Critical review of a new book: David Smith, Southern Shaolin Hung Kuen, An Historical Perspective, Bristol 2013.
My Personal Bias
I am part of the lineage of which Mr. Smith is speaking about so please keep that in mind when reading this review. I am very critical of this book, its attitude, its erratic nature, and its complete disrespect for the people that helped Mr. Smith along his journey in Hung4 Gaa1. That said, I will do my best to limit my review to academic standards and leave my personal opinions out. If they come through in what I write please know these are my personal judgments of his behavior based on my own standards of mou5dak1. To that end I speak only for myself and no one else.
From the first page it is clear the book is self-published with absolutely NO editing done. There are an unbelievable amount of grammatical and typographical errors. This “book” is written as though it was transcribed from dictation and follows a highly erratic stream of consciousness at best. There is no format or layout whatsoever. It does not follow the most basic rules of grammar or sentence structure. The language used is that of a casual conversation and not that of the written language. It jumps around and is frankly exhausting to read. From a professional/academic standard I am embarrassed for anyone who endorsed or put his or her name in this highly unprofessional book.
Standards of Academic Research
The book does not follow simple academic standards of research (http://www.ncddr.org/kt/products/focus/focus9/). Instead it is filled with conjecture and personal opinions that are not backed up by references to any sources. Standards of academic research would warrant historical references regarding the basic history of Southern China during this time period. This information is readily available at most academic institutions. Instead the only historical references cited are from Wikipedia and several online kung fu forums. Obviously these cannot be considered authoritative sources since they are open sites where individuals can anonymously voice any opinion as though they are an authority on the subject but without any references.
There are 11 textbooks listed as references yet none of which are about the art of Hung4Gaa1.
Before the digital era, a publishing company and editor would have seen through this lack of basic research standards and there is no way this text would have gone to press. However, in the modern age, anyone can self-publish and although this may be of benefit in certain cases it also leaves a big gap in quality control. This book is a prime example of the need for editors, peer-review, and general spell checking. There is no quality control and my copy of the book has a horrible printing error whereby every odd-numbered page has fuzzy fonts so it feels like you are reading cross-eyed. Since I am part of the spoken lineage in the book my curiosity got the best of me and I managed to read it from cover to cover. However there is absolutely no way I can imagine how an average reader would subject themselves to the language and printing errors.
Historical interviews are listed as references. These interviews, however, were either general class lectures from Mr. Smith’s previous si1fu6or ironically provided to him by the very people he is so aggressively trying to discredit. In other words, Mr. Smith attempts to research the history of this lineage yet the only interviews mentioned were conducted by those he wants to disprove. Despite not referencing other sources Mr. Smith has the gall to somehow claim insight into these interviews on a level missed by those who conducted them.
The Author’s Personal Bias
Mr. Smith has not been a part of this lineage since 1995. He trained with Sigung Hasbrouck from 1985-1995. Until a couple of years ago the only other information he received about this lineage was through his former hing1dai6. The majority of that support came through the person he is most critical of in the text who happens to be my si1fu6, Evert van der Meulen.
A dilemma for the reader is that Mr. Smith presents himself as an authority from this lineage, claiming to have trained in it for nearly thirty years and being a 7th Dan Master Coach. However the reality of his history with this lineage is quite different. Although he may have continued to practice the material which he was taught in the 80’s, he has also trained heavily in other arts (particularly wing chun and escrima). He has had no further guidance in this system from his original si1fu6or a si1fu6 from another lineage of Hung4Gaa1 during this time. He never met, interviewed, or trained with the person he claims to represent in this text, namely si1zou2 Lai4 Ng5 Sam1, 黎伍深. Knowing that he has not had any further guidance in this system, and that his text lacks the most basic references, the reader is left wondering where his knowledge comes from. The answer, of course, is quite obvious.
