recording gongfu histories: accept the mess

Gongfu history is notoriously tricky terrain.

People disagree over when and where arts were created, and which techniques influenced the other. Writing on martial arts has become more scholarly, and we are now required to take the histories we are given with a pinch of salt.

Even within particular lineages, histories are difficult to verify.

In the space of a few decades, speculations about techniques can lead to fanciful new legends which are accepted as fact. This has led to particular problems in my attempts to chart the course of Chee Kim Thong and his organisation.

In one instance I found that a newspaper placed Master Chee at the scene of a major historical incident which, it seems, he was actually nowhere near.

Damo 1

Another example involves how Master Chee leapt to notice in 1950s Malaysia. The same person told very different versions of the same story at different times. In one version he emphasised that Master Chee made the newspapers because of his prowess (the message here is I have a famous master). But in a later version he dwelt on Master Chee’s retiring nature (with the implication, my detective skills uncovered a master living in obscurity).

Writing all this down, my strategy has been to foreground how problematic the history is. The idiosyncrasies can tell us interesting things. For example, when people describe the master of a sort of demi-god, I think it sheds light on their attitudes to their own practice. The same person gives different accounts of an incident because his/her motives change over time. Where I hit a brick wall in research, I describe how I hit a brick wall, and this illustrates that the old masters will always be unknowable to a great extent.¬†To me this seemed more conscientious than just going with the most attractive accounts. It’s a messy business, but it makes an interesting mess.

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