The Creation of Wing Chun

Below is an excerpt from the intro to this relatively recent scholarly book subtitled A Social History of the Southern Chinese Martial Arts that is now available in paperback.


A man should always think of the source of the water as he drinks it; it is this shared feeling that keeps our kung fu brothers together. —Ip Man, “History of Wing Chun,” Undated

In April of 2011 Hong Kong Airlines did something out of character for a commercial carrier. Most airlines seeking a share of the lucrative business-class market attempt to impress the public with photos of their genteel and sumptuous cabins. Some seem to be engaged in an arms race to find ever more attractive and demure flight attendants. Instead, Hong Kong Airlines announced that their flight crews would be taking mandatory training in a southern Chinese form of hand combat called Wing Chun. Having earned a reputation as a brutal street fighting art on the rooftops of Hong Kong in the 1950s, this move appears paradoxical. It is one thing to quietly train cabin crews in rudimentary self-defense skills. It is quite another to offer press releases, give interviews, and post Internet videos of how an unruly customer might be restrained.

It would be wrong to suggest that there is no glamour attached to Wing Chun. This was the only martial art that the iconic Bruce Lee ever studied. Nevertheless, when one juxtaposes the image of a bloody Lee (straight from the promotional material for Enter the Dragon) with a petite flight attendant from any competitor’s television commercial, one must ask what the advertising executives of Hong Kong Airlines know about their regional markets that we do not.

It is also unclear what practical problem this move was designed to address. While air rage has been an issue in some parts of China, this airline does not have a greater percentage of drunken or unruly customers  than any other regional carrier. Nor do the videos of flight attendants practicing their forms create much confidence in them as our last line of defense against “the terrorists.” None of this was ever the real motivation behind the decision. Instead the airline was attempting to align itself more closely with Wing Chun because this art is one of the quickest growing and most widely recognized markers of Hong Kong identity.

Traditionally, Hong Kong was a city of immigrants, refugees, and traveling business persons. It refused to create much of a communal identity and was notoriously unsentimental about its own past. It ruthlessly discarded the old to make way for the new, and if the new came in the form of imposing glass and steel architecture, for instance, so much the better.

Slowly these attitudes have begun to change. The return of the territory to Chinese control in 1997, as well as more recent brushes with the mainland over questions of governance, catalyzed a growing appreciation for Hong Kong’s unique identity. In many ways these debates intersect with, and grow out of, a prior history of southern Chinese frustrations with a northern culture that forever seeks political and social hegemony. Newly minted millionaires from cities like Shanghai and Beijing are pouring their fortunes into Hong Kong, and the Pearl River Delta region more generally, displacing local economic and social interests. As real estate prices soar, residents and local businesses find themselves pushed out of the city center. They are forced to move ever closer to the Chinese border and the throng of competing interests and firms that exists just on the other side.

Despite all of this, or perhaps because of it, residents of Hong Kong refuse to view themselves as simply “Chinese.” In fact, popular political identification with mainland China has been slipping every year since its high point in 1997. Local government is viewed as often inept and ineffectual, unable to stand up for the interests of Hong Kong’s citizens. All of this has led to a renewed sense of social tension and a strengthening discourse of local identity.

A similar process is underway just on the other side of the Guangdong border, in gritty manufacturing centers like Guangzhou and Foshan. Residents of these areas have seen much of their own history plowed under to make way for an endless expanse of high-rise buildings and shopping malls. They are dependent on overseas demand for their products, and in return they receive large amounts of investment and a seemingly endless stream of migrant workers looking for a better life. While  these “foreign” market forces sustain the economy of the Pearl River Delta, they also threaten the population with environmental pollution, social conflict, and a growing sense of alienation.

Given that their architecture and material culture is constantly recycled, it is only natural that the residents of southern China would turn to the shared realm of custom, language, and legend for a source of local identity and pride. This is where Wing Chun and the southern Chinese martial arts, more generally, enter our story. Hong Kong Airlines chose to advertise the training of their attendants in this art not because it was a practical solution to a pressing problem, but because when their customers imagined the golden age of southern Chinese life, this is what they “remembered.” Wing Chun kung fu has become a widely acknowledged touchstone of local tradition and lore.