Mr. Smith makes some very basic errors in regards to standards of translation. Specifically he seems confused on the translations of a letter dictated by si1zou2 Lai4 Ng5 Sam1, and written by his daughter Betty. This letter was dictated at si1zou2 Lai4’s deathbed and explained the history of his journey in martial arts. It also named si1gung1 Jeff Hasbrouck as his successor. Mr. Smith presents a critical view of the various translations of this document and seems to miss some of the basic cultural aspects of the Chinese language. Although there are certainly colloquialisms unique to each area of China, the written language is largely standardized. Translation of a text therefore is generally not limited to native speakers of Mandarin, Cantonese, Fukienese, etc. These differences in dialect become very important when discussing theory about the inner workings of a martial art or the interpretations of classical martial poems but not in something as basic as the history of our lineage clearly laid out in the dictated letter. That said, anyone who has done professional translation work will know there are always differences in interpretation between different translators. This is common because language is about expression of a concept and each individual will relate to word choice differently. Mr. Smith is arguing for translation inaccuracies to back up his theories yet it works against him. Rather, he simply demonstrates his basic lack of how to approach translation.
These translation errors show up multiple times in the book and seem to play a role in the “logic” of his arguments. One such translation error is in the name of the historical figure Jan1 Gung1 Sim4 Si1 (甄公禪師). Mr. Smith misreads the character for Jan1甄, as the character for mouse, 鼠. Although these characters may look similar to the untrained eye they are quite different and the word mouse is pronounced, syu2 in Cantonese and not jan1. Mr. Smith’s incorrect assumption is that Jan1 Gung1 Sim4 Si1’s was given his name in reference to his special mouse-stepping skills but this makes no sense given the pronunciation.
A second major translation error is in relationship to the form Jau4 Lung4 Baat3 Gwaa3 Kyun4, 游龍八卦拳. Because Mr. Smith is working off Romanization of the name of the set he makes the basic error of thinking jau4 is pronounced “jow” as in zau1 gaa1, 周家. However it is actually the character for swimming, 游 which is pronounced “yow” and entirely different than the pronunciation of the character, 周, zau1.
At the end of the book Mr. Smith even goes so far as to state that the wing6 cyun4 form Siu Lien Tao, 小念頭 was likely a misrepresentation of the words Siu Lam Dao (Siu Lam Sword, 少林刀). This, once again, clearly demonstrates a basic lack of knowledge of the Chinese language, which is built upon pictographs that cannot be misinterpreted in that way. This type of error would typically draw concern to any other translation work included in this text — except that in this case there is none. The only Chinese language reference is the deathbed letter from si1zou2 Lai4 Ng5 Sam1 and Mr. Smith did not translate that himself.
Implications of the Text
As a member of the family in question I certainly approached this text with a curiosity. On a personal level I was disgusted by Mr. Smith’s attitude towards his si1fu6 and si1hing1 throughout the book. I was personally offended by his attitude towards my teacher and his complete lack of respect for the history of support he received from him. None of this, however, need reflect on the substance of the text. These are just my personal opinions.
The book attempts to paint a picture of si1zou2 Lai4 Ng5 Sam1 as representing a branch of Southern Siu Lam arts that predated, and influenced, the formation of the modern Hung Kyun of Wong Fei Hung. Being from this lineage I find this story rather interesting. However, I left the book with far more questions and an overall strong doubt of his argument due to the erratic nature of the text, the lack of references, poor translation, and the very clearly emotionally driven attacks on his previous teachers that are throughout the text. If Mr. Smith’s goal was to present weight to his theory he has done a very poor job of it using any academic criteria. The crux of Mr. Smith’s argument seems to be saying that si1zou2 Lai4 Ng5 Sam1’steacher, Haang4 Jat1 Sau3 (行一繡) was a training brother of Zau1 Lung4 (周龍) and both were students of Jan1 Gung1 Sim4 Si1 (甄公禪師). A cursory look at the forms of our family, however, quickly reveals that we do not practice zau1 gaa1, 周家. This is something that an outsider would recognize quickly, let alone someone who claims to be an authority of this family line.
Personally speaking I am relieved to say he is not part of this lineage as this degree of unprofessionalism is disgraceful. Such grandiose claims need to be substantiated by solid research and not just personal conjecture. Presenting a radically new theory on the evolution of Southern Chinese martial arts without serious references only demonstrates the erratic ramblings of a person’s mind. It might be interesting discussion over a cup of tea but would require substantial research if one really wanted to publish a book of any value. I did not walk away with the feeling that this book is the result of decades of serious research but rather the ranting of someone who wants to present himself as an authority on a subject in which he has not done any solid investigation.
