Here at the frontier, the leaves fall like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians, there are still two cups at my table.


Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn, a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter. If your mind isn't clouded by unnecessary things, this is the best season of your life.

~ Wu-men ~


Friday, April 26, 2019

Gerta Geddes and the Dawn of Taijiquan in the UK

Gerta Geddes was if not the first, one of the first westerners to teach Taijiquan in the UK. She was a contemporary of Sophia Delza, who was one of the first in the US. Below is an excerpt from an interview that was conducted with her at TaijiForum. The full interview may be read here.

Gerda Geddes was the first person who ever studied and taught Tai Chi in the UK, she began training in Shanghai at a time when very few women of any nationality were able to study the art. For nearly 60 years Tai Chi played an integral part in her life and she remained actively interested and open in her heart and mind right to the end. She passed away on Saturday 4th March 2006 at age 89.

Having studied tai chi chuan since 1981 I was, of course, aware of the name of Gerda Geddes although I’d never personally experienced her approach to the work. In early 2002 I was teaching a qigong seminar in the east coast of Scotland village of Anstruther, when, much to my surprise and curiosity, I saw her name on the list of participants. On arrival she introduced herself and quietly found her way to the back of the class where she practiced the exercises, blending into the background. Over lunch we chatted about her past experiences and I subsequently arranged to travel to her home in north-east Scotland to conduct this interview.

Over the years of our connection we, became friends and regularly exchanged several telephone calls and letters. She twice attended Tai Chi Caledonia as a special guest, where she enthralled the participants with her quit grace and dignity, epitomising inner qualities of tai chi.
Ronnie Robinson
Can we begin by looking at what led you to study Tai Chi?

At the time we moved to Shanghai in 1948 I had spent many years studying dance, working with exercise and movement on a daily basis. I worked with contemporary dance and I worked a lot with looking at the circularly quality of movement and also thinking about all the circles you had in your joints, and in your body; how it comes from the inside and outside.

Aside from the work I had done with dance I also worked with Wilhelm Reich as a psycho-analyst. I liked his way of thinking. He worked very much on a physical, as well as on a psychological level. Reich had talked about muscular armouring, how trauma and anger can create memory in the muscles which are held on to. He encouraged you to listen to yourself and try and find your own inner rhythm. He also taught a great deal about diagnosis: how should you look at a person, how should you judge somebody. He always said that what you say is not all that important but it is how you say it. What happens in your body, what happens in your face, does it get stuck in your diaphragm, or does it flow thorough? Reich was already into the same kind of thinking that you get in Tai Chi. I had also been working with patients for several years, using psychotherapy. When I had children I didn’t do this kind of work anymore as I felt that spending so much time and energy working with the sick and unbalanced took too much out of me. I really wanted to live more for my own good health to be as healthy and as balanced as I could be for my own children. This was what became most important for me. With this work and with my work as a dancer I very much looked at people’s bodies, and how they used their bodies. I also used the methods of Alexander Lowen who worked with Bio-Energetics which was a therapeutic technique to help a person get back together with his body and to help him enjoy, to the fullest degree possible, the life of the body.
I had also worked in theatre using this movement work with actors and dancers. So when I went to China, I went with this background of using, and observing the use of movement on a number of levels.

...

Can you tell me a little about the structure of training you had? I’d also be interested in knowing about the fact that you were the only western women being taught and how you were dealt with in this context?

I never went to a class, I was taught privately and I know that he was very bewildered to begin with, probably thinking, “How on earth am I going to tackle this woman?”

He tested me out before he would accept me as a student. I had to show him the movement work I had done. I had choreographed a dance with, rhythm and sound, which was about my first impressions of China.

Once he had identified that you would be someone that was worth investing some time with, in teaching, what was the training schedule?

