The play between the different forms of Chinese boxing (or martial arts) in Sour Sweet -- sui lum, tai chi, hun gar, white crane, modern, traditional, western, southern, northern -- parallel and come to symbolize issues of national identity, methods of empowerment, and gender relations. Boxing is gendered in Sour Sweet. Some schools or methods of martial art like tai chi are typically taught to girls, and their strategies are based on typically feminine qualities. However, Lily's father chooses to teach her a masculine style of boxing; "no 'soft' or 'internal' style for Lily, with their passive, yielding techniques such as girls usually studied (there being nothing extraordinary about a female master, let alone a girl student)... instead she was to be versed in all the pristine vigour and southern form of siu lum temple boxing" (11). Boxing was not entirely tied to biological sex, for Father has no qualms about teaching it to Lily, but when she reached puberty, it becomes obvious that sui lum boxing is best suited to a typically male physique.
At ten [lily] reached puberty. Her chest began to pout, her hips widened in proportion to her shoulders, and the end result of this structural rearranging of her body was that she no longer had the physique to punch, chop or slash, although her kicking, balancing and stretching abilities were enhanced. In disgust her father stopped teaching her. His decision was not brought about by any tardy recognition of his daughter's gender but by horror that her movements were becoming increasingly more similar to those of the despised and feared northern stylists. (14)
Thus, the book shows a confusion in gendered boxing methods, as Lily's father adapts them to fit the cirucmstances in which he finds himself. This trend of compromise and adapting traditional customs (and gender norms) continues throughout the novel as the characters adapt to western custom and circumstances.
In Sour Sweet the martial arts parallel changes in society as well as the influence of colonialism. One of the Triad members comments on the sui lum method of boxing, saying that, "it was not a system which had any place in the modern world. . . Some practical abridgement was necessary" (231). Lily herself adapts her training to son in order to make it more compassionate, and teaches him only what he feels he needs to know. She adapts her short training session to his strengths. His is a "good kicker. Either way, father would not have been pleased" (232). Changes in fighting methods document changing technology and the impact of colonialism; both guns and Man Kee's football practice are Western traditions and technology.
Lily disapproves of firecrackers because she " remembered Father impressing on her how no serious boxer could ever use guns in a private affair. One would have to be a traitor to the entire tradition. (He remembered the patriots of 1900, whose spells had not been proof against foreign lead.)" (156). Interestingly enough, gunpowder was invented by the chinese and used for firecrackers; it was the West which used it to manufacture the guns with which they defeated the Chinese. Lily's father himself was killed by a bullet.
Changes in society require different strategies towards acquiring power, and different boxing methods reflect different strategies towards gaining power in changing situations. Discussions of the triad hierarchy about how to take control over the city documents their changing methods towards power. They discard traditional methods of acquiring control as too inflexible. Her father,
too, knew the classical teaching method of blind repetition and stereotyped drilling was ineffectual and time consuming. It produced weak, predictable boxers. Fighting couldn't be planned. Moves were improvised on the moment; it was pure instinct translated into movement. (116)
Modern conditions require flexibility, innovativeness, and creativity. Methods of indirection, manipulation, flat-out confrontation are chosen according to their effectiveness. Different situations require different approaches, a principle symbolized by the different types of boxing. When deciding how to take control in different situations -- consolidating an extortion ring in the city, removing Red Cudgel from power, inspiring faith in underlings advertising Dah Ling restaurant, facing the tax collectors, fighting bullies at Man Kee's school, negotiating with Chen, or attacking the molester at the airport -- Lily and other characters use different strategies, adapting traditional Chinese methods, as well as prescribed gender roles, in order to fit the situation.
Mo documents shifts in gender and national identity and native practice. Like Suleri, who tells of her ignorance of the true nature of kapura, Lily, Grass Sandal, and other characters are unable to remember precise ingredients for traditional foods, thus questioning whether there really is an authentic Chinese culture. However, unlike Suleri, the characters in Mo do not feel a need to maintain some sort of base, to preserve some concepts as sacred, or to refuse certain substitutions. Rather, the model of cultural change and adaptation is evolutionary, subject to natural selection, and similar to that of Lily's estimation of the trajectory of families:
According to this model, there is nothing wrong with even the society of the Pine block Maoris, except that it is unsuccessful and doomed to fail.
In her experience there was no stand-still in life. Families rose and fell. there was a deadly rivalry between them. Their members were united against a hostile conspiring world. If one generation didn't climb, then the next declined, or the one after that; it wouldn't maintain that level. (7)