War and Nationalism in Twentieth-Century Film: Hong Kong Martial Arts and Japan’s Victim Playing, Part I

Originally written for an Asia in Film course during my graduate career, the following is the first part of a study that explores the demonstration of both Chinese and Japanese nationalism through their respective films in the twentieth century. This is the first part of a two-part article. Read the second part here.

Initially, I began researching the increased popularity on Yip Man, teacher of the famous martial artist Bruce Lee, in films and other media over the past decade or so, beginning with the motion picture Ip Man (2008). Such research took me to notice the same few themes the Hong Kong film industry uses to demonstrate Chinese nationalism, especially in the industry’s martial arts films. These themes revolve heavily around anti-Japanese and anti-foreigner sentiments while representing the awesome power of Chinese martial arts, or Kung Fu. In contrast, the Japanese film industry does not portray Japanese nationalism in this grand, nearly overwhelming sense, almost staying away from themes of any anti-foreigner sentiment. Rather, their nationalism is tied to loss, suffering, and adversity and coming together as one people, especially in the later days of the Second World War. Conversely, Japanese films that do focus on such anti-foreigner and pro-Japanese themes, right-leaning Japanese financers normally funded such media, causing controversy both in Japan and East Asia. Therefore, in comparing Hong Kong and Japanese war-related films, the former utilizes the anti-Japanese/foreigner themes heavily, especially in martial arts films, to portray a positive sense of Chinese nationalism while the latter focuses on the constant defeats of the Imperial Navy and the American bombings of Japan to portray a sense of victimhood that links Japanese nationalism to overcoming loss, suffering, and adversity as one people.

Firstly, Chinese martial arts films before and after the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945) explored traditional Chinese values while portraying the Kung Fu masters as national heroes, so much so, that China in the 1950s, Hong Kong in the 1960s, and Taiwan in the 1970s “enthusiastic[ly]” used anti-Japanese themes throughout each respective country’s martial arts and war films to drive home a strong sense of Chinese nationalism.[1] Enter now, Bruce Lee’s 1972 film, Fist of Fury. The film follows the formulaic and aforementioned themes of anti-Japanese and anti-foreigners, as well as providing influence on the director of Ip Man.[2] Set during the early 1900s in Shanghai, China where part of the city houses a large Japanese population and where Western powers still had considerable influence in China, Lee’s character, Chen Zhen, returns to his master’s martial arts school for his funeral. Though the master, Hao Yuanja, died under suspicious circumstances (later, Zhen finds out that the Japanese poisoned Yuanja), the head pupil urges the students gathered to continue training for the “sake of China, our land,” and to “serve our country.” Not ten minutes into the film and Chinese nationalism makes itself apparent. After the funeral, Japanese karateka enter the Chinese martial arts school, handing over a sign reading “Sick Man of Asia,” referring to the weakness of the Chinese government to maintain control over Chinese lands in the face of Western imperialism. It is important to note that the karateka, both here in the Chinese school and later in the Japanese martial arts school, the hakama of every Japanese man is on backwards, showing what would be a trapezoidal lower back brace on the actors’ stomach. This is but one demonstration of anti-Japanese sentiment the Hong Kong film industry used in martial arts films.[3]

Chen Zhen, played by Bruce Lee, begrudgingly holds up the “Sick Man of Asia” sign. Source: South China Morning Post.

The “Sick Man of Asia” sign angers Zhen, who later marches into the Japanese martial arts school and issues a challenge, soundly defeating a room full of awestruck and surprised karateka, demonstrating not only that Chinese martial arts are superior to its Japanese counterpart but also that the Chinese people are not as weak as some Japanese onlookers would think. It is this scene from Fist of Fury that gave Ip Man director Wilson Yip a “feeling of nationalism,” who then created a similar scene where Yip Man defeats a room full of karateka. Further, as professor of Chinese nationalism Lu Zhouxiang et al. asserts in their 2014 article, the “scene of a Chinese fighter trashing Japanese karateist and Western kickboxers become stereotypical” and a form of national identity in any Kung Fu film.[4] As the film progresses, a Russian karateka joins the Japanese school, to where Zhen faces off with the Russian after finding out that the Japanese poisoned his master, a national hero. Zhen defeats the Russian fighter in a typical fight scene then kills the Japanese school’s grandmaster.[5]

Zhen exacts his immediate revenge of the karate school. Source: Electric Shadows.

