Introduction: Wing Chun and the Haters
You do not have to be involved with the Chinese martial arts for very long to discover that Wing Chun has the potential to be a highly polarizing topic of conversation. Those within in the Wing Chun community have an almost evangelical zeal for their art and are generally ready to hold forth with a long exposition on the brilliance of the system. Of course all martial artists are dedicated to their styles. It takes a lot of devotion to do anything for decades. But there are a handful of styles (Wing Chun, MMA, Taijiquan) that seem to encourage such a high degree of enthusiasm that they become a virtual “world view.”
This tendency is not always appreciated in the broader martial arts community. Wing Chun is in a particular delicate situation. While Taiji may have numbers, cultural prestige and the weight of history on its side, Wing Chun is a relatively new art, practically unknown until the 1960s, and much more likely to be practiced by individuals outside of mainland China (and even Hong Kong) than within it.
This sudden success and lack of “real history” has caused a certain degree of resentment. For instance, the important early western student of the Chinese martial arts R. W. Smith never liked Wing Chun, and firmly believed that all of the martial arts of Guangdong were rubbish. Bruce Lee irritated him to no end, and he never hesitated to give his opinion on these subjects.
Of course Bruce Lee is the central figure in this entire discussion. Despite frequent attempts to claim him for one tradition or another, Wing Chun was the only style that this martial arts virtuoso and film star ever formally studied. He personally introduced not just his own teacher (Ip Man) to the American martial arts community, but also much of the reformist rhetoric that had emerged in China in the 1930s. If you reread Lee’s famous essay asking Americans to “liberate themselves from classical Karate” you will hear more than the faint echo of the Jingwu and Guoshu movements in his ideas.
These early writings, as well as his TV appearance as Kato in the Green Hornet, vaulted Lee to stardom among western martial artists. Nevertheless, it was his film Enter the Dragon (1973) made him the first truly global Chinese superstar. Fans found his brand of martial bravado intoxicating. Everyone wanted to do what he did, and then he was gone. Lee’s sudden death left fans reeling, and in their attempt to come to terms with what had just happened they turned to Wing Chun both to understand their idol and to find the path of personal liberation that he had promised them. Popular interest in the Chinese martial arts exploded. Not surprisingly, Wing Chun was among the greatest beneficiaries of this unexpected, and largely undeserved, windfall.
Or so the story goes. As you look more closely at the actual history of how Wing Chun came to the West things become unexpectedly complicated. Bruce Lee himself is an enigma. He taught martial arts in America, but very quickly moved away from the Wing Chun that he had learned from Ip Man in Hong Kong. In fact, Lee had never even seen most of the Wing Chun system. All of the (reliable) accounts I have read indicate that while very talented, he was still working his way through Chum Kiu when he came to America. He had not studied Biu Jee, the actual dummy form, the pole or the knives before leaving Hong Kong.
While Lee was a relentless promoter of the Chinese martial tradition, it is not at all clear to me that he did much to promote Wing Chun. In fact, one could make the argument that his diatribe against the “classical styles” was read as applying just as much to Wing Chun (an art which he had “outgrown”) as it did to Karate or Judo. In that sense some of Lee’s fans seem to have taken up Wing Chun despite him.
But there are larger problems with this narrative. Enter the Dragon was not the first martial arts film seen in America. It found its initial audience precisely because by the early 1970s there was already a subculture of non-Chinese urban Americans that would occasionally venture into the small theaters of Chinatown to watch Shaw Brothers productions. Nor was Lee the first Chinese actor or producer to dream of making it big in Hollywood. The Hong Kong film industry had been targeting this market for years.
There have been many action super-stars since then, yet for the most part they did not have the same effect on the movie going public as Bruce Lee. Stallone did not create a decades long resurgence in the popularity of amateur boxing when Rocky came out. Very few people took up professional body building because of Conan the Barbarian or the Terminator. And while everyone who watches action movies knows Jet Li’s face, Wushu is still struggling for acceptance in the western martial arts community. Yes, Bruce Lee was a unique cultural phenomenon, but so was Rocky. It does not appear that having a star on your side is enough to ignite a trend.
More interestingly, the subsequent Ip Man movies, and even Robert Downey Jr.’s portrayal of Sherlock Holmes, did lead to noticeable spikes in Wing Chun class enrollments. Yet these films were not nearly as popular as either Enter the Dragon or Rocky. Sherlock Holmes was a hit in theaters, but it clearly was not a “martial arts” film (even if the fight scenes were very well done). While Ip Man was popular among martial arts movies fans, it was never shown on that many screens in the US. For most viewers it was actually a “direct to DVD affair.” Yet these two productions did have a notable impact on the Wing Chun community.
