women tend to drop out of training in higher numbers than men and they are less likely to make it to the top levels of their respective arts.  Is this because they are “too weak” or “don’t want to be hit?”  I don’t think so.  I suspect that the first of these reasons misunderstands how actual self-defense happens (it’s a lot of evasion, quick shocks of pain, followed by running for help), and the second is a matter of cultural values.

So let’s take a closer look at the cultural values that you will find in the average martial arts school today. People are very sensitive to subtle symbols. Experiments have shown that female students do less well in chemistry classrooms that only have pictures of male scientists on the walls, than in classrooms with a more balanced portrayal of those who can succeed in the field.

Let’s face it, the structure and operation of a lot of traditional training halls just exudes “male” values. This is, after all, what they were designed to do.  This “male bias” may not be able to compete with the multimillion dollar advertising campaigns of the MMA industry, but its still there.

We structure our sparing in such a way that people will get a hit a lot, and the biggest toughest guy has a huge advantage. We always tell our students that real self-defense isn’t like boxing, but then our training is basically boxing (or wrestling). I am not surprised that most females aren’t interested in this, even though they are interested in self-defense. The traditional martial arts school is structured in a way that makes it hard for them succeed.  Nor is this structural bias an accident.  It is embedded in the deep structure of the arts that we have inhered from Asia.  While it certainly can be overcome (and a number of schools have) you first have to realize that female students are facing a variety of problems not of their own creation.

So, on the one hand modern martial arts schools in America don’t always do a good job of reaching women and teaching them self-defense. On the other hand they are hemorrhaging young men who would much rather prove their masculinity in the octagon and through intense weight-lifting sessions with their buddies.  It should come as no surprise that the traditional martial arts are declining in popularity.

While a handful of consumers are deeply interested in Chinese or Japanese culture, it turns out that most are not.  When there is a ready substitute that addresses their core concerns, they take it.  I do not want to see the traditional martial arts become more like MMA, but it is pretty clear a lot of schools are going to have to adapt if they want to survive.  And there are enough thriving schools and successful teachers out there to give us some hope that this can happen.

Before you create an adaptive strategy you need to understand the problem.  In our case that means knowing a little more about how martial arts interact with gender identities (both male and female) in China and the west. That will be the subject of this group of posts.

An earlier painting of Hua Mulan.  Note the more realistic armor and the bow on her back.

Taking a Second Look at Yim Wing Chun

We are all familiar with the orthodox version of the Yim Wing Chun story and the creation of Wing Chun boxing. If not you can read the story here.

While a short story by any standard this account has proved to have immense fictive power. Since its first appearance it has been popular with students.  More recently movie and television directors have recognized the power of this parable.

One of the most interesting of these efforts was the 1994 film “Wing Chun.” Directed by Woo-ping Yuen and starring both Michelle Yeoh and Donnie Yen (who would later play Ip Man).  This movie is one of the all-time great Hong Kong Kung Fu films. I don’t normally do top ten lists, but if I did this one would make the top half. While a “comedy” it manages to achieve more real pathos than most Kung Fu films.

The plot follows the familiar character Yim Wing Chun about ten to fifteen years after her defeat of the market place bully related in the Ip Man tale.  After returning to town Yim Wing Chun has not been able to fully adjust to life in conservative Chinese society.  She continues to practice martial arts and has become a well-known local hero. This bothers both her father (who worries about her marriage prospects) and the other local male martial artists who feel emasculated by her superior fighting skills and bravery.

Yim Wing Chun lives with a spinster aunt who is a merchant and runs the family tofu business. These two women are shortly joined by a young widow who Yim Wing Chun rescues after the town’s people demonstrate a spectacular lack of bravery, followed by a stunning lack of hospitality.  Of course both bravery and hospitality are key martial virtues and Yim Wing Chun demonstrates them in abundance.

The lives of these three women give Yuen Woo Ping a chance to explore female society in the absence of male leadership. The director is very aware of this opportunity and fills the movie with all sorts of asides about gender roles and expectations.  Most of these are cloaked in comedy, and if you don’t understand something of the Cantonese sense of humor (and the stereotypes of “correct behavior” seen in Kung Fu films) you are likely to miss the nuance.

I realized this disconnect while re-watching the film with my family.  Yim Wing Chun seems to put on the proper gender performance for a woman involved in the martial arts. She turns away from any sign of femininity or weakness, and instead showcases the more masculine and self-assured aspects of her personality. In other words, in her public performance of her own gender she minimizes the “Yin” and seeks to accentuate the “Yang.”

