Kung Fu Tea on issues surrounding mixed gender martial arts training from an academic viewpoint. Below is an excerpt. The full post may be read here.
Channon’s article is brief enough that I do not want to rehash the
entire structure of his argument here. However, he offers some tentative
suggestions that I would like to introduce to our discussion. First,
instructors interested in changing the way that gender is typically
constructed within martial arts schools should “look for ways in which
to highlight the abilities of ‘senior’ female practitioners whenever
possible, particularly doing so in ways that are visible to younger
members of the club” (p. 594) Secondly, they should “encourage
integration in training as much as possible, including the more
physically intense, partnered activities, such as sparring” (p. 597).
Lastly, proceed with caution as circumstances differ. “Instructors and
practitioners ought to be careful not to always insist upon integration,
just as they do nevertheless encourage such practices among those who
are not fundamentally opposed to them” (P. 599). The word “fundamental”
is the key concept in this final caution.
While succinct, each of these recommendations requires a little
unpacking. In Channon’s findings perhaps the key element in redefining
student’s subconscious ideas about what their bodies are capable of is
the provision of female role models. These are certainly easier to find
in some associations and styles than others. Yet even those systems that
seem to emphasize the “feminine” aspects of their art can still face
difficulties in this regard.
Consider the case of Wing Chun. Most Chinese martial arts offer
students one or more “creation myths.” The vast majority of these
stories focus on male creators who attain martial excellence and then go
on to found the social structures that the student is about to join.
Given that China has traditionally been a highly patriarchal society,
and most Kung Fu schools explicitly organize themselves as artificial kinship groups, the resulting emphasis on exclusively male “ancestors” is not surprising.
The Wing Chun creation myth is fascinating as it resists what was the
dominant discourse within martial arts storytelling, and turns instead
to a more esoteric set of motifs focusing on female warriors.
Specifically, this system claims to have been created by the Shaolin
nun Ng Moy and then taught to her first student Yim Wing Chun, a teenage
girl facing the threat of a broken engagement and forced marriage to a
local trouble causer. While the lineage myths of most systems are
exclusively male, Wing Chun practitioners look back to not one but two
female initiatory figures.
Many current female Wing Chun students find a great deal of
inspiration in the story of Ng Moy and Yim Wing Chun. So do these
characters always function as effective role models? This is a difficult
question to answer in universal terms, but I suspect that the answer is
probably no. As fictional figures from the geographically and
culturally remote land of “Rivers and Lakes,” they are not as
immediately accessible to the imaginations of all students as one might
The other issue has to do with the way that their story is typically
told. Ng Moy is said to have modified the Kung Fu that she learned at
the Shaolin Temple to be more evasive and strategic. Rather than relying
on brute strength, as the Abbot Jee Shim did, Ng Moy decided to create a
combat system that would be effective even when practiced by physically
weaker females. Yim Wing Chun, the somewhat hapless teenage girl who
becomes synonymous with the art, is adopted as a student precisely
because she serves to rhetorically illustrate this point. If someone as
young, weak and inexperienced as her could be turned into a deadly
warrior, then the fighting system itself must really have a superior
All of this nicely illustrates some of the core concepts and goals of
the Wing Chun system. Yet the not so subtle implication of these
stories is that all women must fight this way because they are
all physically weak. I am not sure that this is a positive message for
my female students to hear.
Nor, truth be told, does the origin of the story really have much to
do with actual females at all. All of the early students of Wing Chun
who can be historically verified are male. For instance, it does not
appear that any of Chan Wah Shun’s 16 students were female. Despite the
positive portrayal of female fighters in these legends, the first
confirmed female students of the art do not appear until Ip Man starts
to teach in Hong Kong in the 1950s.
So where did these stories actually come from, and how were they
interpreted by their intended audience? Readers should recall that
during the late 19th and early 20th century stories of female warriors
became more common within various areas Chinese literature and popular
culture. Douglas Wile has argued that this stemmed from the cultural
shock that resulted from China’s various failed attempts to stand up to
western aggression and imperialism. Given that the nation had now been
shown to be militarily weak, it suddenly became critical to argue that
some other inherent characteristic of Chinese culture would be
sufficient to see it through. The turn to narratives about female
warriors who could assure the people victory without relying on material
strength was more of a commentary on China’s ongoing identity crisis
(and military weakness) during the late Qing and Republic periods than
it was an actual discussion of changing gender roles.
More valuable than “mythic types” are flesh and blood role models.
