The role of Kung Fu Films as China’s Soft Power

Bruce Lee

For decades, Hollywood movies have dominated the film industries worldwide. Blockbuster movies produced by the western movie makers seem to surpass the cultural barriers and appeal to various groups of audience all over the world. People in every corner of the world started to have fantasy over American life or culture after being exposed to the western culture in Hollywood movies. By playing American movies all over the world, the US government has successfully expanded its soft power by constructing their culture as a global and most popular culture. However, as China has become a bigger player at the box office, Kung Fu movies that feature unique Chinese culture has emerged as a popular genre in the movie industry. Following the worldwide success of Bruce Lee’s Kung Fu movies in the 1970s, various contemporary movies have featured Chinese Kung Fu and promoted a new Chinese identity in the global film industry. Whether it is inevitable to produce movies that please Chinese audience in terms of box offices or not, the resurgence of Chinese Martial arts in global movie industry has played a significant role as China’s soft power in the 21st century. Realizing how crucial soft power is in international politics, China has put in great efforts to promote its soft power. The endeavor to popularize these Kung Fu movies is in line with China’s use of soft power to establish its national identity as well as extend its influence on the world.

The combination of the traditional Chinese martial arts with cinema has contributed greatly to building Chinese nationalism and identity as pointed out in Projecting the ‘Chineseness’: Nationalism, Identity and Chinese: “the relationship between Wushu and nationalism was consolidated by martial arts films. Influenced by nationalism, these films have relied upon large bodies of Chinese tradition including Wuxia literature, Chinese opera, and Chinese martial arts themselves” (Zhouxiang). I will examine several scenes in Ip man, a movie that features celebrated Kung Fu master, to further analyze the impact of Kung Fu on growing China’s soft power. Specifically, I want to focus on how martial arts is used to establish Chinese national identity in various levels.

What is soft power in international politics?

Before digging into the role of Kung Fu in Chinese films, I want to first explain what soft power means in the context of international politics and why it is so important for powerful nations like the US and China to gain such power. Joseph Nye, the author of Soft Power, has defined soft power in following words:

A country may obtain the outcomes it wants in world politics because other countries – admiring its values, emulating its example, aspiring to its level of prosperity and openness – want to follow it. In this sense, it is also important to set the agenda and attract others in world politics, and not only to force them to change by threatening military force or economic sanctions. This soft power – getting others to want the outcomes that you want – co-opts people rather than coerces them.

Nye, Joseph. Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics (New York: Public Affairs, 2004).

The military power and economic success of a country used to define the power dynamic between nations. Such hard power has been deployed through coercive international policies and mighty armed forces. On the other hand, soft power facilitates positive collaboration and attraction by creating compelling narrative and image of a country. In terms of Chinese soft power, Kung Fu is a great cultural asset that promotes such soft power globally.

Cultural Significance of Kung Fu

Kung Fu, also known as Wu Shu, is a traditional Chinese martial arts that has much more history and significance in Chinese culture than the stereotypical images of Kung Fu depicted in western media. It is essentially an ideal medium for a nationalistic narrative in the context of greater China. “With its ancient historical links to Shaolin monastery and the philosophical tenets espoused in works such as The Art of War…and its long tradition of relevance to the performing arts” (Tang), Kung Fu has been an important part of Chinese culture and heritage. The significance of Kung Fu in Chinese society is especially highlighted during the times when Chinese were fighting against foreign aggressors who threatened Chinese national identity. During the chaotic period in early 20th century, “[Kung Fu] was recognized by most of the Chinese as a basic means to preserve the nation and preserve the race” (Zhouxiang). In their efforts to protect Chinese values and their nation’s soul, the Chinese people practiced and continued the tradition of Kung Fu not only to learn how to defend themselves physically but also to retain their national pride during the times of foreign invasions.

As the global cinema increasingly became an influential platform for cultural exchange, Kung Fu films became an effective medium through which Chinese nationalism could be widely spread beyond China’s borders. Therefore, Chinese filmmakers have developed a nationalist approach when featuring Kung Fu in films by building “Wushu into a symbol of indigenous virtue and strength” (Zhouxiang). A common storyline in these nationalistic Kung Fu movies portray legendary Kung Fu masters as patriotic heroes who use Kung Fu to defeat villains representing the colonial foreign aggressors. Therefore, the popularity and success of Kung Fu films in modern era exploits Kung Fu, a symbol of national pride and strength, to preserve the core traditional values as well as reinforcing Chinese nationalism.