I worked with Choy Hok Peng for about two hours a day, every day for a period of six months. He taught me the Long Yang Form. The method of teaching was very unusual for me, coming from the background I had. There was absolutely no physical contact between us. When he eventually came to correcting me he did it with only one finger, keeping his body very far away from me. I got the feeling that we were sort of measuring each other during this time. I had to unlearn, which was one of the most difficult things for me, all my dance technique. My body had been very well trained in a particular way of moving and I had to re-thing everything. It was like learning to walk again and it took a long, long time to get accustomed to the method of movement. He wanted me to just to copy his movements and I remember him saying, “Look see Missy, look at my foot, see it.” I was very hard work but when I realised that I had to unlearn my previous patterns of movement I then realised that I just had to let go. This letting go and re-thinking my whole body was the best way for me to learn Tai Chi.

Before Choy Hok Peng died he instructed his son to continue teaching me. His son, Choy Kam Man, had a great interest in sports, which he performed with an influence from his tai chi training. When he first came to work with me he was very scared as I was an older Western woman.

Were there different methods of teaching between the father and the son?

The son had a much softer approach. The father was more trained in the martial side of Tai Chi. Comparing the father with his fellow student Cheng Man-ching I would say that Cheng was more intelligent and more cultured and scholarly. My teacher was more a fighter.


Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Yim Wing Chun and the Creation of a New Tradition

Below is an excerpt from a post at Kung Fu Tea. The full post may be read here.


We all know the story (and those who do not may want to quickly review the most popular version of it here). With the destruction of the Shaolin Temple at the hands of a fearful imperial military and a corrupt bureaucracy, China’s martial arts heritage (skills that had come to the service of the state in years past) was threatened. Luckily five elders survived the cataclysm. One of them, the Buddhist nun Ng Moy, fled to the far south west of the nation where she refined and perfected her fighting system after an encounter with a mysterious crane.

At the same time the Yim family of Guangzhou faced a crisis. In addition to being a single father, Mr. Yim was accused of some crime. Rather than taking chances with the vagaries of Qing justice, he took his daughter and fled to the far south west of the country, to the base of White Crane Mountain. Here the two established a tofu shop and rebuilt their lives in exile.

Yet White Crane Mountain was no ordinary neighborhood. In kung fu stories the edge of the empire has always represented a dangerous liminal zone. It is a place where the constraints of the state are far away and the underground institutions of the ‘Rivers and Lakes’ can find their fullest expression. For the Yim family these primal forces were personified in two visitors to the local marketplace.

The family had the good fortune of making the acquaintance of Ng Moy who occasionally visited their tofu shop on her travels around the region. Yet like many rural market towns this one had a problem with local bullies who harassed the shop keepers. One in particular took an interest in Yim Wing Chun and announced his intentions to “marry” her.

With the intercession of Ng Moy an agreement was reached. In one year a public match would be held in the marketplace. If the bully won he could marry the young girl. If not she would be free of his advances. The Yim Wing Chun spent much of the remaining year with Ng Moy training on the mountain, learning her new method of kung fu. Needless to say she was victorious in the challenge match, thus demonstrating the genius of her teacher’s fighting methods.

Freed from the prospects of a forced marriage to a local bandit, Yim Wing Chun was eventually able to return to Guangzhou and marry her original fiancé, a traveling salt merchant. Yet before she left she received the charge to “oppose the Qing” and to pass on what she had learned from her teacher.
This is the last that we generally hear of Yim Wing Chun. At this point she vanishes from most discussions in the style. Rather than passing the art to her children (whose existence most of the old folklore is silent on) it instead falls to her husband to teach her system to individuals involved with the Red Boat Opera Companies. After that it entered the Foshan’s busy martial arts marketplace (under the tutelage of Leung Jan and Chan Wah Shun) and from there it went to Hong Kong and the rest of the world. This is, in abbreviated form, the story of Wing Chun’s creation as it is normally related within the Ip Man lineage.

Yet as we think about this story a few things should start to become evident. This is not really a story about “Shaolin kung fu” as Ng Moy does not attempt to restore the old tradition. Rather she is looking to do something new.

Nor is it really the story of Yim Wing Chun. She slips into and then out of the narrative after playing her part in a larger drama. We never learn much about her origins or her ultimate fate.

