Kung Fu Tea blog, there was an excellent post examining the attitudes of foreigners towards Chinese martial arts in Hong Kong over the years, decades and centuries. The author noted that it seems that Kung Fu is discovered again and again and again.
An excerpt is below. The full article may be read here.
The TCMA as a Perpetual Revival Movement
Kung Fu has an odd relationship with the past. It seems that for the
last century (at least) each generation has discovered the beauty of the
Chinese martial arts only to realize that they are quickly “dying out,”
and will likely succeed in doing so unless steps are taken. In other
words, there is a strain of the Chinese martial arts that exists in a
state of perpetual revival. This is not just to say that each generation
must discover these arts for themselves, but that the very language of
“loss” and “preservation” are inherently bound up in this process.
Once we understand this, we come closer to grasping the social
meaning and function of these practices throughout time. This same
discourse seems to be deeply meaningful in our own era. In striving to
preserve an ‘authentic’ aspect of martial history, practitioners find
something equally authentic within themselves. It may be an increased
awareness of their Chinese heritage, a sense of self-creation and
empowerment, or simply the awe of touching a relic from humanity’s deep
past. After all, few things in our daily life claim to be as ancient as
Recently I was struck by the notion that not only is there a degree
of regularity in the on-going rediscovery of Kung Fu, but that certain
rhetoric regarding its social meaning and significance also reappears,
with surprising regularity, over the decades. Each generation is bound
to rediscover, more or less, the same thing about Chinese masculinity,
whether it is embodied in Huo Yunjia, Bruce Lee or, more recently,
Daniel Wu. Not only have these individuals carried the same symbolic
torch, but they have even been discussed in broadly similar terms by
This is not to say that they have all played identical roles. Ideas
about gender, nationalism and identity are in constant flux. Change is a
vital part of this process. Still, the similarities between them are
interesting enough that it causes one to stop and think.
The need to look into the past and discover something of value, an
idea or symbol that will point the way to a better future, is not
confined to the present moment in history. This seems to be an almost
universal impulse. Perhaps we enthusiastically rediscover similar
inspirations in the lives of each of these figures because there is a
‘Kung Fu shaped hole’ in the human soul?
Alternatively, if we dig deeply enough we will find that the
archaeology of popular history and media provides valuable insights into
the motivations and meanings driving the current embrace of the Chinese
martial arts. The fact that each generation is compelled to “discover”
so much anew also mandates that much must also be “forgotten” just as
regularly. I personally find the odd forgetfulness that surrounds the
contemporary history of the Chinese martial arts to be one of their most
fascinating traits. Yet one still suspects that deep currents of
discourse from the past shape at least some attitudes in the present
even if most of us remain blissfully unaware of this cultural
For this reason I am always looking for clues as to how the Chinese
martial arts were perceived within the ‘trans-national’ or ‘global’
community prior to their rediscovery in the 1970s. It is tempting to
allow our impressions of these attitudes to be shaped by the narratives
of popular Kung Fu films in which Western forces were always implacably
hostile to the Chinese martial arts. These practices were, after all,
tasked with defending the nation’s dignity against the forces of
imperialism and spiritual colonization.
Nor is it all that difficult to find racist or bigoted accounts of
the Chinese martial arts. Still, it is interesting to note that many of
these hostile accounts date to the middle or later periods of the 19th
century. This was an era of active military conflict throughout the
region and doubts about the Qing government’s ability to adapt to its
rapidly changing environment.
By the second and third decades of the 20th century there was a
notable change in foreign language discussions of the Chinese martial
arts. The main sentiment expressed by these writers was one of mild
curiosity rather than derision. And a notable percentage of western
authors were inclined to see positive values and potential strengths in
these systems of boxing and gymnastics. (Readers should recall that the
Chinese hand combat systems were rarely referred to as “martial arts” in
the pre-WWII period).
The following Research Note includes two articles found in Hong
Kong’s English language newspapers written nearly a decade apart. Both
are interesting in their own right and introduce some important facts
about the period in question.
The first documents a Jingwu (Chin Woo) demonstration at a local
school. This specific organization did much to promote the practice of
the Chinese martial arts among students during this decade, spreading
their base of support widely throughout society. Readers should also
note that this article follows Jingwu’s linguistic convention and uses
the term “Kung Fu” as a label for the traditional Chinese martial arts.
This usage provides further evidence reinforcing certain arguments about the historical evolution of the term that I made here.
The second article reminds us of the importance of court records and
legal proceeding as historical resources. It is a notice of charges
against a Kung Fu teacher in Kowloon for the possession of unregistered
weapons. The brief nature of this account raises as many questions as it
resolves about how the martial arts community interacted with law
enforcement during the 1930s.
The police appear to have had no interest in pressing charges against
the Sifu as they were aware that the weapons were only used in
teaching, and the judge dismissed the case as a technicality after
imposing a minimal fine. Still, one wonders why the instructor was
dragged into court at all for a weapons offense that no one was
interested in enforcing. We know that during the 1950s-1980s there was a
degree of hostility between the Hong Kong police and traditional
martial arts schools, whom they often viewed as fronts for organized
crime and Triad activity. Cases such as this one raises the question of
how far back these tensions went.
Taken together these articles seem to illustrate a more nuanced
reception of the traditional Chinese martial arts on the part of
Westerners in southern China than current popular culture troupes might
lead one to suspect. Their attitude was not always one of derision or
implacable hostility. Jingwu’s involvement with the education of the
youth was seen in a generally positive light. Both the police and
presiding judge in the second account seemed capable of distinguishing
the social function of the Kowloon school as a place of instruction from
any technical infractions of weapons regulations that existed at the
time. As a set these articles shed light on how the Chinese martial
arts were being discussed and imagined prior to their “re-discovery” by
the English speaking world in the 1960 and 1970s.