This is evident in a number of instances. The most obvious of them is her habit of dressing in men’s cloths and wearing her hair in the style of a male queue. This is a very interesting point to consider. There is absolutely no indication that Ip Man’s Yim Wing Chun was a cross-dresser. It is only stated that she was very young and beautiful and had a habit of attracting the “wrong sort” of attention.  Her story is powerful precisely because she didn’t seem to have any natural affinity for the martial arts.

The cross dressing is evidently an invention of Yuen Woo Ping, but when placed in the larger context of martial arts story telling (outside of the Wing Chun community) this move makes perfect sense. Many of female martial heroes explored in Chinese fiction demonstrated their “virtue” and abundance of “Yang” (masculine characteristics) by dressing in male cloths. Mulan is probably the patron saint of these gender bending “sword maidens,” but there are a number of other such heroines in the classics, such as Water Margin, and more recently works, like Jin Yong’s novel the Book and the Sword.

This stereotypical view of female martial artists has even bled over into real life. The noted Chinese poet, revolutionary, terrorist and martial artist Qiu Jin outraged local society by dressing as a man and carrying arms in public.  In fact, Qiu Jin’s memory influenced public perception of what a martial heroine should be.

A number of gender and queer theorists have commented on Qiu Jin and her clothing, but divorced from a solid understanding of Chinese martial culture, and its close association with the quest for masculinity, these speculations can be distracting.  Mulan and Qiu Jin dressed as men not in an attempt to emulate western modes of queer behavior, but to demonstrate their attainment of “martial virtue” within the hand combat community.  In short, these women are not rebelling against the gender hierarchies of society.  Rather they are attempting to change their place in the social structure while leaving its essential form intact.  This is probably one of the reasons why Qiu Jin actually had so much trouble relating to non-radicalized, working class women.

At the start of our film Yim Wing Chun is shown to be following the same basic social pattern. She defeats male martial artists by working harder, sacrificing more, and displaying more Yang-type virtue than any of them can muster. The real challenge comes halfway through the movie when she meets the main antagonist. The first time she battles him they fight to draw and she is unable to overcome his …. giant … wooden …. spear …. (there are a lot of visual puns in this movie, it’s a comedy).

Yim Wing Chun then seeks out her old master, the venerable Ng Moy, and asks for help.  Ng Moy points out that Yim Wing Chun has been running away from being a female her whole life and that it’s time for her embrace her nature. Taking this advice to heart she sheds her tough exterior, defeats the villain (using a “womanly” weapon) and marries her long time fiance (who she had previously refused to acknowledge).

On the surface this seems like a “get back in the kitchen” sort of a story. That is certainly one way of looking at it.  Yim Wing Chun gives up the romance of life on the “Rivers and Lakes” for a marriage, white picket fence and 2.5 kids.  She helps the town, but only by surrendering to its demands for social propriety.

While a valid reading of the film from a western point of view, I think that this badly misunderstands what a Cantonese speaking Kung Fu geek might get out of exactly the same movie. Such a Kung Fu geek would no doubt remember the original story of Yim Wing Chun. Thanks to Bruce Lee its one of the most widely spread myths out there.

In this story the younger Wing Chun does not defeat the market place bully by being stronger or faster than he is. These are the skills that she practices for the next 15 years, and Yuen Woo Ping shows her defeating some minor local villains with her raw athleticism in the first half of the movie.  still, relying on strength, speed or even skill in combat is problematic. There is always someone stronger, faster or better trained than you, and, chances are, that is the guy you will meet in the dark alley.  It is the law of the west, if you rely on speed, there is always a faster gun out there somewhere.

Ng Moy understood that.  When she trained Wing Chun to fight the first time she trained her to fight as a woman, and not simply as an emulation of a man.  She defeated her first opponent by drawing on the corrosive and corrupting powers of “Yin.”  Decay, darkness, confusion, destruction are all characteristics associated with Yin. That is why in Taiwan if there is a street corner with a history of fatal traffic accidents people will hire a performance troop of martial artists from a local Taoist temple to come and perform the proper exorcism rid the area of the cloud of “Yin” that has gathered there.  Drawing on “Yin” and using it against your opponent in this sort of metaphysical setting is a little like witchcraft.  Its not the sort of thing you expect the hero of Kung Fu tale to do.