So what exactly is going on here? I hope that by briefly exploring the popularity of Wing Chun we will better understand why some Chinese martial arts succeed in the global market place while others struggle. We may even learn something about the nature of our interconnected world along the way.
Wing Chun Comes to Hong Kong
A few minutes of careful consideration will reveal that the foundations of Wing Chun’s later success were laid with Ip Man’s immigration to Hong Kong in 1949. While he had some previous teaching experience during WWII, Ip Man never really considered himself to be a “professional” martial artist. As a young man he had been supported by his family’s wealth, and later he was employed as the head of a plainclothes detectives unit in the Foshan police force. While he was fascinated with Wing Chun and studied it intently he had never sought to become a “Sifu,” leaving the majority of the instruction that happened in the local area to others.
In 1949 Ip Man arrived as a refugee in Hong Kong following the Communist take-over of Guangdong. Due to the unexpected closure of the border he found himself living alone, without his immediate family or any means of economic support, at exactly the time of life when most people are thinking about retiring. After taking some time to collect himself and talk things over with some friends (the most important of which were probably Lee Man of the Restaurant Worker’s Union and Chan Dau, a prominent local martial artist) Ip Man decided to formally take up the mantle of Sifu and to open his own Wing Chun school.
Of course there were immediate challenges. The student body that he worked with in the early years of his career in Hong Kong was comprised of working class individuals who often lacked an extensive education. They were also highly mobile (moving rapidly from one restaurant job to the next) and retention appears to have been a problem.
While the composition of Ip Man’s student base would change substantially over the next decade, these same two limiting factors remained a constant. Many of the young students who began to patronize Ip Man later in the 1950s and early 1960s (individuals like Hawkins Cheung, Bruce Lee and Duncan Leung) were from wealthy families. But they had a western style education and tended to lack a deep understanding of traditional Chinese philosophy. And while they did not have to follow service jobs around the city, like all young people, they craved excitement and exploration.
Faced with serious retention problems in his first few years of teaching Ip Man appears to have begun a systemic review of how Wing Chun was presented to students in what was a rapidly modernizing urban environment. I think it is safe to say that we all know what happened next. It’s a story that has been recounted many times. Increasingly the old master moved away from using traditional philosophical concepts (including both the five elements and the eight directions) in the explanation and teaching of his system. He dropped many of the “sayings” or rhymes that usually accompany postures in the Chinese martial arts. In their place he adopted simple explanations that would be accessible to modern students with a western education.
Nor were all of the changes confined to how the system was discussed. The actual methods of training were also modified. Extensive stance work and basic drills had been common in Foshan era Wing Chun. Ip Man retained the traditional forms, but devoted most of the class time to drilling applications, Chi Sao (sticking hands) and other sensitivity exercises. This approach proved to be more dynamic, and it forced him to move critical discussions of punching, intercepting, angles and structure right to the very forefront of the teaching process. As a result Ip Man discovered that his students were both more likely to remain interested in the material, and to do better when they met other amateur martial artists in the challenge matches that dominated much of Hong Kong’s youth subculture in the 1950s and 1960s. These early successes brought more young people into the system.
It is worth pointing out that while Ip Man did much to reform the way the Wing Chun system was taught and understood, he may have bristled at the suggestion that he was primarily a “modernizer” or a “reformer.” He quite consciously cultivated the air of a traditional Confucian gentleman.
Ip Man never taught any western students, and he probably never considered how the system he had sculpted would fair in the global marketplace. Rather he was responding to the demands of his immediate environment. In so doing he brought about a number of reforms that would make it much easier for westerners to absorb this style in the future, but that was an unintended consequence of his own ambitions.
So to recap, how did this happen? We need to start by thinking about geography. Or maybe we should be even more specific and say “urbanization.” Globalization is the process by which goods, ideas, information and people cross state boundaries. But this sort of trade does not happen everywhere and all at once. Instead it tends to move along certain trade routes and to be concentrated in a handful of urban marketplaces where goods are traded, repackaged and distributed throughout a region. Social scientist have known for a long time that goods, institutions, ideas and even martial arts schools tend to move through the international system most efficiently if they are found in close proximity to a major urban area along an important trade route.
This means that the martial arts that managed to make it to Hong Kong and Taiwan prior to 1950 had a much better chance of slipping into the global system than even very popular and widespread arts that were confined to less connected areas (like the various schools of Emei Boxing in Szechuan, or Red Fist Boxing in Henan.) Realistically speaking, southern arts like Wing Chun, Choy Li Fut, Southern Mantis and White Eyebrow survived as well as they did precisely because some of their students had connections in Hong Kong and the Chinese Diaspora, and were able to move their traditional bodies of knowledge from relatively isolated to economically interconnected areas.