These glorified acts of violence towards the Japanese and foreigners, as demonstrated in Fist of Fury, are not without reason. Throughout the film, and in others discussed later in this study, the Japanese, and later foreigners, assert their dominance over the Chinese, effectively bullying the Chinese people into submission. In addition to those cited above, the Japanese grandmaster, while with his cronies, claims that “Japanese bushido is the world’s best,” demonstrating a Japanese-centric perspective of superiority. In the same scene, he orders his students to deface Hao Yuanja’s shrine at the Chinese martial arts school, further indicating that their Chinese counterparts do not deserve basic courtesies. Moreover, Zhen, while walking to collect his thoughts, is barred access into a park because a sign says no dogs or Chinese. In a twisted sense of racial humor, a Japanese man suggests to Zhen that if he acts like a dog, Zhen can go into the park. After a moment trying to contain his anger, Zhen lashes out with a punch onto the unsuspecting Japanese man’s face and destroying the sign. Lastly, at a party with the Japanese grandmaster and the Russian, the former forces the Chinese interpreter to walk out of the room on all fours, like a dog, reflecting many of the Japanese characters’ feelings of the Chinese in the film.[6]

A promotional poster for the film. Source: Rotten Tomatoes.

The next Chinese film, Ip Man, takes place mostly during the Second Sino-Japanese War, in Foshan, China. Yip Man, another way of spelling Ip Man and the protagonist in the film, was the third child of his wealthy family. By age thirteen, he began his studies in the martial art of Wing Chun. By age twenty-four, he became a police officer in Foshan. In the film, which serves as a semi-biographical film for Yip Man, Ip Man is a calm and humble man who spends his time training Wing Chun in his mansion. After the townspeople of Foshan hilariously force him to defend the honor of their city from northern martial artists, Ip Man wins more respect from the townspeople, becoming more of a local icon. Once the Japanese invade Foshan, the Japanese force Ip Man from his home and into the local slums of the city. In order to feed his family, Ip Man takes up a manual labor job and, to his surprise, other local martial artists work alongside him. Also to his surprise, the general in charge of Foshan, General Miura, allows the local martial artists to fight Japanese karateka for bags of rice at the makeshift Japanese martial arts school.[7]

Here, in this segment of the film, begins the anti-Japanese sentiment. Before the viewer sees Ip Man in a small, rundown apartment, the film flashes scenes of Japanese soldiers killing Foshan citizens in the streets and the oppression of the Chinese people. Additionally, the Chinese interpreter/collaborator for the Japanese receives countless beatings from his Japanese superiors for any minute infraction, signifying that the conquered citizens of the Chinese city are not granted basic human rights.[8] Furthermore, General Miura’s right-hand man looks like a stereotypical Japanese officer from anti-Japanese propaganda, i.e., metal-rimmed glasses with a weasel-like smile – and one cannot forget the front two buck teeth common among American propaganda posters. In addition, the Chinese versus Japanese martial arts create a dynamic that pits the two countries and cultures against each other in yet another arena, almost reminiscent of Bruce Lee’s Fist of Fury formulaic structure.[9]

