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 ~

Friday, June 10, 2022

Culture and Community in Martial Arts Schools

Over at Kung Fu Tea, there was an interesting article on the common culture and community found within a martial arts school, which is reinforced by the formal precepts for training that would normally be posted and maybe recited by students every day. In Japanese martial arts, this would be the dojo "kun."

Below is an excerpt. The full post may be read here.


The Wing Chun Jo Fen and the Definition of Community


There is another way in which communities are defined and expectations are cultivated. Rather than relying only on the intuitive and unspoken norms that arise in the course of training, most martial arts communities also propagate explicit rules. These codes of conduct, usually written, are supposed to govern life in the community. The number of rules and their content can vary immensely from one tradition to the next, but the basic impulse is widely shared.

Such formal lists are quite common in the martial arts of southern China. However, in my limited experience, they are often observed in the breech. Students know that they exist, but they don’t generally get discussed all that often. This seems to be particularly true in Wing Chun. Early in his teaching career in Hong Kong Ip Man propagated a set of nine rules, collectively referred to as the “Ving Tsun Jo Fen.” In the case of Ip Man’s list, they tended to be suggestions of what proper behavior should be rather than overly detailed admonitions or prohibitions. Nor, when reading the historical accounts from the 1950s and 1960s, is it always clear how the behavior of his young and unruly students related to these rules.

Still, the fact that the Jo Fen were given, and that they are now commonly reproduced and displayed in Wing Chun schools around the world, seems to indicates that we should give some thought to how these guidelines have been read and helped to shape the Wing Chun community. After all, these statements come as close to a formal philosophy of personal behavior as anything in the Ip Man lineage. And it is interesting to note that the Jo Fen describe not just proper behavior in the school, but within society as a whole. By explaining how a student should comport themselves in relation to the broader community, they offer valuable hints as to the social milieu that gave rise to the early Wing Chun community.

Before we delve into a discussion of the Jo Fen there are a couple of puzzles that need to be addressed. The first is their ultimate date of origin. It is known that Ip Man wrote down and displayed the basic set of rules that are used today in his school in Hong Kong during the 1950s. However, it is not clear if these rules were entirely his own creation or if some of them were inherited from an earlier instructor (Chan Wah Shun and Ng Chung So would both be good candidates). For reasons that we will discuss later I suspect that these rules are really a response to trends and pressures from the 1920s-1930s. Even if Ip Man first wrote them down in the 1950s, the Jo Fen appear to be a thoughtful response to a conversations that had been happening decades earlier.

The second paradox is how one should read the Jo Fen. This is a critical issue for Western Wing Chun students looking for guidance in living their art. For instance, when we are commanded to “Keep sacred the Martial Morality” (Wu De; Cantonese: Ma Dak) are we being sworn to uphold the marginal and criminal behavioral codes of the “Rivers and Lakes”? The individuals who inhabit these marginal social zones often have quite strong opinions on proper behavior under “Wu De,” and have even created an entire subaltern set of cultural values. Boretz does a great job of illustrating this worldview in his carefully crafted ethnography, Gods, Ghosts and Gangsters: Ritual Violence, Martial Arts, and Masculinity on the Margins of Chinese Society (University of Hawaii Press, 2010).

Yet Ip Man was a highly educated individual who clearly held Confucian values. During his younger life he was in no way a marginal figure. The circles that he moved in were quite different from those that Boretz described, and so were his cultural values. He had both a classical Chinese and Western education. He owned land and businesses. His personal values tended to be somewhat conservative and influenced by his Confucian education. So what exactly does such an individual really mean when he exhorts his students to remember “martial virtue?” This is probably not the martial morality of the Triads.

Nor does it seem to be the same as the revivalist ideals promoted by Jin Yong in his novels. These novels have dominated the popular discussion of Chinese martial values from the 1950s to the present. In fact, Jin Yong is probably the most widely read Chinese language author of the entire 20th century. While it seems likely that these books had an impact on the expectations of many of Ip Man’s younger students, the old master’s views on these matters were probably already set well before he started teaching in 1950.