Still, this observation about the importance of geography raises other questions. Why do more people study Wing Chun and Hung Gar (two classic styles from the Pearl River Delta) than Southern Mantis and White Eyebrow (two wonderful styles from the same general area)? All of these styles had geography working in their favor? All of them had important masters end up in Hong Kong or the West?
Chinese Martial Arts on the Silver Screen
This is where Bruce Lee enters our story. It was one thing for Ip Man to create a stream-lined art that was well suited to a modern urban environment. But in an era when few people in the West were even aware that the Chinese martial arts existed, something big was needed.
Interest in the Chinese martial arts started as a trickle in the middle of the 1950s. Some servicemen and government personal had been exposed to Chinese fighting methods from the 1930s on, and the sudden concentration of traditional fighting masters (along with American intelligence personal) in Taiwan accelerated this. Many more returning servicemen were exposed to the Japanese arts of Karate and Judo, and eventually the Korean style Tae Kwon Do. Some percentage of these individuals started to ask questions about the history and relevance of the Chinese styles. After all, many of these other styles explicitly traced their roots back to China.
Bruce Lee helped to feed this interest with occasional appearances in the pages of Black Belt Magazine during the 1960s. His brief television role as Kato on the Green Hornet also gave him celebrity status within the western martial arts world and helped to advertise the existence of the Chinese fighting arts. These styles (as well as the myth of the Shaolin Temple) got another huge boost with the release of the television series Kung Fu in October of 1972. This show ran until 1975 and featured David Carradine as a half-Chinese Shaolin monk exploring the old west and righting wrongs.
Still, if you had to name one moment when the Chinese martial arts became a broadly recognizable social phenomenon it would be the months after the release of Bruce Lee’s film Enter the Dragon in 1973. Lee had already produced a small body of cinemagraphic work for distribution in Hong Kong. This was his first film to be widely released in the West and to feature Hollywood production values. It was something new and different.
The movie going public responded very positively to Lee’s performance. He became the first Chinese global superstar and a role model for countless people who intuitively and immediately understood what it took for a minority actor to succeed at that level. Within weeks every martial arts school in North America and Europe was packed. Lee was the spark that ignited an explosion of interest in the Chinese martial arts that had been building for some time. The news of his sudden and unexpected death fanned the flames of what was quickly becoming a social movement.
Wing Chun schools benefited from this initial bust of interest, as did practically anyone else who was teaching a martial art. Lee’s legacy continued to generate interest in the style well into the 1980s. But to understand exactly how this happened we must now turn away from Lee and look at both basic socioeconomic conditions in Hong Kong and the city’s relationship with the global economy.
Vintage poster for the American release of Fists of Fury, originally produced for the Hong Kong market.
Life in Exile: Educational and Economic Limitation in Hong Kong, 1949-1972.
Ever since it was formally established by the British in the middle of the 19th century, Hong Kong had acted as a gateway that regulated economic flows between the East and the West. In cultural terms it had always been part of the Chinese sphere, yet it also stood apart from it. Life in Hong Kong prior to 1949 often had a very liminal and impermanent feel. Everyone was there for a reason, but ultimately going somewhere else. It was a city of wanderers with little interest in building a unique or permanent identity.
That sense of “otherness” was deeply intensified by the 1949 border closure with the mainland. Hong Kong’s economy (which had largely revolved around mediating international trade with mainland China) was decimated by western economic sanctions, and it would be years before the city would fully succeed in switching itself over to a light manufacturing economic model. Further, the people of Hong Kong suddenly discovered that they were literal exiles. Once the border was sealed they were cut off from their home villages and families.
It is hard to convey how much of a shock the events of 1949 really were. Refugee shanty towns sprung up in the streets of Kowloon, unemployment rose and new dialects were heard in the parks and tea houses of the city. Increasingly the concerns of the local Cantonese people were pushed aside by “elite” refugees from the Central Plains who saw the south as devoid of any real culture or value.
It is not hard to imagine why so many people felt frustrated or depressed. Eventually the situation was normalized, and the economy was reconfigured in a way that it could better support the people. But the feeling of frustration never entirely disappeared.
In fact, when you look at Ip Man’s teenage students from the late 1950s and early 1960s this seems to be a recurring theme. Even though a number of these students came from comfortable backgrounds, they felt hemmed in by Hong Kong’s limited economic and social horizons.
Worse yet, the city’s university system was not designed to accommodate the vast numbers of students that were graduating from secondary schools in the late 1950s. The college admissions process was brutally competitive, and even more so for the top programs and departments. Education was seen as the key to economic success, but increasingly those opportunities seemed out of reach for many high school students. I have never seen any formal studies on it, but I suspect that this general frustration and lack of faith in the future was one of the things that was driving the high degree of youth delinquency in Hong Kong at that point in time.
