Cultural Appropriation of Global Kung Fu Culture?
Lately I have been thinking quite a bit about the question of cultural appropriation in the martial arts. Setting aside the historical questions for a second, at this point in history, who actually “owns” the traditional Chinese martial arts? Is it the Chinese? If so, who? Traditional teachers? Government bureaucrats? Writers and producers of popular fiction?
Alternatively, is it possible that through the medium of globalization these hand combat schools have become so metropolitan and commercialized that they can tell any story we wish to project. On the one hand this would be great for martial artists (such as myself) in the west who want to use Kung Fu as a tool for personal empowerment. On the other hand it must surely be distressing for social planners and traditional masters in China who wish to use the martial arts to reinforce something unique about the Chinese identity or nationalism. They are clearly OK with receiving the adulation of the global community and Kung Fu has proved to be a powerful tool of public diplomacy. Yet the thought of those same global audiences seizing editorial control of the “Chinese” martial arts can be distressing to some. When you realize that a number of Chinese styles (including some popular ones, such as Wing Chun) now have vastly more students and teachers outside of China than in, these questions become even more pressing.
This is a story that is just beginning to get traction in public discussion within the traditional Chinese martial arts community, but it is something that we are going to hear a lot more of in the future. The increased popularity of the Chinese martial arts in the west mixed with a more assertive brand of nationalism emerging out of China almost guarantees it. As a matter of fact, we already started to hear strong rumblings about inappropriate cultural appropriation just before the release of the second Kung Fu Panda film. A number of important voices in popular Chinese culture called for a boycott of the film. In their minds the entire series was “too American” and in no way appropriate for Chinese children.
In the case of Kung Fu Panda these efforts never got very far. A number of other voices within China argued that at least some of those claims were overwrought. Still, this is an issue to watch for. Who owns the traditional arts of China, and should they be subject to the same norms regarding “cultural appropriation” that have become common place when dealing with the traditions and arts of other groups, such as the First Peoples of North America?
Virtual Combat, Panda Style
If something as innocuous (and genuinely wholesome) as Kung Fu Panda could cause problems, hold onto to your seats because there is a new crew of mystical Panda monks in town wielding almost divine Kung Fu. Blizzard, the maker of the popular MMORPG The World of Warcraft (WoW), has recently released a new expansion pack titled the Mists of Pandaria. Consumers will once again be treated to large anthropomorphic panda bears with a taste for Kung Fu and awesomeness. There is a lot I don’t understand about the entertainment world. One of the things I just don’t get is how Blizzard is avoiding a crushing copyright suit given that they are pretty much ripping this stuff off from another entertainment property. Sure you are letting your customers customize their characters, but at what point does this become a copyright infringement kit?
For those of you who are serious gamers, the actual reviews of the new content has been mixed. Some WoW players like the new monk class and find that the expansion pack generally delivers what it promises. On the other hand, this is an extension pack for a game and graphics engine that is close to a decade old and starting to show its age. Other reviewers have noted that they don’t find WoW’s combat system to be a good match with the Kung Fu antics promised by Pandaria.
For those of us who don’t play WoW, I think the most important thing about Panadaria is what it demonstrates about the changing place of the traditional Chinese martial arts in modern popular culture. Video games seem to be quickly overtaking film as the major avenue by which young people are exposed to the martial arts. That is fascinating as films are a very passive medium. The audience sits back and it receives a story. This allows all sorts of cultural and factual knowledge to be transmitted. Games are interactive, and many of the current MMORPS allow players to tell their own stories.
Film managed to convey to the west much of the “Hung Mun” system of beliefs and norms about the martial arts, complete with the mythology of the southern Shaolin temple. The end result of this commercial process was the “Bruce Lee Phenomenon” and the popularization of a certain set of predominantly Cantonese martial arts. But when you look at the much more fragmented video game industry its not clear that anyone is in charge of the distribution of information, or that any of the norms being conveyed are “Chinese” at all, except in the most shallow and orientalizing sense.
At this point its hard to know what this all means and how the rise of gaming will effect global martial culture. Nevertheless, WoW currently has over nine million subscribers, many of whom spend a lot of time and money on this game. The Pandaria expansion pack is guaranteed to reach a large audience.