The Imagined Past

On purely historical grounds, it is rather odd that anyone seeking the past should “remember” Wing Chun, or any other traditional martial art, at all. The blunt truth is that for most of China’s history, the martial arts have not been very popular. While there has always been a subset of people who took up these pursuits, they were something that the better elements of society studiously avoided. In the mid-1950s, when Bruce Lee was learning Wing Chun from his teacher Ip Man, there were probably less than a 1,000 practitioners of the art in all of Hong Kong. When Ip Man learned the style from his teacher (or Sifu) in Foshan at the turn of the twentieth century, it seems likely that there were less than two dozen students of the art in total. Studying the “traditional” Chinese martial arts is actually a quintessentially modern activity. Given this disconnect with mundane reality, how have these arts come to be such effective symbols of local identity and continuity with the past in southern China? There are two answers to this question. One focuses on very recent events, and the other on harder to perceive, but ultimately more substantial, long-term trends.

The brief answer has to do with the mania that swept Hong Kong after the December 2008 release of the quasi-biographical film Ip Man. This movie was directed by Wilson Ip and starred Donnie Yen. It was an immediate hit with both audiences and critics alike. This wildly positive reception was all the more notable as the public’s interest in martial arts  films, a genre increasingly dominated by turgid costume dramas featuring sweeping nationalist themes [Red Cliff (2008), Curse of the Golden Flower (2006), House of the Flying Daggers (2004)] had been waning.

Ip Man promised the public something different. Most obviously it turned away from grand nationalist dramas and focused instead on a local hero and his struggles with the occupying Japanese army during WWII. Yet also critical to the story were Ip Man’s repeated conflicts with other “foreign” martial artists—from northern China. These individuals, boorish and violent in turn, were all intent on making their way to the south and setting up schools in Foshan’s already crowded martial arts marketplace. Ultimately the movie purports to explain how Ip Man’s Wing Chun kung fu came to Hong Kong on the heels of the Japanese defeat in WWII.

As later chapters in this volume demonstrate, the basic historicity of this account leaves much to be desired. The Communist Party’s conquest of Guangdong in 1949 had much more to do with Ip Man’s decision to move to Hong Kong than the Japanese ever did. Still, a slavish dedication to history has never been a hallmark of the Hong Kong film industry.

What the film lacked in biographical realism it made up for in the martial arts department. The director cast Donnie Yen, a local film star and martial artist, in the lead. The fight scenes were gritty and brutal, keeping special effects to a minimum. Further, the fight directors made an effort to showcase real Wing Chun and other local styles in the final product. The production staff even consulted with Ip Man’s two sons, Ip Chun and Ip Ching, both of whom still lived and taught in Hong Kong.

All of the hard work paid off, and the movie proved to be a hit. It spawned two successors, Ip Man 2 (2010) and The Legend is Born: Ip Man (2010), along with countless newspaper articles and television spots profiling the master and his better known students. Ip Man: The Final Fight (2013) directed by Herman Yau and The Grandmaster (2013) by Wong Kar-wai further expanded the reach of these stories while at the same time striving to create a more sophisticated vision of what a martial arts film could be.

This spate of movies and the press that they generated might be enough to explain why Hong Kong Airlines adopted Wing Chun. Yet Wilson Ip made this movie precisely because there was already a ground swell of excitement around the figure of Ip Man, a seemingly frail martial arts instructor who had died in 1972. Throughout the 1990s and the early 2000s his profile had been quietly rising in the martial arts  world. Wing Chun was becoming increasingly popular in Hong Kong, southern China, and the West. Many of his senior students came to be regarded as masters in their own right, and in 2002 Foshan (his birthplace) opened a museum in his honor built on the grounds of the city’s central ancestral temple. It was Ip Man’s growing reputation as a local martial arts hero that led to a rush by multiple studios and directors (including both Wilson Ip and Wong Kar-wai) to start simultaneous Wing Chun-themed projects.

The current volume attempts to explain this longer term trend of the identification of the southern Chinese martial arts with narratives of local identity and resistance in both Guangdong and Hong Kong. This project is divided into two sections. Part I advances a general survey of the development of civilian martial arts in Guangdong province from roughly the start of the nineteenth century until 1949.