That is the really interesting thing about the Yim Wing Chun story. It accepts and even glorifies “Yin,” but almost no one else in the very conservative world of Hung Mun Kung Fu did (especially not in the 1920s or 1930s).

How does this look in an actual fight?  It is pure pragmatism over any sense of “honor” or “fairplay.” If your opponent advances, retreat. If they make a bridge, dissolve it. If they see your movement, blind them.  If they pull their punches, maim them. If they salute, take that as an opportunity to ambush. And don’t forget the running away part. Get in a couple of solid shots, disable your opponent, and get the heck out of there. Don’t stand around attempting to “reestablish order” because what “Yin” knows is that order is a lie. It can always be dissolved.

When you ask a Wing Chun teacher in Hong Kong about “Yin” and “Yin-values” you will usually get a pretty technical discussion about shifting, evading and counter-force punches. Which is all good. That’s certainly part of it. But by in large, this is something that no one talks about because it is just not all that comfortable. “Show no mercy” is a central value in Wing Chun, but it’s not the sort of thing that civilized individuals advertise in public.  Ultimately Wing Chun is about doing whatever it takes to disable your opponent. “Yin” means surviving a fight, not winning.

How do you practice this in a controlled class room? That is something we struggle with when we teach “practical” self-defense, but it is also the reason that why we must pursue it with single minded focus. Only through the ethos and mindset of radically contingent self-defense scenarios can “Yin” based approach to fighting be cultivated and passed on. This is what keeps Wing Chun students focused on street fighting rather than tournaments. It is what keeps them focused on breaking their opponents rather than “defeating” them. The “Yin” in the Yim Wing Chun story has precious little to do with the Yin and Yang that you might run into at a self-help or New Age book shop.

Ng Moy’s advice to Yim Wing Chun in the movie may seem underwhelming, but this is what she is reminding her student. If you fight on the other guy’s terms you always loose. So fight on your own terms. In the case of Yim Wing Chun, that meant acknowledging the “Yin” side of combat. It also means giving up the illusion of being the perfect martial hero (they exist only in Jin Yong novels) and getting on with the business of life. Remember, we don’t fight to win; we fight to survive. That is what is really at stake.

Rather than acknowledging the primacy of a deeply flawed patriarchal system, a system that Yim Wing Chun has spent the entire movie fighting to uphold, in the end she rejects it entirely. She is no longer willing to concede that martial virtue is a subspecies of masculinity. Having defeated the bandits, she no longer seeks to control them.

Rather than accepting a “conservative” set of values, Yim Wing Chun totally upends the carefully cultivated gender hierarchy. Once she has done that there is no longer any reason to continue dressing as a man or to reject her fiance. Only by totally and violently challenging the constraints of society could Yim Wing Chun find a way to live a “normal life.”

I am sometimes sad that Yuen Woo Ping decided to present this film as a comedy.  There is something subtly profound about it, and I think it gets less critical respect than might otherwise be the case.  Still, laughter can make people receptive to a difficult social message that they might otherwise reject. There is certainly much more that could be written on this subject. In fact Sasha Vojkovic has written a book on the portrayal of gender in this film. If you are a fan of the movie and interested in film studies it is worth checking out.

Vintage American postcard showing Tibetian girls performing a sword-dance.

Conclusion: Coming to Terms with Yim Wing Chun.

We sometimes treat the story of Yim Wing Chun as a fairytale, something to be overcome or transcended so that we can get on with the serious business of understanding the historical origins of Wing Chun. This is a grave mistake. I am as interested in the historical origins of the style as anyone else.  However the Yim Wing Chun creation narrative encapsulates the unique fighting philosophy of its eponymous fighting style.  It is the foundation on which the self-defense orientation of Wing Chun rests.  Further, while it is probably a historical myth that Wing Chun was created by a woman, this story serves as a reminder that women can succeed in this style.  And they are more likely to succeed if we follow the advice of Yuen Woo Ping and avoid adopting false gender hierarchies, of either the western or eastern variety.

Changes in how we deal with gender are having a profound impact on both the popularity and the practice of the traditional martial arts. To date Wing Chun has shown more flexibility in dealing with these issues than many styles. It is partially insulated by a female-centric creation myth and a strong self-defense ethos. Still teachers need to be sensitive to how gender is being constructed and modeled in our own schools. Our ultimate goal is not to empower young people to “look tough” or achieve greater social status.