Wing Chun Kung Fu

A female Wing Chun practitioner beating a male opponent

Chinese Kung Fu has many different styles originating from different regions of China, and the two main styles are Northern and Southern Kung Fu. Featuring several elements such as the lion dance form the Peking Opera, Northern style Kung Fu movies have dominated mainland China until 1970s. However, “as a result of this kind of Kung Fu, the show on the screen did not look like a real fight, and thus new ways of creating Kung Fu movies became more popular in China” (Chen). Southern style Kung Fu films portrayed much more realistic fight and gradually gained more popularity as worldwide famous Kung Fu star such as Bruce Lee appeared on screen. The grandmaster Ip Man, the protagonist of Ip Man and the master of Bruce Lee, is renowned for practicing a southern Chinese Kung Fu style called Wing Chun. Before analyzing various scenes in the movie, I want to first describe the brief history and characteristics of Wing Chun Kung Fu in order to fully fathom the role of Kung Fu in Ip Man.

Developed in Southern China 300 years ago, Wing Chun was created by a master of Shaolin Kung Fu named Ng Mui. Wing Chun is a compact form of Kung Fu that exploits weaknesses of other fighting styles; it requires swift arm movements and strong legs to defeat opponents using the shortest path and the fastest speed. This system of combat arts was passed on to only the few chosen ones, but it gained popularity as the grandmaster Ip Man taught Wing Chun in Hong Kong. Later successors such as Bruce Lee made Wing Chun to be viewed as one of the most popular styles of Kung Fu worldwide. As this form of martial arts was founded by a female Buddhist as a means to defend against unexpected assaults, Wing Chun is not a typical combat style that focuses on using overpowering strengths or physical superiority. Wing Chun is known for being practical, concise, and adaptable. By consistently training of building physical fitness as well as mental focus, one will learn to relax tension from the body and bring out one’s intrinsic strength in the most natural state of structural stability. With this intrinsic strength coming from a relaxed performance of techniques, a small-sized person as the founder herself could effectively defend against a bigger enemy. In a narrow stance with elbows close to the body and arms positioned along the center line of the body, Wing Chun practitioners put their hands in front of them in a position where they think they might be attacked. The unique characteristic of Wing Chun Kung Fu lies in this particular position of arms. Unlike other common combat systems, positioning hands along the centerline or the heart enables the practitioner to defend and attack simultaneously. All punches are thrown in a straight line starting from the heart; these punches are delivered to the opponents in shortest distance. When an opponent attacks in the form of curve or a hook, a Wing Chun practitioner can achieve simultaneous act of defense and offense by reacting with his or her straight punch that reaches opponent faster than the opponent’s punch. Moreover, Wing Chun uses the power of the entire body in a relaxed structured to generate force in a small space and deliver consecutive damages only precisely to the weak points of the opponents. Since Wing Chun Kung Fu style favors structural positioning over pure strength, Wing Chun practitioners spends most time training their bodies to move in the most concise, efficient, and precise way.

The Grandmaster Ip Man

A quote made by the grandmaster Ip Man from an article, An interview With Grandmaster Yip Man from 1972, compares the core values of Wing Chun as the nature of bamboo:

Wing Chun is in some sense a soft school of martial arts. However, if one equates that work as weak or without strength, then they are dead wrong. Chi Sao in Wing Chun is to maintain one’s flexibility and softness, all the while keeping in the strength to fight back, much like the flexible nature of bamboo.

Master Ip during an interview in 1972
Ip Man

Ip Man

The storyline of this film is set in Fo Shan, “a hub of various Cantonese martial arts schools during the 1930s and 1940s” (Cheung). People in Fo Shan are known for practicing martial arts in their daily lives. In the opening scene, master Liu, after opening up a new martial arts club in Fo Shan, comes to Ip Man’s house to practice Wing Chun with Ip Man. Ip Man is renowned for his practice of Wing Chun. Despite the abrupt and rude manner in which master Liu challenged master Ip for a duel, master Ip shows his humble and calm character after easily beating master Liu. As master Ip sees master Liu out, he says “Thanks for taking it easy on me, master Liu”. This opening scene establishes master Ip’s character not only as a strong master of Wing Chun, but it also introduces him as “a paragon of Confucian virtue” (Tang). The courteous way master Ip treats master Liu as a guest despite him abruptly challenging him for a duel and the humble attitude he shows even after easily beating master Liu all set master Ip as a figure that combines “the most desirable and impressive elements of Chinese identity while remaining accessible and likable to the audience” (Tang).