In the west we tend to read these suggestions through our own cultural lens. Ron Heimberger, in my own lineage, once produced a small volume titled Ving Tsun Jo Fen: Expectations and Guidance from the Ving Tsun Tradition (Ving Tsun Ip Ching Athletic Foundation, 2006). It’s an interesting book to think about. The author makes a conscious attempt to bridge the two, at times very different, cultural traditions that are at play. Yet in the end his interpretations of the Jo Fen always seem to reflect a home-spun American ethical perspective rather than traditional Chinese culture. The author actually warns us that this will be the case in the introduction to his book. The central problem, as he saw it, was to make the Jo Fen meaningful to modern, English speaking students.

It is an interesting project, and on some level I suspect that this is the direction that we must go. Translation is always as much a cultural as a linguistic issue. But I suspect that such exercises are still missing something.

This suspicion brings us back to the central question of the post. How should we, as informed students, read the Jo Fen of Wing Chun, or any other southern martial art? How would these rules have been read by a student in either the 1930s or 1950s? What sorts of unstated frames and contexts, familiar to his own students but alien to modern western ones, was Ip Man relying on when he put these guidelines for living to paper?

To answer that question we are going to need compare this document to other (much better known) contemporaneous texts. This exercise will suggest some ways in which we might want to read the Wing Chun Jo Fen. It will also shed some light on how Ip Man understood the community he was trying to create, and the norms of behavior that he wished to codify.

A rainy day at the Ancestral Temple in Foshan. In the distance the old neighborhood behind the temple is being demolished to make way for a new urban development project. Ironically the new neighborhood is being designed to “look traditional” and capitalize on the area’s important “history.” 

Translating the Wing Chun Jo Fen


The original text of the Wing Chun Jo Fen still hangs at the Hong Kong Ving Tsun Athletic Association (VTAA). As such it is well attested. More difficult is settling on a suitable English translation. For our purposes I am providing two translations of the text below. I think it is useful to compare and contrast at least two different versions of the Jo Fen to get a better sense of what points the original is driving at. Neither translation attempts to be a pure mechanical rendering. Both translators made some editorial decisions in how they rendered the Jo Fen corresponding to their understanding of the meaning of the text.

The top line of text (marked SK) is a translation by Samuel Kwok, originally published in his book Mastering Wing Chun: the Keys to Ip Man’s Kung Fu published with Tony Massengill in 2007. Generally speaking this is my preferred translation. The second translation (marked RH) is taken from Ip Ching, Ron Heimberger and Eric Myers, Ving Tsun Jo Fen: Expectations and Guidance from the Ving Tsun Tradition published in 2006. This is also a clear translation with some interesting readings of the text. Together these two different approaches provide a comprehensive look at the original.

Figure 1: Ip Man’s Wing Chun Jo Fen

  1. (SK) Remain disciplined – uphold yourself ethically as a martial artist
    1. (RH) Discipline yourself to the Rules: Keep Sacred the Martial Morality
  2. (SK) Practice courtesy and righteousness – serve the community and honor your family
    2. (RH) Understand Propriety and Righteousness: Love your Country and Respect Your Parents
  3. (SK) Love your fellow students or classmates – be united and avoid conflicts
    3. (RH) Love Your Classmates: Enjoy Working Together as a Group
  4. (SK) Limit your desires and pursuit of bodily pleasures – preserve the proper spirit
    4. (RH) Control Your Desire: Stay Healthy
  5. (SK) Train diligently and make it a habit – never let the skill leave your body
    5. (RH) Work Hard and Keep Practicing: Never Let the Skill Leave Your Body
  6. (SK) Learn to develop spiritual tranquility – abstain from arguments and fights
    6. (RH) Learn How to Keep the Energy: Quit Inciting a Fighting Attitude.
  7. (SK) Participate in society – be conservative, cultured and gentle in your manners
    7. (RH) Always Deal with World Matters with a Kind Attitude that is Calm and Gentle.
  8. (SK) Help the weak and the very young – use your martial skill for the good of humanity
    8. (RH) Help the Elderly and the Children: Use the Martial Mind to Achieve “Yan”
  9. (SK) Pass on the tradition – preserve the Chinese arts and its Rules of Conduct
    9. (RH) Follow the Former Eight Rules: Hold to the Ancestors’ Rules Sincerely.


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