Respondents to Channon’s study consistently noted that having highly
visible female students or instructors was critical to changing their
perceptions of what women in the martial arts were capable of doing. Of
course we are now faced with a chicken and egg problem. It is hard to
cultivate female leaders within a school if the retention of women is
lacking. Nor can one improve retention without visible female role
There are a few things that might help to ease this transition.
Channon notes that using female students to demonstrate techniques can
be highly visually effective, and this is something that can be done at
pretty much any level of instruction. I should also point out that it
may also be possible to “borrow” good role models. In my area there is a
pretty serious amateur kickboxing community with a lot of very talented
female fighters on every card. A “class trip” to an event like this not
only builds comradery, but it also showcases exactly how strong and
skilled female fighters can actually be.
Instructors may also wish to consider what sorts of imagery they display in their schools (if any). Studies have shown that female
science students will perform notably better if their high school
textbooks and labs display pictures of women (rather than just men)
working in related professional fields. I have no comparable
empirical research to back this up, but I suspect that the same thing
might hold true for martial arts training hall. Every type of student
gains confidence when they see representations of people like themselves
Channon’s second point has to do with the integration of all students
into the classroom’s learning structure. Actual integration within
mixed-sex environments might fail in a number of different ways. If
every time students pair up for partner activities the female students
are left to work by themselves in one corner of the room we have a
fairly obvious problem.
Other times Channon’s interview subjects reported that the failures
of integration were more subtle or rhetorical in nature. A number of
women objected to being told “girl’s push-ups” when they were capable of
doing plain push-ups during physical training sessions. In a martial
arts class age, strength and physical ability are likely to vary
tremendously. Being able to tell someone to do push-ups from their knees
is probably quite useful. Verbally associating that variant of the
exercise with the universal physical inferiority of women is not.
More troublesome is the issue of physical contact in sparring,
rolling or the various sensitivity drills (push hands, chi sao…) that
are used as critical training tools in a number of arts. A certain
amount of restraint has to be shown whenever these exercises are used.
Still, one of the most common complaints in Channon’s study (and my own
experience fully supports this) is female students noting that their
male classmates refuse to hit or seriously engage with them for “fear of
causing injury.” Again, injuring your training partner is never the
goal of such exercises, but such caution can be taken to ridiculous
lengths. Occasionally male students will flat out refuse to spar with
women as it violates their internal sense of “chivalry.”
Such attitudes are very destructive within a training environment. By
refusing to use appropriate force female students are deprived of the
opportunity to ever become competent fighters. When a school’s main goal
is self-defense instruction there is the added danger of building a
false sense of security which borders on negligence.
As I was reading the various interview reports in Channon’s paper it
occurred to me that there may be an even more fundamental problem being
brought to light here that in some ways transcends the topic at hand.
One of the central goals of almost any martial art is to restructure how
students approach the question of violence. Rather than responding to
the threat of violence in the typical ways favored by cultural
indoctrination, we wish to give our students both enhanced physical
abilities as well as new options for thinking about the meaning and use
of force. This is one of the many types of empowerment that can come out
of martial arts training.
When male students refuse to engage with females because they are
uncomfortable with the idea of “hitting a girl,” or their sense of
chivalry is somehow violated by training with a woman, it is a pretty
clear indication that they are not responding to their system’s ideas
about the proper uses of force. Instead they are still subject to the
dominant cultural discourse on violence. Thus it may be that a failure
on the gender integration front points to other equally fundamental
issues that need to be addressed.
Channon’s third point is to go slow. While it may seem
uncontroversial to instructors within a style that there is no reason
why men and women should not chi sao, spar or roll together, it may be
much less obvious to a new student showing up at the school for the
first time. Certain female students are hesitant to engage in mixed sex
Channon reviews two specific cases that instructors are likely to
encounter. The first of these has to do with strongly held religious
objections to the mixing of the sexes. Respondents to his survey
reported that in some instances Muslim men refused to work with, or even
acknowledge, female students in classes. Of course this issue is not
totally unique to Muslims. As I pointed out at the start of this essay,
our ideas about mixed sex training environments today are much different
than what was acceptable in China a hundred years ago. If an individual
takes a strongly principled view that mixed sex training is undesirable
there is not much to do about it in purely practical terms.
Sexual abuse survivors were another category of students who
(understandably) tended to be wary of mixed-sex touch. In this case the
consensus view seems to have been to go slowly, but to eventually try to
move the student to more robust forms of mixed-sex training. Again this
was seen as especially important when a student’s goals included the
building of real-world self-defense skills rather than just fitness or