This is a story about the creation of a new tradition.

Like all Chinese martial arts, Wing Chun is more than the technical transmission of data. It is also a social institution embedded within in (and forced to negotiate with) an ever changing social and political landscape. This last point is critical.

More than anything else, what we have just read is the story of a moment of crisis in southern China’s imagined past. Wing Chun is explained as a vehicle designed to navigate a social world stumbling under the weight of government corruption, gangster capitalism and incipient revolution. All of these problems demand a solution that preserves the primordial essence of southern Chinese culture while moving forward into the future.

The irony is that Wing Chun, as a publicly taught martial art, actually did come of age under exactly those conditions. Ip Man began to practice the art in the wake of the disastrous Boxer Uprising. He traveled to Hong Kong to attend high school just as revolution was putting an end to the Qing dynasty. When he returned to Foshan during the Republic period he found Wing Chun being taught in the back rooms of opium dens and often coopted by more powerful social forces. Yet this very real moment of crisis bears only scant resemblance to the mythological drama that unfolds in the creation myth that most of us are familiar with.

Why is that? Why does this martial arts system (like so many others) claim to emerge from a primitive and overtly romanticized mountain landscape? Why do concerns about banditry and marriage dominate how this story is told, even though they play little part in the actual coming forth of Wing Chun as a fighting system? And how should we understand the growing popularity of this narrative in the current era?

Many discussions of the Yim Wing Chun legend begin by treating it as a factual event or looking for the “kernel of truth” that lies at the heart of the narrative. As I have argued in multiple other places, this view is simply mistaken. The central figures in this story are literary creations rather than historical persons. The nun Ng Moy appears in no reliable historical records (this is a problem as all Buddhist officers had to be licensed by the state) and instead makes her first appearance as a villain in an anonymously published Kung Fu novel in the 1890s. She was not re-imaged as a heroine in martial arts stories until the 1930s.

Likewise, the Southern Shaolin Temple is best understood as myth rather than history. While multiple local governments are currently promoting their own reconstructed “Southern Shaolin Temples” in an attempt to capture tourist dollars (and there is evidence that a number of real temples in the early 20th century thought of themselves as carrying on this heritage), the specific sanctuary named in both kung fu and Triad lore seems to have its origins in mythology and fiction rather than history.

When we approach the story the Yim Wing Chun we are engaging in popular culture analysis rather than archeology. The object of our study is not just the folklore of the Wing Chun clan, but also the elaborate discourse of wuxia novels, oral stories, popular operas and even radio programs that surrounded and supported it. It was within this field of popular culture that the creation story of Wing Chun kung fu took on social meaning and became a powerful marker of group identity.

To better understand this story on its own terms, the current essay turns to arguments advanced by Rey Chow (later modified by Paul Bowman). She argues that we can understand this type of narrative through the concept of “primitive passion.” This is a specific type of story-telling that emerged in China during moments of social crisis.

Saturday, April 20, 2019

The Lenten Challenge is OVER And The Tang Dynasty Poems, #71: A Song of Unending Sorrow

First of all, the Lenten Challenge is Over! Congratulations to all of those who managed to complete it.

Now to regular business. 

The Tang Dynasty was a high point of culture in ancient China. Especially esteemed were poems. There was no home coming or leave taking; no event too small to not be commemorated with a poem.

Some of the best poems of that period have been collected into an anthology known as The 300 Tang Dynasty Poems. A online version of the anthology may be found here. Today we have #71: A Song of Undending Sorrow.