Chapter 1 introduces the reader to the specific economic, social, and political institutions that shaped life in the Pearl River Delta region of Guangdong province in the final decades of the Qing dynasty. Of particular interest is the discussion of Guangzhou and Foshan in the nineteenth century. These two cities were the center of the region’s economic and political development, as well as incubators for the creation and perfection of multiple hand combat systems. The political, social, and economic structures that arose in this period shaped the evolution of the local martial arts discussed in later chapters of this volume.

Chapter 2 begins by noting that a social stigma has traditionally followed the Chinese methods of hand combat. Unlike in Japan, where the martial arts were often the prerogative of social elites, good society in China usually shunned hand combat training. So who studied the martial arts? And how does the answer to this question vary geographically and temporally? These questions are addressed in some detail. We further explore what factors allowed Guangzhou and Foshan to develop a busy marketplace in hand combat training.

Chapter 3 examines the further development of these same trends in the Republican period. Special attention is paid to the growth of a number of important modern styles including Wing Chun, White Eyebrow, and Choy Li Fut. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s these arts found new audiences and managed to weave themselves into the fabric of local civil society as never before. At the same time diverse challenges began to emerge. Political factions sought to use the various kung fu clans to advance their own partisan agendas, often with disastrous results for the regional martial marketplace.

Further, reform movements from northern China, including both the Jingwu Association and the later Guomindang (GMD) backed Central Guoshu Institute, sought to modernize and purify the martial arts so that they could be used to strengthen the people and promote nationalism. This modernizing agenda, along with a cadre of northern teachers, was exported to southern China. These individuals and the institutions that they represented had little use for the heterodox forms of local boxing that they found in Guangdong. The ensuing disputes between southern and northern styles are a microcosm of the broader conflicts about the value of centralization versus local autonomy that were taking place throughout Chinese society.

Part II turns our attention to Wing Chun. Having discussed the general development of the southern boxing styles, we begin to explore the nature and history of this iconic fighting system. Chapter 4 examines the emergence and first flowering of Wing Chun as a publicly taught martial art in Foshan between 1900 and 1949. The discussion introduces a number of individuals who made important contributions to the Wing Chun clan, and who are often overlooked by students of the art today. We also explore the links between Foshan’s various martial arts schools and the town’s radicalized, sometimes unstable, class structure. While Choy Li Fut was a favorite among the town’s working-class population, Wing Chun was dominated by the bourgeoisie. This left the art in a very weak position after 1949 and led to its near extermination in mainland China.

Chapter 5 reviews the story of Ip Man. Originally a wealthy landowner from Foshan, he had studied Wing Chun as a child. After working as a plainclothes detective for the police in Foshan he fled to Hong Kong ahead of the Communist Party’s advance in 1949. It was here that Ip Man took up the mantle of Sifu, spreading his art to the angry, sometimes near delinquent, youth who came to his school. As a product of a dual conquest, first by the British and later by the communists, these youths were acutely aware of Hong Kong’s limited economic and social horizons. They used Wing Chun as a means of crafting narratives of personal resistance and as a vehicle for self-creation in the midst of a society that did not value them. Ip Man was forced to carefully negotiate the relationship between his sometimes volatile students and Hong Kong society, which tended to be distrustful of the traditional martial arts.

Nevertheless, by the mid-1950s social attitudes about the martial arts were once again starting to shift. The images of heroic warriors created by the novelist Jin Yong and the Hong Kong’s film industry helped to radically expand the pool of potential students. The elderly, quick-witted, and gentle Ip Man seemed to perfectly fill the role of the “little old Chinese man,” a stock character in any good kung fu story. His skill and prior experience in Foshan allowed him to build an organization that would take Wing Chun into the future at exactly the time that many of southern China’s hand combat methods began to fade from living memory.

In the Epilogue we examine Wing Chun’s subsequent transformation into a global art. Bruce Lee is the critical figure in this revolution. Indeed, his appearances on television and in film helped to make the Asian fighting systems a fixture of modern popular culture. Our concluding discussion situates Wing Chun against a global backdrop to reveal some of the distinctive roles that the martial arts have come to play in a modern and interconnected world.

Ip Man remains a puzzling figure. He was an undeniably authentic martial arts master, and yet his life directly intersected with the creation of some of the twentieth-century’s greatest kung fu legends. It is little wonder then that, when Hong Kong Airlines looks to the past, what they “remember” is Ip Man.