Yet different from Fist of Fury, Ip Man spends a number of scenes on the physical conflict between Chinese and Japanese martial artists, signifying the conflict between Chinese and Japanese nationalism. In one scene, General Miura offers to fight three Chinese martial artists at once for bags of rice. One martial artist, Lam, a friend of Ip Man, refuses to accept defeat and fights to the death, unbeknownst to Ip Man, demonstrating the defiance that many Chinese want to strenuously express but cannot, in fear of beatings or death. Since Lam has not returned to work, Ip Man becomes worried and soon marches off to the Japanese martial arts school to get to the bottom of this mystery. Being a local icon before the War, many of the workers desert their posts and follow Ip Man. There, he witnesses another local Chinese martial artist fail to beat three karateka then shot for taking the bag of rice he won previously. It should be noted here that General Miura verbally reprimands his right-hand man, perhaps out of a sense of respect for the martial artist who fought valiantly, however, the shooter is not punished, stripped of his rank, or thrown into prison. The punishment ends at the spoken word. This inaction of military and corporal punishment illuminates the General’s feelings towards the conquered Chinese: he will not kill them outright, however, a dead Chinese is a good Chinese. Enraged, Ip Man challenges ten karateka, with one Chinese onlooker telling him to “just beat them all.” And beat them all he does, bloodily and mercilessly. It is important to note that this scene’s similarity to Fist of Fury’s scene where Zhen beats a roomful of karateka but at the same time, it is not. Zhen does not beat his opponents black and blue, leaving a trail of blood in the room. Zhen leaves the beaten Japanese to moan, groan, and rock back and forth on the ground, letting the defeat seep into their psyche. The violence here in Ip Man is gruesome. When one karateka goes down, Ip Man pivots to face another while breaking the downed man’s leg, letting a yelp of pain fill the air. Ip Man demonstrated the brutal effectiveness and agility of his “chain punching” right into a man’s face, leaving him bloody and dazed beyond compare. To end the scene, he chain-punches the last karateka in his chest, letting the beaten man’s body ricochet off the matted floor and back into the machine gun-like fists of Ip Man.[10]

Ip Man, played by Donnie Yen, takes on and brutally defeats ten karateka. Source: Screen Rant.

This increase in violence towards the historical fiction Japanese occupiers shown here in Ip Man may stem from Sino-Japanese political tensions the decade before the film was released. According to Chinese Studies professor Su-Jeong Kang, in her 2013 article, she points to a string of political events that increased tensions between China and Japan, starting with the latter’s approval of “gloss[ing] over Japan’s wartime atrocities” for junior high school history textbooks in 2001. China and the surrounding Asian counties protested furiously, demanding revisions to the material in the textbooks. Additionally, Junichiro Koizumi, Japan’s Prime Minister at the time, insisted on annually paying homage at the controversial memorial/cemetery Yasukuni Shrine, where about 1,000 Japanese servicemen convicted of war crimes rest. The next year, Chinese armed police stormed the Japanese General Consulate without permission, taking five North Korean asylum seekers, while 2003 began with a territorial dispute over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands, a group of islands about 200 miles east of Wenzhou, China. Lastly, 2005 erupted with a second edition of the 2001 junior high school Japanese history book, which, it is reported, further glossed over Japanese war crimes, resulting in Chinese mass protests of the Japanese government continually denying criminal documentation of the past. With protestors destroying Japanese-brand cars, constructing anti-Japanese slogans, defacing the Japanese embassy building in China, it is not hard to see the connection between Ip Man’s increased violence towards the Japanese karateka and the increased tension in Sino-Japanese political relations.[11]

Returning to the film; after witnessing the beating his karateka, General Miura asks to see Ip Man again. Though he refuses, the interpreter says otherwise. After finally tracking Ip Man down and holding him in a prison cell, General Miura asks him to teach his soldiers Wing Chun and to fight him in a match. In the same breath as asking Ip Man to teach Wing Chun, General Miura admits that he does not think Chinese martial arts are better than Japanese; he wanted to utilize Ip Man’s expertise to make his soldiers better. With that, Ip Man refuses to teach, criticizing the Japanese military and attitude, as the current state of both (ultranationalistic) would not harmonize with the principles of Wing Chun. Throughout the duel, Ip Man has flashbacks of him training and drilling on the wooden dummy at home, emphasizing what film professor David Martin-Jones says in his 2014 article as a “specific type of identifiable Chinese heritage” – the martial arts. Ip Man, being a martial arts master, is the “foregrounded [in] nationalism,” quickly becoming Foshan’s icon again to defend the city’s honor against the Japanese invaders. This image of the city’s icon further solidifies when Ip Man beats General Miura and the latter’s right-hand man shoots Ip Man, causing the crowd of Foshan citizens to riot and transport Ip Man’s wounded body away from the conflict.[12]

