The autumn leaves are falling like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians and you, you are a thousand miles away, there are always two cups at my table.

T’ang Dynasty poem

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, September 22, 2017

Wing Chun: Ip Man as a Role Model

Below is an excerpt from an article that appeared at Kung Fu Tea. The full article may be read here.

The title (and subject) of today’s post is borrowed from a search query that brought a reader to this blog last week. WordPress has an incentive to encourage writers to improve the popularity of their blogs as that allows them to sell more advertising. As such they provide a basic package of metrics allowing the owner of every blog to see just how popular their latest post was, how many other pages have been clicked and where all these visitors are coming from.

I suspect that this blog is fairly ordinary in that most of its traffic is generated first by visits from regular readers (thanks!) followed by searches and Facebook clicks. Some browsers allow you to see the specific search query that directed someone to your page.

“Bruce Lee” generates more traffic for this blog than any other single question. Given his association with the Chinese martial arts in the public consciousness, that is not much of a surprise. Beyond that things are pretty random.

I do not normally pay a lot of attention to search queries, but at some point last week a reader ended up coming to Kung Fu Tea looking for information about Ip Man. Specifically, they wanted to know why he is a role model. I do not know who the reader was, or even in what context they asked the question.

Still, this seemingly simple question struck me as being actually quite complicated. I could easily imagine someone asking me this exact question in a personal conversation and I realized that I am not sure what I would say.

This is not because I am unfamiliar with Ip Man. He became the subject of an extended case study in my volume (now in paperback!) on the social history of the southern Chinese martial arts. I have read most of what has been published on his life (in both Chinese and English), my coauthor has interviewed his surviving family members. I have spent years studying his martial art on a practical level as well as delving into more theoretical discussions about their origin and place in Hong Kong society. Ip Man is someone with whom I am very familiar and have deep respect.

Still, on some level I am not sure what it means to ask why a martial arts master from a previous generation is a “role model.” One suspects that many of the individuals who might hold him in this regard are not all that familiar with the actual details of his life and career. Like his student Bruce Lee, Ip Man’s image has been spread and immortalized through a number of generally well produced martial arts films by directors such as Wilson Ip (“Ip Man” 2008), Wong Kar-wai (“The Grand Master” 2013) and Herman Yau (“Ip Man, the Final Fight” 2013). It looks like there may even be more in the works.

The real Ip Man was known within the Hong Kong martial arts community, but he was far from a household name. While teaching Wing Chun was his primary source of income, he never advertised his school and refused to even hang up a sign. His younger students in the 1950s and 1960s certainly looked up to him as a role model. In accounts of his school they remember not just his great skill but also his humor, gentleness and genuine friendship in an era when Kung Fu teachers and students did not always have close relationships.

For the current generation of students in both Hong Kong and the west, who have never had the opportunity to meet Ip Man, asking in what ways he functions as a “role model” becomes a more complicated question. He has gone on from being remembered as “the teacher of Bruce Lee” to becoming a popular media property in his own right. The Ip Man that most of us are familiar with is not a humble Kung Fu teacher in Kowloon, but a local hero from Foshan who single handedly defended the honor of the southern Chinese martial arts (and identity) by wiping out a room full of Japanese karate students after defeating a number of wandering northern wushu masters in artistically choreographed duels.

It would be wrong to note that the Ip Man who exists in the public consciousness is an artistic creation, an invention of the entertainment industry, and simply dismiss the question out of hand. Obiwan Kenobi, one time general of the Clone Wars and Jedi recluse, is also a fictional character. Yet he continues to be cited as an inspirational role model by generations of movie goers. When it comes to role models, their tactile reality may be less important than the functions that they perform.

As so many others have noted, Obiwan is an almost perfect “initiatory figure.”  He shows no sign of fading from discussions of youth role models just because he is fictional.

The question seems not be whether one has actually talked with a role model, but whether you have “focused” on them. Indeed, the selection and construction of role models always includes a dose of fantasy.  In that sense Ip Man once again becomes very interesting.

As a recent historical figure, fans that enjoyed his movies have a chance to go out and collect more information about their new hero. Since Ip Man’s career is pretty well documented there are many accounts that can be studied and meditated upon. In an ironic twist the known historical details of Ip Man’s life have become a sort of “hypertext” for his fictionalized biography. They are an additional “DVD Special Feature” that true fans might wish to track down to show their increasing dedication to their role model.

Then there is Wing Chun. Ip Man left behind more than just historic accounts and vintage photographs. He and his students did a remarkable job of saving their version of the Wing Chun system from obscurity. It is now one of the most popular Chinese martial arts in the world.

Most Wing Chun schools are presided over by Ip Man’s portrait and they feature his training methods. These are usually an emphasis on practical applications, a concept based approach to the Chinese martial arts, and an emphasis on Chi Sau (or sticky hands) as a major teaching tool. Ip Man’s personal approach to the martial arts still exists within his teaching system and it gives modern students a way of experiencing some aspect of his presence even if they cannot touch hands with the master directly.

Within my lineage it is said that Chi Sao unfolds like a conversation. In tactile and subconscious terms it asks students to consider “what would you do in this situation.” When Ip Man touched hands with his first student he started a new branch of this age-old conversation, and it is one that has never stopped.

Students are drawn to Wing Chun for a variety of reasons. Some are looking to get in shape, others want to learn how to defend themselves. A not insubstantial number have seen the recent Ip Man films and they, on some level, are looking for that “role model.” Almost all of them will discover after a few weeks or months that the reality of Wing Chun training (or any martial art) is different from what they initially expected.

More interesting to me is the question of why they stay. I suspect that for many individuals they remain because they enjoy being part of the conversation that Ip Man started. They feel compelled to keep listening and they want to make their own contributions to it.



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