It is time for another quick roundup of news articles dealing with the Chinese martial arts, and martial studies more generally. This week there a clear theme emerged as I was looking at the news, steampunk! I know right, two great tastes that taste great together. For those of you who may be out of the loop steampunk is a fantasy genera that focuses on weird tales of science and adventure, usually set in a highly romanticized 19th century setting. Material culture often plays an important part of both the overall aesthetic and plot of these stories. Fans of the steampunk genera often find a great deal of meaning and fulfillment in the culture, speech and life-ways of these pseudo-victorian stories.
Still, it goes without saying that these are not your great-great-grandmothers 1880s. The sorts of political themes, gender roles and plot devices that this fiction revolves around have a lot more to do with with our modern social concerns than anything that Lord Bulwer-Lytton might have put in one of his novels. The most popular examples of this sort of story telling at the moment would have to be the Robert Downey Jr. Sherlock Holmes movies. “Hugo” would be another recent movie that drew heavily on this aesthetic.
The really interesting thing is that this fictional aesthetic has a lot in common with the more common modes of Kung Fu story telling that we see in both China and the west. Both of these are highly romantic re-imaginings of a fanciful 19th century past. Both of these sets of stories focus on the question of identity in the face of growing industrialization and globalization. Finally, both sorts of stories feature people in outlandishly imagined historical clothing setting the wrongs of history to right with nothing except their bare hands!
In fact, we are not the first ones to notice the cross-over potential here. Robert Downey Jr. is a vocal supporter of Wing Chun and he made a special point of showcasing his style in the last two films. Of course it all worked wonderfully as the enigmatic Sherlock Holmes was reputed to be a master of the Asian fighting arts, a subject that actually did command great interest in late 19th century England. We will talk more about the UK’s only “consulting detective” in a moment. First we need to examine a new film, produced in China, that promises to bring these two generas together in a much louder way.
Tai Chi 0: Steam Punk Kung Fu is directed by Stephen Fung with fight choreography by Samo Hung. The film is loosely based on the life of Yang Lu-Chan, the founder of Yang style Taiji Boxing. I missed the part of his biography where he was forced to fight a group of menacing steampunk soldiers to rescue a town and get the girl, but that doesn’t seem to have stopped the script writers. As the trailer states, this film was a product of the “same creative team that brought you Ip Man and Detective Dee.” If what I can find on the internet is any guide I would expect a lot more of the later than the former.
Obviously a project like this creates plenty of room for historical purists to step in and decry the role of globalization in destroying the traditional Chinese martial arts. I think that such criticisms almost always miss the mark. The truth is that the modern Chinese martial arts are a distinctly modern adaptation to a modern set of market conditions. They may have their roots in the ancient past but the filter of the 19th century left an indelible mark on them, and globalization was a big part of that process. Maybe movies like this will have the positive side effect of reminding us that the Chinese martial arts were not created in a mountain top temple in some idyllic past. Rather, most of what we know was the product of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, an industrialized era with plenty of trains, steam ships and firearms to go around.
Ok, so what if steampunk just isn’t your style. You still want to be “old school,” but without the gratuitous use of gears and goggles. Check out the following article on Bartitsu:
Bartitsu is basically a steampunk themed martial art dating back to the actual age of steam. Currently this Victorian period self-defense art is going through a massive revival. We can thank Sherlock Holmes for at least some of the press coverage that the art is getting. After all, while we have all seen Holmes doing Wing Chun on screen, true fans of the books will remember that this is the only martial art that he ever actually studied. As a matter of fact, Bartitsu was the first martial art studied by lots of gentlemen in the UK.
Again, Bartitsu is an interesting reminder that globalization is not a new phenomenon and it had a massive impact on all kinds of things in the late 19th century. Far from the modern Chinese martial arts being something that is threatened by globalization, they, like bartitsu, were forged in this environment and they tend to do rather well in the market opportunities that it creates.
While the recent movies have no doubt been a boon to those individuals trying to resurrect Bartitsu, the effort has been under way for some years now. You can learn more about this traditional western martial art here or here. While not directly part of the steampunk movement one cannot help but notice that a certain common historical nostalgia appears to be driving both of these projects.
Lastly the young men behind “chineselongsword.com” (one of my favorite Chinese martial arts webpages) have been making a name for themselves. They were recently profiled in a newspaper in Shanghai. You can find an English language translation of the article below.
Briefly this article discusses the struggles of these young students to use their varied martial and educational backgrounds to interpret and bring to life classic Chinese swordsmanship manuals. While I am not sure that I always agree with the recreations that they come up with, I have immense respect for the project that this group is undertaking. It is also interesting to note that the sort of martial research they are doing is much closer to what we typically see in the Western Historical Martial Arts. Further, they are interpreting the ancient Chinese Sword arts through the lens of Kendo (a Japanese school of fencing).
It appears that Singapore’s uniquely global environment has created both challenges and opportunities for this group. On the one hand the language barriers have been undeniable. Yet on the other, they have had ready access to other martial arts (where a combative tradition survived) to use as test bed. What role the rise of the European historical martial arts, with their strong emphasis on textual research, had on this project is an interesting question. If nothing else these parallels might simply indicate that the changing technologies brought about by globalization are altering the way that young people approach the reconstruction of the ancient fighting arts around the world.