A SONG OF UNENDING SORROW
China's Emperor, craving beauty that might shake an empire,
Was on the throne for many years, searching, never finding,
Till a little child of the Yang clan, hardly even grown,
Bred in an inner chamber, with no one knowing her,
But with graces granted by heaven and not to be concealed,
At last one day was chosen for the imperial household.
If she but turned her head and smiled, there were cast a hundred spells,
And the powder and paint of the Six Palaces faded into nothing.
...It was early spring. They bathed her in the FlowerPure Pool,
Which warmed and smoothed the creamy-tinted crystal of her skin,
And, because of her languor, a maid was lifting her
When first the Emperor noticed her and chose her for his bride.
The cloud of her hair, petal of her cheek, gold ripples of her crown when she moved,
Were sheltered on spring evenings by warm hibiscus curtains;
But nights of spring were short and the sun arose too soon,
And the Emperor, from that time forth, forsook his early hearings
And lavished all his time on her with feasts and revelry,
His mistress of the spring, his despot of the night.
There were other ladies in his court, three thousand of rare beauty,
But his favours to three thousand were concentered in one body.
By the time she was dressed in her Golden Chamber, it would be almost evening;
And when tables were cleared in the Tower of Jade, she would loiter, slow with wine.
Her sisters and her brothers all were given titles;
And, because she so illumined and glorified her clan,
She brought to every father, every mother through the empire,
Happiness when a girl was born rather than a boy.
...High rose Li Palace, entering blue clouds,
And far and wide the breezes carried magical notes
Of soft song and slow dance, of string and bamboo music.
The Emperor's eyes could never gaze on her enough-
Till war-drums, booming from Yuyang, shocked the whole earth
And broke the tunes of The Rainbow Skirt and the Feathered Coat.
The Forbidden City, the nine-tiered palace, loomed in the dust
From thousands of horses and chariots headed southwest.
The imperial flag opened the way, now moving and now pausing- -
But thirty miles from the capital, beyond the western gate,
The men of the army stopped, not one of them would stir
Till under their horses' hoofs they might trample those moth- eyebrows....
Flowery hairpins fell to the ground, no one picked them up,
And a green and white jade hair-tassel and a yellowgold hair- bird.
The Emperor could not save her, he could only cover his face.
And later when he turned to look, the place of blood and tears
Was hidden in a yellow dust blown by a cold wind.
... At the cleft of the Dagger-Tower Trail they crisscrossed through a cloud-line
Under Omei Mountain. The last few came.
Flags and banners lost their colour in the fading sunlight....
But as waters of Shu are always green and its mountains always blue,
So changeless was His Majesty's love and deeper than the days.
He stared at the desolate moon from his temporary palace.
He heard bell-notes in the evening rain, cutting at his breast.
And when heaven and earth resumed their round and the dragon car faced home,
The Emperor clung to the spot and would not turn away
From the soil along the Mawei slope, under which was buried
That memory, that anguish. Where was her jade-white face?
Ruler and lords, when eyes would meet, wept upon their coats
As they rode, with loose rein, slowly eastward, back to the capital.
...The pools, the gardens, the palace, all were just as before,
The Lake Taiye hibiscus, the Weiyang Palace willows;
But a petal was like her face and a willow-leaf her eyebrow --
And what could he do but cry whenever he looked at them?
...Peach-trees and plum-trees blossomed, in the winds of spring;
Lakka-foliage fell to the ground, after autumn rains;
The Western and Southern Palaces were littered with late grasses,
And the steps were mounded with red leaves that no one swept away.
Her Pear-Garden Players became white-haired
And the eunuchs thin-eyebrowed in her Court of PepperTrees;
Over the throne flew fire-flies, while he brooded in the twilight.
He would lengthen the lamp-wick to its end and still could never sleep.
Bell and drum would slowly toll the dragging nighthours
And the River of Stars grow sharp in the sky, just before dawn,
And the porcelain mandarin-ducks on the roof grow thick with morning frost
And his covers of kingfisher-blue feel lonelier and colder
With the distance between life and death year after year;
And yet no beloved spirit ever visited his dreams.
...At Lingqiong lived a Taoist priest who was a guest of heaven,
Able to summon spirits by his concentrated mind.
And people were so moved by the Emperor's constant brooding
That they besought the Taoist priest to see if he could find her.
He opened his way in space and clove the ether like lightning,
Up to heaven, under the earth, looking everywhere.
Above, he searched the Green Void, below, the Yellow Spring;
But he failed, in either place, to find the one he looked for.
And then he heard accounts of an enchanted isle at sea,
A part of the intangible and incorporeal world,
With pavilions and fine towers in the five-coloured air,
And of exquisite immortals moving to and fro,
And of one among them-whom they called The Ever True-
With a face of snow and flowers resembling hers he sought.
So he went to the West Hall's gate of gold and knocked at the jasper door
And asked a girl, called Morsel-of-Jade, to tell The Doubly- Perfect.
And the lady, at news of an envoy from the Emperor of China,
Was startled out of dreams in her nine-flowered, canopy.
She pushed aside her pillow, dressed, shook away sleep,
And opened the pearly shade and then the silver screen.
Her cloudy hair-dress hung on one side because of her great haste,
And her flower-cap was loose when she came along the terrace,
While a light wind filled her cloak and fluttered with her motion
As though she danced The Rainbow Skirt and the Feathered Coat.
And the tear-drops drifting down her sad white face
Were like a rain in spring on the blossom of the pear.
But love glowed deep within her eyes when she bade him thank her liege,
Whose form and voice had been strange to her ever since their parting --
Since happiness had ended at the Court of the Bright Sun,
And moons and dawns had become long in Fairy-Mountain Palace.
But when she turned her face and looked down toward the earth
And tried to see the capital, there were only fog and dust.
So she took out, with emotion, the pledges he had given
And, through his envoy, sent him back a shell box and gold hairpin,
But kept one branch of the hairpin and one side of the box,
Breaking the gold of the hairpin, breaking the shell of the box;
"Our souls belong together," she said, " like this gold and this shell --
Somewhere, sometime, on earth or in heaven, we shall surely
And she sent him, by his messenger, a sentence reminding him
Of vows which had been known only to their two hearts:
"On the seventh day of the Seventh-month, in the Palace of Long Life,
We told each other secretly in the quiet midnight world
That we wished to fly in heaven, two birds with the wings of one,
And to grow together on the earth, two branches of one tree."
Earth endures, heaven endures; some time both shall end,
While this unending sorrow goes on and on for ever.


Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Classic Movie Fight Scene

Michelle Yeoh vs Zhang Ziyi in Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon (2000). One of best fight scenes EVER.


Sunday, April 14, 2019

Striking Distance Documentary

Shot over four years, Striking distance tells the story of girls who compete in open styles tournaments across Australia.

We need your generous support to finish this inspirational and surprising story about how martial arts can totally change the way a girl feels about herself.

Donations can be made via Documentary Australia Foundation ; documentaryaustralia.com.au/films/4230/striking-distance

We have had a few hiccups of late, and need $30,000AUD to finish and share this work. It has been a tough road to the finish line, and your support means so much to these amazing young women.

This is an 11 minute snippet of a 90 minute story - from towards the end of the film. We hope it brings a smile - you can see our sizzle reel with more of the girls on this same vimeo channel.

At the end of the 2017 competition year the girls decide they have had enough of being treated second best. They organize their own competition & in April 2018 create history with the first All Girls Open Styles tournament in Australia.
I couldn't embed the video, but it may be watched here.


Monday, April 08, 2019

The Fetish of Tradition in Martial Arts

Below is an excerpt from yet another excellent article at Kung Fu Tea. You will find the full post here.

As we review the various historical essays within Kung Fu Tea’s archive, one might be forgiven for concluding that the Chinese martial arts are not so much a smoothly transmitted system as an assortment of stochastic discontinuities held together by the fervent belief that they ought to be (or at one point in the distant past were) a cohesive whole.  I find it useful to sit back and consider how much (or rather, how little) my Wing Chun training (a product of the 1950s) has in common with either the Dadao clubs of the 1930s, or the Red Spear village militias of the 1920s. These two distinct visions of the Chinese martial arts were among the largest social movements of their day. Collectively they trained and organized many millions of people.  And yet the Red Spear militias that once rules China’s northern plains seem to have had little impact on the surviving martial arts.  If this is true for huge social movements that existed less than 100 years ago, how much further removed is my understanding of the Chinese martial arts from one of Qi Jiguang’s Ming era soldiers, or an ancient scholar-warrior welding a bronze sword?