Duel between master Ip and master Liu

In the following scene, a local police officer intervenes during the middle of argument between the disciple of master Liu and another disciple who spread the news of master Liu’s defeat. A crowd gathered in front of master Ip’s residence and wanted to see if the rumor was true. Master Ip, who always want to solve matters in the most peaceful way, comes out to send away the crowd and the police officer. The officer mocks Kung Fu for being outdated as he pulls out his gun and aims it at master Ip’s face: “Still taking about Kung Fu? It’s about guns! Guns, got it?”. Ip Man, wearing traditional Chinese clothing and keeping his composure, speedily seized the officer’s revolver and disarmed him by knocking the cylinder out. It was only after the officer’s ridicule of Kung Fu when master Ip used his strength to show how powerful Kung Fu is. The fact that he could disarm a gun, representing the modern and foreign invention, only with his bare hand reinforces the power of Kung Fu as well as master Ip’s pride in his martial arts. His traditional Chinese outfit also is in contrast with the police officer’s modern uniform, thereby further emphasizing master Ip’s pride in traditional Chinese values.

Duel between master Ip and master Jin

In the above scene, master Jin, an out-of-towner from northern China, beats most martial arts club masters in Fo Shan and wants to beat the best in town before opening his new club in town. Master Jin rushes into master Ip’s house and indecently asks master Ip to fight him. Ip man refuses to fight him and shows his politeness and respect to the new master. However, as master Jin insults Wing Chun kung fu as a “woman’s kung fu” and looks down on all the martial artists in Fo Shan as weak, master Ip determines to showcase his Wing Chun kung fu and steps up to protect the dignity and integrity of Wing Chun Kung Fu. Master Jin starts to attack master Ip with a series of aggressive moves, but master Ip, maintaining the unique hand positions of Wing Chun throughout the duel, uses minimum movements to effectively neutralize his opponent’s attacks and finishes him quickly with precise hits. Although master Jin is not the typical colonial oppressor, but he is a character that invades master Ip’s town and shows immense disrespect for the southern Wing Chun Kung Fu style that master Ip practices. Despite showing generous and peaceful characteristics throughout the film, master Ip carries the responsibility of protecting Fo Shan’s culture and people; he does not turn away from such invasions of out-of-towners and uses his strength only when the situation calls for it.

Duel between three Chinese martial artists and Japanese general Miura

On July 7, 1937, Japan invaded China, robbing its people of their livelihoods and causing rampant starvation across the country. The scene that depicts the street of Fo Shan after Japanese invasion emphasizes how desolate people’s lives have become. The lively streets are now covered with dust and a gloomy atmosphere hangs over the entire city. The population of Fo Shan shrank from over 300,000 to 70,000 as people are massacred by the Japanese soldiers. Master Ip’s residence was also confiscated and turned into the Japanese army’s headquarters. The most influential and strongest man in town also could not escape from falling into abject life. To support his family, master Ip starts to work at a coal mine. Nevertheless, he doesn’t take off his traditional Chinese outfit while working at a coal mine, showing his pride and dedication for preserving Chinese traditions and the national soul. While everyone in Fo Shan is struggling from extreme poverty, Japanese soldiers come by the mine and offer Chinese martial artists a sack of rice in return for fighting Japanese soldiers. A lot of martial artists, including master Liu, started to engage in duels with Japanese soldiers to make living for their families. General Miura from the Japanese army, who arranged the duels, wants to show Chinese “what Japanese kung fu is like”. General Miura asks three of the martial artists whom Japanese soldiers have gathered to fight him; he promises to give rice to all three of the Chinese martial artists whether they win or lose. As Lin, one of the martial arts disciples, volunteers to engage in the duel, he says “The rice is not important. I just want to beat them”. Lin’s determination and attitude toward his fight against general Miura shows that he is fighting for a bigger cause than earning a sack of rice; preserving and fighting for his nation matters the most even during the time when he is struggling from starvation and poverty. Even though Lin eventually gets beaten to death by the general, his sacrifice exemplifies the Chinese people’s dedication for their nation and willpower to fight against the colonial oppressors.

Duel between master Liu and three Japanese Karate practitioners

In contrast with Lin’s determination to fight for his national pride, not every Chinese martial artist has the same cause for participating in the tournament hosted by general Miura. Master Liu easily beats the Japanese Kung Fu disciples and desires to fight more and more Japanese soldiers to earn more sacks of rice. His use of his strength in Chinese Kung Fu to earn more rice denigrates the integrity and pride of Kung Fu. Blinded by greed, master Liu, in front of master Ip and other Chinese martial artists, claims to fight against three Japanese martial artists by himself. Yet, he loses the duel and gets shot by a Japanese soldier for trying to take the sack of rice even after losing. Infuriated with the brutal duels held by the Japanese army, master Ip steps in and declares that he will fight ten people at once. Unlike his past duels with other Chinese Kung Fu masters, master Ip looks much more determined and aggressive in his moves against the team of ten Japanese soldiers. Fighting in his Wing Chun style as usual, Master Ip takes down the Japanese karate practitioners one by one. After defeating all ten of the Japanese soldiers, master Ip refuses to take the rice given from the Japanese army in return. When general Miura askes master Ip for his name, master Ip simply replies by saying: “I’m just a Chinese man”. This scene highlights master Ip’s love for Kung Fu, his neighbors, and his country. He again uses his strength when his cultural and national pride is attacked by the foreign aggressors. Such characterization of master Ip in the movie promotes strong nationalistic sentiments and establish Chinese nationalism in modern era where most audience has not experienced the tragic colonial period.

