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Kung fu and Chinese culture in The Grandmaster

In The World on War, we travel around the globe and investigate how armed conflict influences a country's popular culture and its representation of war in film.

Kung fu represents many Chinese values: honour, clarity, strength, discipline, tradition, progress, perseverance, grace, pride. In Wong Kar-wai’s The Grandmaster — set during the Second-Sino Japanese war, which saw the Chinese Civil War briefly paused as two opposing sides of the nation joined forces against a greater enemy — kung fu and all its associated philosophies and politics are analogous to Chinese culture itself. The Grandmaster uses kung fu to display much more than physicality — and though billed as a story about Ip Man, has little interest in Ip Man’s real story. Instead, Wong uses the well-known cultural and historical figure, and the fictional characters around him, to examine the state of China’s internal conflicts.

Wong demonstrates the discord in China through the geographical divide of kung fu disciplines. A martial arts master from the north, Gong Yutian, is set to retire but before he does so, decides to name an heir in both the north and the south. With his top disciple, Ma San, already named as his replacement in the north, a challenger must be offered up to defeat Gong Yutian and win the title in the south. With the south’s reputation at stake, Ip Man is nominated; he stands for unification, peace and the way of the future. Gong Yutian’s daughter, Gong Er, is averse to the idea of this challenge, dismissing Ip Man as unworthy; she represents either side of the civil war between the Communist Party of China (CCP) and the Kuomintang of China (KMT/China Nationalist Party), unwilling to set aside any differences for the purpose of moving forward or achieving a greater goal.

Likewise, Gong Yutian’s brother warns him to not underestimate his opponent. There’s a distinct distrust of the Other, and of passing on tradition to the unknown. Gong Yutian’s brother uses snake stew as a metaphor: “The fire has to be right for stew. Too low, it’ll lack taste. Too high, it’ll scald. There’s a lesson in that.” The timing has to be right for unification; if it’s contrived, it will ultimately be superficial. During the temporary break in the Chinese Civil War, the CCP were nominally incorporated into the KMT’s National Revolutionary Army to fight against Japan. This uneasy alliance ceased shortly after the end of the war. Gong Yutian says, “I know what I’m doing. I’m creating opportunity. This fire today needs new wood.”

An innovator and optimist, Yutian longs for the northern and southern schools of kung fu to be combined; metaphorically, he longs for One China. At the beginning of the challenge, he repeats something another man named Ip once said: “Kung fu divides into north and south. Must our country divide as well?” He then asks Ip Man if he can break a flat cake he holds in his hand. It turns out that the battle between Gong Yutian and Ip Man is not one of physical skill, but wit. While they thread limbs through limbs, as though dancing in partnership, Ip Man eventually pulls back and replies, “The world is a big place. Why limit it to north and south? It holds you back... Break from what you know and you will know more.” He doesn’t just match Gong Yutian’s worldview but indeed expands it, making him the victor of the challenge. Gong Er calls for a fight with Ip Man to regain her family’s honour, and after nominally defeating him they discover a mutual, but chaste, attraction to each other.

The separation of Chinese ideals is also represented by the tension in the Gong family. While Ip Man — who loses his family and descends into poverty — is feeling the effects of the war, Ma San has allied with the Japanese and ends up killing Gong Yutian. Gong Er’s elders tell her that her father’s final wish was for her to live a happy life and not seek vengeance for his death, but she disobeys this and goes after Ma San. Though the depiction of war and its consequences are constantly in the foreground of The Grandmaster, when dispersed through the personal narratives of the characters, war itself becomes personalised. Ultimately, a significant portion of the film, and its climax, is centred around Gong Er; and while the undertone remains set by the literal war, the story becomes just as much about the war of vengeance between Ma San and Gong Er, and the internal war Gong Er grapples with over having to sacrifice marriage, children and the opportunity to teach if she wishes to avenge her father’s death.

The elders advise her that she and Ma San together, with their respective 64 Hands and Xing Yi kung fu styles, are all that’s left of Gong Yutian’s legacy; if she were to kill Ma San that legacy would die with him. After a drawn-out, brutal fight — in the heavy snow, the two wearing thick fur coats and going hand-to-hand in combat on the edge of a train platform — Gong Er defeats Ma San, who admits that on the day he killed Gong Yutian, his master had said to him that the key to his supreme move, Old Monkey Hangs Up His Bridge, was “turning back”: “At the time, I didn’t get it. I thought he couldn’t keep up with the times.” This echoes something that Gong Er herself said after she beat Ip Man: “Kung fu isn’t just charging forward, look behind you as well.” You can’t work towards the future without acknowledging and learning from the past.

Ma San concedes, “The Gong family legacy, I return to you.” Gong Er replies, “Let’s be clear. You didn’t return it. I took it back myself.” However, the fight exhausted her deeply and she was never the same, turning to opium until she gave up on life too early. Another way to look at it is that Ma San, a Japanese ally, represented Japan itself, aiming to gain control of what doesn’t belong to them; while Gong Er, her inner turmoil and conflicted emotions, alludes to China during its duration of civil unrest. The dissent among the Chinese peoples proved to be glaring weakness, allowing Japan to exploit and conquer parts of China. And though Japan surrendered in the end, though not because of the direct actions of China, the country had suffered greatly and was hugely damaged in every aspect. It hadn’t lost in the end but the outcome was still dire. The civil war resumed nonetheless, because China was not ready to change its ways.

The last time Gong Er and Ip Man meet, she admits she loves him, but that’s as far as their relationship can go. Her parting words: “My father said mastery had three stages: being, knowing, doing. I know myself, I’ve seen the world. Sadly I can’t pass on what I know. This is a road I won’t see to the end. I hope you will.” Gong Er, too consumed by rage and revenge to honour her father’s desires, is unable to advance. Ip Man, on the other hand, relocates to Hong Kong and starts a kung fu school, eventually spreading his Wing Chun style across the world. In essence, he fulfils Gong Yutian’s vision of “keep[ing] the flame alight”: passing down kung fu styles on to the next generation, and extending its reach. At the end of the film, Ip Man states, “The martial arts belong to all. We’re all on the same quest. It all comes down to those two words: one horizontal, one vertical.” Kung fu: one person is left lying down and one person is left standing. There will always be that divide; as in between Ip Man and Gong Er, Gong Er and Ma San, the north and the south, China and Japan.

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