Of course not everyone is a fan of highly complex (and addictive) MMORPGs. If you are looking for a little 1980s style retro fun you might want to try Buddha Finger. Like all good martial arts games this one comes complete with your own enigmatic “Sifu.”
RZA’s Kung Fu Masterpiece: Using the Martial Arts Movie to Project American Popular Culture.
RZA, musician, Wu Tang Clan member and now film maker has just released the trailer for his much anticipated film “The Man with the Iron Fists.” He has been seriously interested in the Chinese martial arts for some time and has had a lot to say about their cultural and aesthetic value here in the US, particularly with regards to the African-American urban experience. However, this is his first venture into the world of big budget film making and apparently it has been a learning experience.
Initial reviews of the film have been positive and Quentin Tarantino has agreed to “present” the film, which is a pretty substantial endorsement. You can see the trailer here. There isn’t going to be anything particularly subtle about this film, though RZA promises that character development is in fact central to the plot. I suspect that this might be a film in the same sort of mold as “Kill Bill,” in which case I will probably like it.
What ever else it is, it should be pretty cool. Which is not surprising given the fact that RZA has been producing “cool” on an industrial scale for a lot of years now. He is what we refer to in the social sciences as a “taste maker.” In fact, he is a very talented one with his own recognizable style.
This is where the discussion gets interesting as RZA loves the old Shaw brother films, but (if the trailer is accurate) the sorts of norms, style and story he is promoting are actually very different from what you might have seen at a theater in Chinatown in 1979. He likes Chinese films, and he pays homage to them. Yet at the same time he is using the genera to advance his own vision, which is an undeniably American one.
All of this is as it should be. RZA is a pretty serious artist and audiences expect to see him creating something unique. But I have to wonder how this is going to play in China with the anti-Kung Fu Panda crowd? Will they see this as an inappropriate exploitation of their beloved arts? Or alternatively, if audiences in Asia embrace his vision what impact will it have on martial arts story telling in China in the future?
Mourning the Loss of the Journal of Asian Martial Arts
For over two decades the Journal of Asian Martial Arts has published high quality articles on a number of aspects of martial studies. Some of the articles that they have published on the Chinese martial arts have been seminal. Unfortunately the evolution of the publishing industry has not been kind to them and in July of this year they announced that they were shutting down the journal.
All of this happened just before Kung Fu Tea went live and I never really had a chance to talk about it. With declining readership plaguing all aspects of the magazine industry this probably should not have been a great surprise. Still, I have a lot of wonderful memories of JAMA over the years.
This is also a tragedy for the field of Chinese martial studies. Given how few print outlets there have been for high quality writing, we can’t really afford this kind of a loss.
Nevertheless, it looks like the staff of JAMA are planning on going ahead with a few other projects, including a new webpage, electronically archiving their articles and putting out a few additional publications. The first one of these is just back from the printer and going to the mailer now. If you can’t wait it looks like there is also a kindle edition.
Asian Martial Arts: Constructive Thoughts and Practical Application is an edited publication containing literally dozens of articles. The volume is over 200 pages and has a number of pieces on both theory and practical techniques. I suspect that these were the articles that they had already received for this years publication run, which is now cancelled. I have ordered a copy and might review it after I have a chance to take a look at it. I also really hope that they continue to solicit and and publish new material, in one form or another. In a field as small as ours it hurts to loose a voice as respected as JAMA.
Kung Fu Tea is now on Facebook!
One final news item for the week. You can now follow Kung Fu Tea on Facebook. Facebook provides a certain degree of flexibility that is just not possible with a regular blog. I update the Facebook account with brief videos or links that I come across which might be interesting to readers of Kung Fu Tea. While the blog gets my serious writing the Facebook page serves as more of a notebook. It is also a less formal space and more amenable to discussion and conversation, so be sure to stop on by.
This week at the Facebook page we have:
1. An important essay by Robert Chu on southern Chinese pole fighting.
2. A number of videos of traditional Chinese archery and bow-making.
3. Video footage of monks in Fujian learning the wooden dummy.
4. Some great footage of the Wing Chun forms in the 1970s Kung Fu classic Stranger from Shaolin.