Nevertheless, the threads of culture provide continuity that bridges our personal, localized or purely internal, experience of reality. It is here, rather than in embodied practice, that scholars might start their search for a more stable understanding of the Chinese martial arts.  More specifically, it is within their long tradition of shared stories, literary references, venerated figures, imagined geographies and even values (though these do tend to shift from era to era) that Chinese martial culture finds (and contests) its central coherence.  It is within this most basic stratum that our search must begin.  And it is here that we first encounter the uniting fear of the “end” of martial practice.

Within a Confucian lineage system intergenerational transmission, whether genetic or social, is the great responsibility. Fathers must have sons to inherit the land, and in turn they must provide sacrifices to the ancestors. Knowledge, which existed in perfect clarity in the past, must be faithfully transmitted. The martial arts, understood as systems of military defense at both the local and imperial levels, was no exception.  Driven by the importance of the military examination system, archery manuals became one of the most successful genres of popular literature in the late imperial period. Likewise, the act of boxing is irreducibly social.  Neither teacher nor student can exist without the other.

It is thus interesting to note that within the very first stratum of existing Chinese martial arts manuals (16thcentury) we find authors like Qi Jiguang and Yu Dayou already concerned that the nation’s hand combat practices are in decline and in need of revival.  Cheng Zhongyou likewise undertook his important study of the Shaolin pole method both because he wanted to make it available to other members of the gentry seeking to train village militias, but also because he was worried that their “original” method would be lost in a deluge of second-rate imitators.  Already within the oldest stratum of printed (sometimes commercially distributed) works on the Chinese martial arts, we see a concern with their end.  This is truly remarkable as these same authors (and many other nameless instructors within their generation) were responsible for laying the foundation of the martial arts that we now enjoy today.

This basic complex of social values largely survived the transition to ideological nationalism, and market-based methods of transmission, during the late Qing and early Republic period.  In the period of “self-strengthening” (1860s-1890s) the entire nation was seen as under threat, and the martial arts came to be understood by some individuals as a way of preserving what was essential within Chinese society to resist the West. Thus fears about the disappearance of boxing could be mapped directly onto a larger historical dilemma. Likewise, Republic era reformers sought to place the traditional martial arts at the disposal of the nation building project, and (drawing on the Japanese example) saw within them the tools necessary to forge China into a single, modern, people.  When individuals foresaw or debated the end of boxing, they were at the same time ruminating on the nature of the modern Chinese state, its values, and relationship with society.

Yet such discussions still emerge with some frequency in the Western media and martial arts circles. And it goes without saying that the cultural values that underlay these discussions are quite different from traditional Confucianism’s concerns with faithful transmission on the one hand, or the sorts of all-encompassing nationalisms that characterized the 1930s on the other. Is there a single theoretical lens which we might apply to the narrative of the vanishing Kung Fu master which both explains the popularity of the story today, while still (within reason) shedding some light on its previous manifestations?

Martial arts historians and social theorists alike would probably begin by pointing out that it is quite significant that the West encountered these hand combat systems during the great period of imperial expansion in the late 19thcentury, and then again during the era of the consolidation of the global financial order in the immediate aftermath of WWII.  This suggests that we cannot separate the social function of the martial arts from the emergence of late capitalism and modern consumer culture.

Indeed, modern capitalism plays the pivotal role in the post-WWII dissemination of the Asian martial arts.  It gave rise to a set of economic, social and personal insecurities which came to define Western culture, and then promised the delivery of goods, ideas and practices that could solve these same issues.  The first two of these issues are perhaps the easiest to understand. The rapid opening of markets to global trade flows always creates sets of winners and losers as the increased flows of new types of goods eliminate some jobs and threaten the fabric of traditional communities. While most individuals will be better off (in the long run) as the national economy expands, they will now be forced to deal with the basic existential questions of life (who am I, what is my purpose) without the support of the types of traditional communities and institutions that sought to provide those answers in the past.