Still, for a small number of students there was a third way. Between the elites who monopolized the local educational opportunities, and the poor who were trapped in the working class, there was a small affluent middle class that could afford to have social aspirations. Students from these families often had the resources to attend Universities in Europe, Japan or North America.
One of the interesting things about Wing Chun as a social tradition is its long running relationship with the more bourgeois sectors of society. By the late 1950s and 1960s Ip Man had many young students who fell into this category. These teens had anywhere from two to five years of experience in Wing Chun, and when they graduated from high school they were sent to cities like San Francisco, London or Melbourne for college. As a matter of fact, Bruce Lee falls into this category.
A large number of these students had already put together informal networks or study groups so that they could continue to study Wing Chun while in school or working in the west. A few had even opened more permanent clubs. So when the “Bruce Lee Phenomenon” hit, there was already a network of Ip Man’s students spread across the West that could accommodate some of this enthusiasm.
I suspect a very similar thing happened with the Wong Fei Hong films. By the time they became popular in the West, there were already a fair number of potential teachers in place that could absorb and direct some of this interest.
Conclusion: Wing Chun as the Perfect Storm
The preceding essay has looked at a number of variables that help to account for the rapid rise in popularity of Wing Chun in the 1970s and 1980s. While Bruce Lee is usually seen as the sole cause behind this trend I would suggest that the situation was actually more complex. Bruce Lee actually had a positive impact on all sorts of martial arts. Nor was there anything inevitable about the Wing Chun community’s ability to turn this initial burst of enthusiasm into long term organic growth.
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There are a number of factors that independently contributed to this outcome. Understanding the specific roles that each has played helps to reveal something about why some Chinese martial arts have succeeded while others have faded in the global marketplace.
The first variable that needs to be considered is simple geographic proximity to a major cultural or economic hub. Many of the Chinese martial arts that are in the greatest danger of disappearing are those that are in remote or isolated areas. While modern technology allows outside information to be pumped into the periphery, the indigenous traditions of these areas have a hard time getting their message out and finding an audience or network willing to support them. In retrospect it seems clear that if Ip Man had not physically brought his art to Hong Kong in 1949, we would all be talking about something else right now.
The second variable that needs to be considered is the question of cultural compatibility. Some combat systems, philosophies or even schools of art have an intriguing ability to appeal to large numbers of individuals across cultural lines. Others do not. When Wing Chun entered Hong Kong Ip Man changed a number of things about the way the style was discussed and practiced to make it more interesting and relevant to his younger, more urban students.
Ironically Ip Man never taught any western students, yet the sorts of reforms he undertook made his art particularly amenable to North Americans and Europeans with little to no prior Chinese cultural background. Suddenly that was much less of an issue than it would have been in the past. Nor is this process automatic.
Other arts, such as Choy Li Fut, Xingyi Quan and White Crane have all chosen to maintain a greater degree of cultural specificity. Either strategy can work, but it will affect the size and nature of your student base. Perhaps we can think of this variable as a martial arts degree of “enculturation.”
The flow of people is also part of globalization and that turned out to be an important part of our story. Wing Chun was greatly benefited by the fact that it had a relatively large number of ambitious students who were able to go overseas to pursue both college educations and employment opportunities. Not every art, or even every region, enjoys this to the same degree. One of the reasons why we just do not see much about the martial arts of the Emei tradition is that there was very little immigration from Szechuan to the West during the key periods of about 1940-1980.
Ip Man was fortunate to have a number of talented students forming loose networks in North America and Europe during the 1970s and early 1980s. As a result, when Enter the Dragon hit the big screen in 1973 there was a way to actually transform some of that enthusiasm into lasting growth.
Lastly you have Bruce Lee himself. Some traditions are fortunate to have iconic practitioners of their art. The character Wong Fei Hung has become the public face of Hung Gar and has probably done more to “build their brand” than any other single factor. This is all the more ironic as the real life Hung Gar master of the same name was actually a recluse for much of his life.
Wing Chun has been doubly blessed by Bruce Lee’s ongoing fame and the recent interest that the Ip Man movies have generated. Yet popular name recognition by itself is not enough to sustain an art. Wing Chun succeeded in spreading itself only because of a number of other factors had already been put in place for totally unrelated reasons. The absence of any one of these variables will likely impact the ability of an art to migrate and thrive.
This is an important, and sobering, observation for anyone interested in the relationship between martial arts and globalization. While global forces allow some arts to achieve levels of fame that would have previously seemed implausible, it may not be possible to replicate this outcome in a number of important cases. Much seems to depend on historical path dependency. It is also critical to think about how these variables interact and work together as a set. Single factor explanations of the rise or fall of any martial art are likely to miss much of what is most interesting about the current era of global expansion and change.