Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Myths in martial art

Traditionally myths have been important in martial arts. In Chinese folk culture, the most popular setting where myth is played out in earnest is a place/society/area called Wu lin (武林), literally translated as martial field, and people there are called people of Wu Lin (武林中人). The mythical place is still recreated continually nowadays, among some Chinese and Western kung fu enthusiasts.

Myths, of martial arts and otherwise, are practically useful, for example, they are great motivator for action for those who believe in their particular myths. It makes perfectly good sense to those who believe in their respective myths. And embraced by people of education and good standing in society. What then is myth?

We may use myths to explore why something is the way it is, or what we are to do with it, but a given myth remains just an interface. It is through us, through embodiment and direct interaction, that it is made immanent. There is no transcendent realm beyond the symbols, and in themselves, the symbols are empty shells. The myth is living because we are ever-changing and transitory. In other words, we are living, and myth too is living. It is a part of us, our mirror. It is like the moon in relation to the sun — without the sun, the moon would cast no light, but in the presence of the sun, it appears to have a light of its own. If this seems far-flung, consider this statement: coming world conflicts will be driven by ideological forces along cultural fault lines. In other words, by our ideas about ourselves, others, and the nature of the world we live in. Ideas are not just ideas, when they take hold of us.

The above is taken from the Introduction of the book the Immanent of Myth, a collection of articles on myth.

Myths can only be understood within the total framework of a certain myth, and they only make sense to the community of people who share the same myth.

Recently a friend asked me to look at a TV feature in Youtube. Two Caucasians, program hosts, came to Hong Kong to visit a local Wing Chun academy whose sifu has good international fame. Wing Chun has become famous in the West through the legendary Bruce Lee. A couple of years ago, a friend of mine in Switzerland asked me to bring him a special-edition model of Bruce Lee, in his famous yellow track suit, for himself when I visited him. He told me that he had been practising Wing Chun for some years, loved its practical fighting styles and, more interestingly, he told me that he felt very like Bruce Lee when he pracitised his Wing Chun.

Anyway, in this video, the program hosts' first meeting with the Wing Chun sifu and his group was in the rooftop of a building, dark in the evening. There was a circle of standing Wing Chun practitioners (fighters!), featuring two fighters doing deadly (staged) fights, with "deadly" results.. Legends had it that Bruce took part in many of similar rooftop fights (which was not mentioned in the video, instead ringing a bell in our Subconscious). The program hosts were told that gangsters in "those days" loved to learn Wing Chun because its way of fighting was most suited for fighting in dark alleys where most gang fights happened. The Caucasian hosts were mesmerized (or looked mesmerized, truthful to the myth), nobody questioned whether gangsters preferred taking time off to learn Wing Chun or preferred winning fights through ambush by sheer number and surprise, and probably with the help of butcher's choppers too. The darker elements of our society never played fair.

The Caucasians were to learn Wing Chun from two different sifus and were to fight with other Wing Chun fighters a few days later, needless to say using the Wing Chun techniques that they were going to learn. To make the encounter more interesting, one of them was commented as too weak physically to engage in brutal combat. What was the advice? He was asked to drink blood from a snake - a legendary booster of masculine energy. Another was asked to train in a sampan (another myth element) and the poor guy was thrown to the smelly water. The two incidents revealed a subtext: the myth of national superiority for a people that had been bullied upon in recent history, a common myth in Wu Lin stories including those in Bruce Lee's films.

At the final test, reality ruled, despite the rooftop. The fighters could only score points using Wing Chun techniques, which when translated under a protective gear environment, all techniques being used were continual short straight punches with occasional short front kicks. Needless to say, these rules are favorable to those who are used to using short punches and short front kicks. Such rules of course cannot diminish the power of myth for the fighters, in the arena of Wu lin, everybody could be a Bruce Lee or a street fighter even though he might be a lawyers or accountant who has never quarreled with his neighbors all his life*.

Myths have always been important in human society. Men lost their lives upholding the patriotic myth. Our Romeo and Juliet lost their lives in the myth of love. The modern man has actually become emptier for losing most of his myths which had been enriching his lives for a long time.

Perhaps we can still have a choice. We can enjoy our myths like we enjoy our arts and literature. We can cry over new versions of Romeo and Juliet on TV, but we watch carefully any sign of self destructions of our kids. We can practice like one Bruce Lee, but we won't go around believing that we are invincible or finding trouble with the drunks or gangsters in the rougher parts of town.

* A few years ago a Wing Chun master accused one of his best former students of opening a Wing Chun academy nearby using a similar logo. The master did not resolve this conflict with a Wing Chun fight (protected or non-protected), he tried to settle it in court by suing the other guy. Our master lost his case in court. Now the two academies are still standing nearby.

PS: As with all Harvard case studies, a disclaimer is warranted here: the above case study is for academic learning and discussion, in no way it makes any judgment on the effectiveness or efficacy of the style mentioned and/or the masters/fighters concerned.

Ip Man and Bruce Lee


  1. Great stories!

    A great blog that often discusses myths in martial arts as well as wing chun is Kung Fu Tea at

  2. Thanks for your linkage Rick. I guess nobody mind reading an interesting story again and again....thanks for your appreciation.


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