Such focus on a martial artist as an icon or figure to help save the honor or the face of China occurs in the second installment of Ip Man’s adventures in Ip Man 2 (2010). In the second installment, after escaping the Sino-Japanese conflict of the Second World War and the Communist takeover, Ip Man travels to British-controlled Hong Kong and opens a Wing Chun school. Historically, Yip Man, being an officer in the Kuomintang party, moved to Hong Kong in 1949 after the Communist Party won the civil war.[13] This is where the film separates from reality. Ip Man, when trying to establish his own school of Wing Chun, encounters hostilities from the surrounding Chinese schools, forcing him to pay into a martial arts society that ultimately lands in the hands of a corrupt British police officer. As the film continues, the British bring in a boxer by the name of Twister for a boxing competition. During the opening ceremonies, the local Chinese martial artists hold a demonstration, where Twister jokes that their martial arts are more alike to dancing than actual fighting. After knocking out a volunteer tasked to punch Twister as hard as he could, the other Chinese martial artists rush into the ring to exact revenge on Twister, but his team holds them back. When there is a calm between the two opposing forces, Hung Chun-nam, the head of the Hong Kong martial arts society, challenges Twister to a match. As Hung suffers from asthma in the later rounds of the challenge, Twister beats him to death in the ring, causing outrage among the Chinese populous. Ip Man challenges Twister to a public match and, in a very Rocky-esque turn of events, emerges the victor.[14]

Ip Man and Twister face off to in a double effort to defend Chinese nationalistic honor and to prove boxing is superior. Source: ResearchGate.

Again, it is important to note that Ip Man 2 demonstrates the same anti-foreigner sentiment from its predecessor, pitting Chinese martial arts against Western boxing. Eventually emerging as the victor, Chinese martial arts struggled to maintain its dominance in the film, especially when Twister kills the steadfast Hung, saying that it is better to die for Chinese martial arts than let a Western win. Once more, a martial artist puts the pride of his country, China, before his wellbeing. And once more, Ip Man becomes the national figure, the icon, and symbol to save not Foshan’s honor, but all of China’s honor in the face of Western/British imperialism.[15]

Ip Man 3 focuses more on the theme of death and Ip Man’s acceptance of his wife’s slow suffering from cancer. The film plays down the usual themes of pro-Chinese nationalism and anti-foreigner sentiment compared to the other three installments in the series.

Moving onto the final film in the Ip Man series, Ip Man 4, the film parallels the plot and theme as the series’ second installment on many levels while only the environment changes. In Ip Man 2, Twister served as the racist foreigner, now it is Marine Corps gunnery sergeant Barton Geddes, the role of Hung Chun-nam is now Master Wan Zonghua, leader of the Chinese Benevolent Association, and both films share the same theme, racism. How each installment portrays racism, however, differs from each other. YouTuber Accented Cinema explains in his 2020 video essay that the racism portrayed in the final installment is a much more mature version of the social issue than Ip Man 2’s more childish version. To prove his conclusion, he proceeds to compare Twister’s with Geddes’ behavior regarding their treatment of others. As mentioned before, Twister blatantly insults the Chinese martial arts, but in doing so, his racist rants make even those closest to him uncomfortable. From the film, Twister only “acts one way” and is without any depth of character. Therefore, Accented Cinema goes on to conclude that the English Boxer is less of a racist than a “general egocentric asshole.” When looking at Geddes’ character, it is plain to see that though he holds a racist streak like Twister, the Marine gunnery sergeant can remain calm and civil, allowing him to work with others to achieve his end goals, as he did with his camp’s karate instructor and with United States Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) officer Andrew Walters. Already, there is some depth to Geddes’ character than Twister. Furthermore, Geddes believes himself not to be a racist, as he insults an African-American Marine by yelling, “I hate you because you’re a cowardly colored!” and proceeds to stomp the kneeling Marine to the ground. This brutality doled out to minorities within the camp rears its ugly head when Marine Corps staff sergeant Hartman Wu attempts to include Wing Chun into the Corps’ training program. Geddes, in response, chooses to “punish every single Chinese person in the camp,” by commanding them to run thirty extra laps. Additionally, the gunnery sergeant proceeds to burn the wooden Wing Chun dummy in a not-so-subtle nod to the Ku Klux Klan’s cross burning – further solidifying Geddes’ race-based hatred and motive.[16]

