Here at the frontier, the leaves fall like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians, and you, you are a thousand miles away, 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 ~

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 fiancĂ©, 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.

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