On a personal level the questions regarding the life and history of si1zou2 Lai4 Ng5 Sam1 remain. As I have openly discussed on this forum before, there are certain aspects of his life that are known to us but there is much more that is unknown and lost. What remains is the lineage of gung fu he passed down to si1gung1 Jeff Hasbrouck and what Jeff passed down to my si1fu6, Evert van der Meulen. Most of this information was recorded on video in the late 1980’s when si1gung1 Hasbouck first came back from living in Hong Kong. The broad nature of the curriculum leaves many questions for the practitioner. Where did these sets come from? Who did si1zou2 Lai4 Ng5 Sam1 learn them from? When were they introduced to the curriculum (what generation)? Most of these details are regrettably lost to history.
There have been a few solid discoveries in the research of Evert vd Meulen and it is likely these findings that stimulated Mr. Smith to make his claims. However, just making an observation does not equate to being an expert — these types of hypotheses need to be researched, fact-checked, critiqued, peer-reviewed, edited, etc. This is how academic research is done. Anything less is really just conjecture in the end. Interesting? Maybe. Fact? Definitely not.
The lineage of si1zou2 Lai4 Ng5 Sam1 is very broad and contains a few sets that standout as being rather “special”. Mr. Smith noted this in his text. From the perspective of my teacher and myself there are a couple of sets that stand out as being rather unique. The presence of these sets in our curriculum does not make us special however. Any martial artist knows that what makes an art special is how we train and develop ourselves. Lineage means NOTHING if you do not delve deeply into the art itself. The presence of these sets leaves us with interesting questions about the life of si1zou2 Lai4 Ng5 Sam1. That is all.
One example of a set we have very concrete questions about is with the form Coeng4 Dyun2 Kyun4/長短拳.
This set was classified as one of three wing6 cyun4 sets within our curriculum by si1zou2 Lai4. In September 2007 my si1fu6, Evert vd Meulen , was invited to Malaysia by Eric Ling to present some of the martial arts of our family (http://www.martialartsgathering.com/masters.html). At that time he had the chance to interact directly with the heads of various families of both Hung Kyun and other martial arts such as wing6 cyun4 and zau1 gaa1. He came away from this interaction with several new questions that remain unanswered for our family. My si1fu6 demonstrated the set Coeng4 Dyun2 Kyun4 to Sifu Ku Choy Wah (http://www.martialartsgathering.com/wingchun.html), a Ban Chung Wing Chun teacher (http://banchungwingchun.webs.com). Si1fu6 Ku stated this set was known as Siu2 Ng5 Haang4 Kyun4, 小五行拳 (Small Five Elements Fist) and was only taught to inner door students. This interview was recorded and only four people were present – Evert vd Meulen, si1fu6 Ku Choy Wah, Kieron Draper (a former student of si1gung1Hasbrouck and si1dai6 of Evert), and Patrick Tham (a student of si1fu6 Ku).
What this interview proves is minimal. Mostly it shows that si1zou2 Lai4 had access to relatively special sets of other systems than just Hung Kyun. Where, how, why? Regrettably none of that is answered.
In that interaction Evert vd Meulen was able to compare the differences in flavors and movements between our two sets but that is all. Before this meeting the significance of this set was lost to our family. We just knew it as one more form from the lineage of si1zou2 Lai4. After the interaction we may have more respect for the “specialness” of his curriculum but we still do not know where it comes from or how he came to learn it or from whom. For us it only adds one more layer of unanswered questions. While it is certainly enjoyable and entertaining to come up with theories of how si1zou2 Lai4 had this knowledge, it is simply unknown. I have spent much time on the review of this book for obvious reasons and don’t care to put more time into dialogue concerning Mr. Smith’s stream of consciousness. However, I always welcome any intelligent and thoughtful discussions on the history of my lineage and on forms such as the above mentioned. I hope my fellow practitioners have found my review useful.
Book link: David Smith, Southern Shaolin Hung Kuen, An Historical Perspective, Bristol 2013.