The Creation of Wing Chun

The Creation of Wing Chun, A Social History of the Southern Chinese Martial Arts, by blogger Ben Judkins and his Wing Chun teacher Jon Nielson, is the first work of its kind. Anyone interested in the history of Chinese martial arts must read it. Specifically, it is the first book to take an existing Chinese martial art and trace both its origins and its development to the present day.

Creation has the larger goal of creating a serious academic field of martial arts studies.  To that end the work is rigorous.  It includes an Introduction with a complete critical review of Chinese martial arts literature, leaving the reader with little doubt that this is the first work of its kind.  

Readers may be aware of other histories of Chinese martial arts, most notably Douglas Wile’s Lost Tai Chi Classics or Meir Shahar’s Shaolin Monastery, which are excellent, but neither follows the history of an individual art into the Twentieth Century. 

Early chapters of Creation examine regional arts which co-evolved with Wing Chun, particularly Hakka arts, Hung Gar and Choi Li Fut.   Later chapters examine how the practice of these martial arts interacted with larger political forces and social changes, while making sure to closely follow the lives of the key innovators and transmitters of tradition.  

Creation’s broad vision demonstrates both that martial arts has played a key role in history, and that history has shaped martial arts.  Closer in, there is an implicit thesis; when Wing Chun is viewed as a social movement, every change in its development can be shown to correspond to a political or social shift.  For readers who are more steeped in martial arts than in the history of southern China, Creation is accessible.  It provides ample contextualization and background on the region and its relationship to larger political and economic forces.  

As you read Creations, be on the lookout for subtle humor.  Describing a matched fight between Ip Man (Wing Chun) and Wan Dai Han (Choi Li Fut):  “It is a remarkable fact that in all of our combined research we have yet to come across a single account where a great master or local hero loses a challenge match.  Indeed, the fact that so many victors can occupy the same geographic space seems to make southern China something of a mathematical anomaly.”

I will be digesting this book for a while, it provokes enough interesting questions to be the focus of a symposium.  As I said above, it is a must read.  

Creation’s authors are open minded and there are many fascinating references to religious and theatrical origins.  These references can be a jumping off point for looking more deeply at these issues, below are some examples.

The temple where Ip Man taught during the early 1950s, when he gained a reputation for teaching the best of the illegal roof-top fighters in Hong Kong was called Sam Tai Tze (Third Prince of Sea-Dragon).  Unmentioned is that this was possibly the only regional temple to Nezha, the angry baby god, patron saint of gangsters.  While this might not amount to much in the story of Wing Chun, the significance of the Nezha cult to martial arts has been mostly hidden in the Twentieth Century. 

The term she, roughly translatable as organization or society, is the character used to translate the word socialism into Chinese.  It is also a key term in the development of village Daoist organizations dedicated to the City God.  Union-linked martial arts groups like Hung Sing Choi Li Fut can be viewed as both political and religious organizations.  

Likewise the term yi, meaning unity and associated with Wing Chun, “yellow unions” and “rightist” movements, has a long history of religious meaning.  The Zhong Yi association which was a collection of smaller yi organizations, required each member to donate four pounds of rice.  The first Zhengyi Daoists were known as “The Five Pecks of Rice” because they required five pecks of rice for membership.  Because of this origin, the founder of religious Daoism, Zhang Daoling, is represented at the altar by a sword (jian) stuck straight down in a bucket of rice. The yi vs. she political conflicts appear to have a religious dimension as well. 

Creation explains that Wing Chun most likely came from three actors in the opera.  This is not certain, but the historical context and later documents make it a probable conclusion.  And the entire context of the 1850s around Foshan makes for fascinating reading.  There is even more to explore here. The taboo against taking money for martial arts instruction, can be traced directly to the taboo against taking money for performing or teaching theater.  It was essentially a religious taboo; martial arts and theater were about as yin as you could get without menstrual blood.  Yin here means that which is attractive to, or is home to, ghosts and demons.  The theater these actors performed was an exorcistic ritual that incorporated martial skills. (It is also possible to think of money itself as yin, sadly, taboos against getting cash-rich are widespread because it tends to undermine hierarchical patronage networks.) 

We look forward to whatever Ben Judkins is working on next!