Marine Corps gunnery sergeant Barton Geddes, played by Scott Akins. Source: Ip Man Wiki Fandom.

Wu is not deterred, as he approaches the senior officer at the camp, and to his and the audience’s surprise, the commanding officer expressed interest in including Wing Chun into the camp’s training curriculum despite the disdain and ire of Geddes. It is here that Accented Cinema points out a character depth the angry Marine gunnery sergeant possesses that the English boxer does not: Geddes focuses the problem he has with Wu trying to integrate Wing Chun into the training program as an “us versus them” frame while Twister frames his hatred as he is the best, even among his English cohorts. What is surprising to note is the gunnery sergeant’s culture, while American (proclaiming that everyone is “lucky enough” to come to America and “step foot on our soil”), his main culture is Japanese karate, though “never once acknowledging its origin.” Karate is as much part of Geddes’ identity as Wing Chun is to Ip Man, however, as Accented Cinema continues to point out, karate originated from Asia, much like Wing Chun but the gunnery sergeant creates an “arbitrary” line between what he does and what others do.[17] It is also important to note karate’s supposed elevation above Wing Chun and Kung Fu, referencing the film series’ first installment with the Japanese occupiers and to Bruce Lee’s Fist of Fury. With Ip Man 4, the creators seem to be combining both the anti-Japanese and anti-foreigner rhetoric and themes into the character of Geddes, almost evidently making it easier to hate and despise the character.

There is one more character in the final installment that demonstrates racism almost to the same standard as Geddes: Master Wan Zonghua. While the hatred for foreigners is a shared characteristic between Wan and his Ip Man 2 counterpart, Hung Chun-nam, the latter ultimately demonstrates his love and loyalty to his Chinese brethren and culture through his actions; Wan’s actions, in comparison, demonstrates the exact opposite. Firstly, as the film progresses, Wan continually shows his disdain for white people outside of San Francisco’s Chinatown, at times referring to them as “outsiders.” His demonstrations of his hatred for the “oppressors” continue up to a point where he “basically hates all white people” and is as racist in his actions and thinking as Geddes, to where the hatred is wholly justified. This hatred of outsiders that resides within Wan manifests itself towards other Chinese people, namely Ip Man and Bruce Lee. Accented Cinema labels the Chinese Benevolent Association leader as a “reactionary racist,” further stating that anyone who does not share the same level of disdain for white people as he does are no allies to him. Since Lee is actively teaching white students Kung Fu and Ip Man does not have a real issue with Lee’s actions, the two martial artists, to Wan, have relinquished their Chinese status and are no better than the white outsiders.[18]

The final battle between Ip Man and Barton Geddes. Source: Film Combat Syndicate.