Last duel between master Ip and general Miura

Having been harassed and physically abused by the Japanese soldiers as well as the northern martial artists who have turned into bandits, people working in a cotton mill ran by master Ip’s close friend urge master Ip to teach them Wing Chun Kung Fu so that they can defend themselves in such a chaotic time. Even though master Ip refused to teach in the past, he felt he has responsibilities as a martial artist to help out people during a rough time by training them Kung Fu. Master Ip starts to teach a crowd of people in public and Wing Chun Kung Fu suddenly becomes a big part of people’s daily lives; Fo Shan people, regardless of their age or gender, would continuously train Kung Fu even while working. After an incident in which master Ip beat up several Japanese soldiers who came to master Ip’s house and threatened his family, General Miura and the Japanese army raids the cotton mill to find master Ip. Master Ip turns himself in so that no one in the mill gets hurt. Instead of executing master Ip for resisting the Japanese army, general Miura proposes master Ip to teach Japanese Wing Chun Kung Fu and serve Japanese emperor. Unsurprisingly, master Ip refuses the general’s proposal and challenges him for a duel. General Miura accepts the challenge, because he believes defeating the most honorable and supported figure in front of the Chinese would engrave the power and superiority of Japanese upon people’s minds. While being imprisoned before his duel with the general, master Ip is again threatened by another Japanese official to lose the fight intentionally. In his last monologue before the duel, he makes a resonant remark on the values of Chinese Kung Fu:

Although martial arts involves armed forces, Chinese martial arts is Confucius in spirit. The virtue of martial arts is benevolence. You, Japanese will never understand the principle of treating others as you would yourselves because you abuse military power, you turn it into violence to oppress others. You don’t deserve to learn Chinese martial arts.

Master Ip Man before his duel with general Miura

Conclusion

Ip man refused to be subjugated by the Japanese army and used Kung Fu to call forth the unity of the Chinese people. I analyzed several scenes in the film that depicts Kung Fu as the people’s soul and national pride. By portraying such role of Kung Fu in establishing Chinese nationalism, Ip Man shows how Kung Fu delivers a Chinese nationalistic message to the audience: “Kung Fu functions not only as a real world self defense system, but as a performance – something that can carry a message to an audience” (Tang). As Kung Fu films like Ip Man gain popularity worldwide, China is establishing its nationalism in the global arena and sends messages to foreign countries how powerful its people, culture, and tradition is. In 21st century, China is utilizing films as well as performances such as the Beijing Olympics opening ceremony to develop its soft power and gain outsiders’ respect for China.

Bibliography

Scholarly Sources:

Nye, Joseph. Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics (New York: Public Affairs, 2004).

Chung, Peichi. “Hollywood Domination of the Chinese Kung Fu Market.” Inter-Asia Cultural Studies, vol. 8, no. 3, Routledge, 1/9/2007, pp. 414–24, doi:10.1080/14649370701393782.

Zhouxiang, Lu, et al. “Projecting the ‘Chineseness’: Nationalism, Identity and Chinese Martial Arts Films.” The International Journal of the History of Sport, vol. 31, no. 3, Routledge, 11/2/2014, pp. 320–35, doi:10.1080/09523367.2013.866093.

Cheung, Siu Keung, and Law, Wing Sang. “The Colony Writes Back: Nationalism and Collaborative Coloniality in the Ip Man Series.” Social Transformations in Chinese Societies, vol. 13, no. 2, Emerald Publishing Limited, 5/9/2017, pp. 159–72, doi:10.1108/STICS-04-2017-0007.

Tang, Andrea. “The Case of Ip Man: Postcolonialism, Nationalism, and Soft Power Currency in Twenty-First Century Chinese Martial Arts Cinema.” Department of East Asian Studies, Bryn Mawr College, 14 Feb. 2012, pp. 1–41.

Chen, Xiaxin. “Kung Fu Moves in American Movies.” Department of Art and Design, Northeastern University, ProQuest Dissertations Publishing, May. 2016, pp. 7–85.

Non-Scholarly Sources:

“An Interview With Grandmaster Yip Man from 1972.” My Way of Wing Chun, 28 June 2014, https://mywayofwingchun.com/2013/07/10/interview-with-wing-chun-grandmaster-yip-man-1972/.

Creel, Steve, and Wing Chun Concepts. “About Wing Chun Kung Fu.” Wing Chun Concepts, http://www.wingchunconcepts.com/about.php.