“Who realized Ip Man’s skill? All my training brothers respected Ip Man because he never hurt them, nor were they skillful enough to hurt him. Ip Man in the 1950s was the epitome of sensitivity; he could immediately read his opponent’s intention.”
I’ve started to read Benjamin Judkins (scholar and author of the Kung Fu Tea website) new book, The Creation of Wing Chun: A Social History of the Southern Chinese Martial Arts.
Its an academic study (in much the same style as his Kung Fu Tea articles, on the history of Chinese martial arts in the late 19th and early 20th century, focusing particularly on Ip Man and Wing Chun.
Like many academic books, its expensive ($80 or so), but luckily for me, my University bought it so I was able to read it as a perk for working here. If you don’t want to buy it but want to read it, I suggest using your local library’s InterLibrary Loan program. Sometimes they won’t lend really new books (this one came out in September) but you never know.
As a pseudo-scholar of Wing Chun myself, the book has not exactly been full of surprises, although it does conveniently collect into one place most of the useful biographical and historical information. The real value for me so far (I’m about 2/3 of the way through it) has been the historical and cultural context, which helps frame a lot of my otherwise very vague understanding of the history of kung fu.
Although I am a big Bruce Lee fan and spent my twenties obsessing over the fight scenes in his movies, as I’ve learned Wing Chun myself and studied the art’s earlier teachers, I’ve often been struck by the way in which Lee really was a spokesperson for the lineage of ideas that preceded him, coming to him from Ip Man and Wong Shun Leung and other sources.
Judkin’s describes the Guoshu philosophy (and the Nanjing Reform movement in 1930s) which was an anti-Classical kung fu movement emphasizing science and what works, a reaction against the superstition that was behind some of the more notorious bloodbaths of the Boxer Rebellion (in which many uneducated “fighters” were killed wearing amulets and charms they believed would protect them from bullets).
“Scientific terminology drawn from modern physics needed to replace outmoded and superstitious ideas like the “Eight Directions” and the “Five Elements” and led to “a conceptual approach to understanding the martial arts….He had no time for stories of secret lineages or quasi-magical techniques passed on only to a single disciple.”
Ip Man’s dropping of mystical elements and use of Western conceptual frameworks like Newtonian physics were rooted in ideas in wide circulation in the Hong Kong and Foshan. He was educated at a Western-style boarding school (St. Stephens) in Hong Kong, like the children of many other well-to-do Chinese gentlemen. The Chinese gentry understood the importance of understanding the practices of the West that had put them into a position of military and economic superiority and sent their children to Western schools to help close the gap.
This is one of the big reasons Wing Chun (among all other contending Chinese martial arts) was so successfully exported to the West. Ip Man had already made it “Western friendly” by removing all of the Chinese medicine and folk aspects (like references to Chi, the Five Elements, etc).
Another interesting topic dealt with in the book is this interesting juxtaposition between the arrival of the formerly elite and aristocratic Ip Man to the slums of Kowloon, the attitude of the upper class Hong Kong Chinese and British toward kung fu (martial arts were associated with the Triads), and the “angry young men” of Hong Kong who found themselves in an environment ruled by foreign overlords, overrun by destitute refugees from mainland China (escaping the Maoist communists). We have to remember that in China, martial arts were deeply linked to various political movements, and often were hotbeds of revolution (“oppose the Qing and restore the Ming”).
I’ve discussed this before, this volatile mix of “delinquent” kids looking for self-respect and street cred (Wong Shun Leung and Bruce, among others) with this stripped down fighting style and its Aristocratic origins.
Another factor was the mixing in Hong Kong of Northern and Southern Chinese culture as expatriates from all regions of China poured into the small city, nearly doubling the population.
More to come…
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