In the final and climatic battle, Ip Man emerges victorious over Geddes, but only after the latter defeated Wan, much like how Ip Man 2 played out. What is different here is the lack of joy and happiness demonstrated by the Marine onlookers, compared to that of the Chinese audience in the second film. It is not a feelgood moment, but rather a “cold and somber” moment, where everyone who watched Geddes’ defeat knows that “this fight won’t change a thing” at the camp. Sure, the gunnery sergeant was defeated, and a foe was overcome, however, the sergeant was not proven wrong nor was he convinced otherwise of his racist views – there was no character growth for him and the Marines watching knew that. Contrast that scene with Ip Man 2’s final scene and the Chinese audience rejoices in Twister’s defeat as Ip Man gives a speech about respecting each individual’s race and culture. It is that happy ending that many films want to accomplish, however, Ip Man 4 seems to realize that though one has defeated an enemy, there will always be more. However, it should be noted that, as Accented Cinema points out, Geddes does not represent America as a whole, but rather just an extreme facet of it. There are “normal [American] people” throughout the film. Firstly, there is Bruce Lee students, which have a mixture of white, Asian, and even African-American pupils, demonstrating the diversity Lee wanted to see in Chinese martial arts. Secondly, there is the commanding officer of the Marine camp; he had no qualms in seeing how Wing Chun could enhance the training program and readily accepted staff sergeant Hartman Wu’s proposal. Lastly, there are teachers within the private school Ip Man attempts to enroll his son in who judge students fairly, based on actions.[19] In a way, while the film strongly emphasizes racism and differences between cultures, there are plenty of examples that prove there can be diversity and cohesion between different peoples and culture.

This is the first part of a two-part article. Read the second part here.

[1] Lu Zhouxiang, Qi Zhang, and Fan Hong, “Projecting the ‘Chineseness’: Nationalism, Identity and Chinese Martial Arts Films,” International Journal of the History of Sport 31, no. 3 (February 2014): 322–24; Zhou Xuelin, “Genre, War, Ideology: Anti-Japanese War Films in Taiwan and Mainland China,” Chinese Studies in History 49, no. 4 (Summer 2016): 233, 238–40.

[2] It is important to note that in the American release, the distributing company changed the title to The Chinese Connection.

[3] Lo Wei, The Chinese Connection, (Golden Harvest, 1972); a hakama are trousers worn in both civilian life and martial arts training in Japan.

[4] Splendid Film, Interview Met Regisseur Wilson Yip, 2010, accessed February 7, 2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BBoUwI-QjDk; Zhouxiang, Zhang, and Hong, “Projecting the ‘Chineseness,’” 324.

[5] Wei, The Chinese Connection.

[6] Wei.

[7] Dan Knight, “Ip Man’s Biography,” March 7, 2014, accessed February 13, 2019, http://www.kwokwingchun.com/about-wing-chun/ip-mans-wing-chun/ip-mans-biography/; Wilson Yip, Ip Man, Martial Arts (Mandarin Films, 2008).

[8] It is interesting to note that Ip Man and his family stays with the interpreter/collaborator for a few nights, demonstrating another side to a man’s reasons to align themselves with his country’s enemies, i.e., he had his own family and extended family staying with him and he was the only one to secure a job to provide for them.

[9] Yip, Ip Man.

[10] Yip; Paul Bramhall, “How ‘Ip Man’ Made Donnie Yen ‘The Man,’” Cityonfire.Com (blog), April 20, 2016, accessed February 6, 2019, http://cityonfire.com/how-ip-man-made-donnie-yen-the-man-history-filmography-feature-news/.

[11] Su-Jeong Kang, “Anti-Japanese Popular Nationalism and China’s Approach Towards Japan amid Sino-Japanese Political Tension, 2001–2006,” East Asia 30, no. 2 (June 1, 2013): 162–67, 170.

[12] David Martin-Jones, “Remembering the Body: Deleuze’s Recollection-Image, and the Spectacle of Physical Memory in Yip Man/Ip Man (2008),” Journal of Chinese Cinemas 8, no. 2 (May 2014): 111, 114.

[13] Knight, “Ip Man’s Biography.”

[14] Wilson Yip, Ip Man 2, Martial Arts (Golden Harvest, 2010).

[15] Zhouxiang, Zhang, and Hong, “Projecting the ‘Chineseness,’” 330; Yip, Ip Man 2.

[16] Accented Cinema, Ip Man 4: How to Write Racism | Video Essay, 2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CAFMXrMl23c.

[17] Accented Cinema.

[18] Accented Cinema.

[19] Accented Cinema.


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