The surplus of goods which modern capitalism facilitates seems to always be accompanied with a deficit in social meaning.  Increasingly individuals are left to their own devices to determine what makes them unique, which groups (if any) they are part of, and what larger purpose they are meant to fill. Unsurprisingly individuals seek to find meaning within the sorts of goods and experiences that they consume.  For instance, I might signal, and develop, a certain type of identity through the clothing that I wear, the type of car that I drive (or don’t drive), and the hobbies that I fill my free time with.

Yet in a world where everything can be purchased, and any individual with the same set of means might purchase a similar set of goods, how secure is such an identity? The perfectly interchangeable and anonymous nature of markets threatens the ability of these institutions to provide answers for the terrible existential questions of human existence that are always looming in the darkness.  One logical response to this is to remove certain goods from the universal marketplace, thus preserving their cultural power by providing a non-economic gateway to their use.  This strategy has been seen many times in history, but in the current era it seems to most closely approximate our current anxiety over cultural appropriation.

Several theorists have noted that we respond to the anxieties and threats of the modern consumer society by seeking something that exists beyond mere economic exchange with which to anchor identity.  Given their importance to the counter-culture movement of the 1950s-1970s, Asian philosophies, religions and modes of aesthetic expression were often adopted as strategies for resisting the commercialization and hollowing-out of Western life.  Chinese Daoism, Japanese film and, of course, the martial arts all exploded into the popular consciousness as a new generation sought to find a better set of values to anchor their lives in a rapidly changing post-War West.  Strictly speaking, none of these things were actually “new.” Most of these images and ideas had been available to Westerners since the 1920s.  The supply was already present.  It was the post-war reevaluation of modern life that provided an explosion of demand.

Nevertheless, one must think carefully about how individuals, from the late 1940s to the early 1960s, actually encountered these ideas and practices.  The old standby is to assert that Judo or Karate was popularized by vets returning from the occupation of Japan (or perhaps a stint in Taiwan). There is certainly some truth in this statement.  And yet most of the vets who took up martial arts in the 1960s had never been stationed in Okinawa, Japan or Taiwan.  Some key individuals and future tastemakers had.  Don Draeger and R. W. Smith are both important examples of how a certain vision of the Asian martial arts was exported to the West.

Yet the vast majority of individuals who followed in their virtual footsteps had neither the life experience or financial means to travel East and South East Asia, documenting the martial arts.  Some may have encountered aspects of these systems as “dirty fighting” in boot camp. Yet for the most part they came to Judo, Karate and later the Chinese martial arts through newspaper and magazine articles, TV specials and commercial transactions carried out in strip mall dojos dotting the American post-war landscape.

The central paradox of consumer culture is now laid bare.  It promises to sell us goods, ideas and practices that can substitute for the loss of older types of community.  Yet the very fact that such goods can be purchased by anyone leads us to question their authenticity and efficaciousness. If personal-transformation and escape from the woes of late capitalism can really be purchased for $60 a month, and I hand over my $60, what exactly have I escaped?

Once we have reached this point a variety of thinkers, from Slavoj Zizek to Jean Baurdrillard, could be invoked to help. Zizek’s work on “Western Buddhism” is in many ways particularly relevant here.  But I would like to turn to a different source as it brings the discussion back to the frequent appearance of the words “last” and “first” in our discussions of the martial arts.  Specifically, Amanda Fernbach’s 2002 Fantasies of Fetishism: From Decadence to the Post-Human (Rutgers UP) deserves consideration.

Specifically, the logic of Fernbach’s argument suggests that procumers (consumers who simultaneously produce Western martial arts culture through their participation in these systems) seek to solve the essential dilemma of counter-culture consumerism by reformulating their practice as a type of fetish.  While the martial arts will continue to be distributed through a competitive marketplace this move relieves the latent anxiety about the authenticity of these goods. Specifically, discourses focusing on the origins or ending of an art serve to form a relationship between the practice and its students in which the now fetishized art becomes a powerful tool of its own marketing as well as a symbol of its own legitimacy.

Fernbach notes that the origins of the notion of “fetish” seems to lie in the colonial trade that occurred between Portugal and West Africa.  Fetish goods were spiritually powerful, culturally defined, objects which could not be traded.  Their exchange lay outside of normal economic channels, and they were believed to have a transformative effect on individuals or communities.  Given our attempt to apply all of this to a discussion of the martial arts in the early and mid-twentieth century, it is important to note that the core concept of the fetish really derives from imperialist discourse and denotes an area that is somehow insulated from socially corrosive market forces.

This notion (focusing on the object which resisted exchange) would go on to inform the basic anthropological definition of the fetish which saw them as otherwise mundane objects thought to be endowed with tremendous spiritual powers (often used in worship). More specifically, they could grant great strength or ability to someone with the proper knowledge of their use. Freud took this basic notion and instead focused on the absence, or the fear, that might cause one to seek out a fetish in the first place.  Fernbach finds his treatment of the concept wanting in a number of respects.

Karl Marx, on the other hand, found modern fetish goods within the Western economic marketplace. Here the good most certainly exchanges hands through trade.  Yet some aspect of its value (perhaps its prestige, or ability to act as a status symbol) might outstrip its actual utilitarian worth.  The fetish is thus a second good, encoded in the value of the first, which we might purchase within a marketplace.

Each of these definitions of the fetish are related to the others. Yet the original notion of an area (seemingly) protected from the corrosive effects of trade seems most relevant to what we see-or seek-in modern martial arts.  Still, Freud’s very different take on the problem reminds us that what is often most important in understanding human behavior is the fear of the thing that is lacking.

Nor is the Marxist interpretation without some merit. As with any good in the marketplace, one must increase the demand for your product through advertising. Creating discourses that fetishize aspects of the martial arts communicates to consumers that they will receive value that goes above and beyond the simple instruction that we are outwardly paying for. For instance, when I put my child in a Taekwondo class she doesn’t just learn the basic kicks and punches that I am paying for.  Undoubtably there will be a brochure in the school’s lobby informing me that she will also gain “self-confidence,” “discipline” and the ability to “work with others.” These are all core social values and a good example of the Marxist theory in action.

Still, I suspect that there is a more primal layer of myth creation that underlies all of this, one better explored through the older anthropological understanding of the fetish. As adult consumers look for a tool of self-actualization, guided perhaps by latent Orientalist notions about a “purer” East, they build a belt of protective fetish fantasies around the martial arts precisely to “save them” from the taint of the mundane. Perhaps the easiest of these fantasies to construct (and hence the most widespread) is that of origins and endings.

Such stories effectively sperate the martial arts from the world of endlessly repeatable consumer consumption by positing the existence of temporal discontinuity.  It is time itself (or what Eliade might have called “sacred time”) that places the martial arts beyond the reach of “mere consumerism,” but not actual consumers. That which has vanished from the world can no longer be sold, even if I feel that I can access some aspect of this shared sacred past in my weekly Kung Fu classes.  To be on the verge of disappearance is to also to be on the verge of having the sort of cultural surplus that we always bequeath of the long lost masters.  To be the “last master” is to be remembered. At least in our more romantic imagination. One suspects that in real life practices vanish precisely because no one cares to remember them at all.

Likewise, something on the verge of extinction is also a candidate for revival. Ip Man became the “grandmaster” not because he was the first, or the best, Wing Chun practitioner. Rather, he was venerated by generations of students in Hong Kong and the West for “saving the art” from extinction. Whether that was actually the case is a topic for another day. But I don’t think that anyone doubts that Ip Man has come to be seen as an epochal figure in the Southern Chinese martial arts that the “generation” of most modern Wing Chun students is now counted from.  His career is interesting precisely because it illustrates how closely linked the death and rebirth of an embodied identity can be, not just in historical practice but also in the stories that we come to tell.