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Current Events, Martial Arts and Religion, Pop Culture Kung Fu

Chinese Martial Arts in the News: October 29th, 2012: Commercialization, Authenticity and Bruce Lee.

Welcome to the “Frankenstorm” edition of “Chinese martial arts in the news.”  Every few weeks I update readers about recent events and important developing trends.  If you have suggestions for a story that I should be watching feel free to drop me an email or leave a note in the comments section.

Tourists at the Shaolin Temple. Henan, 2012.

1. Chinese government warns temples against increased commercialism and privatization.

A couple of different news outlets ran a story in the last few days that could be of growing importance to traditional Chinese martial artists in the Buddhist and Daoist traditions.  The Chinese government has issued stern warnings about the increased commercialization and “profiteering” being promoted by temples across China.  As tourism grows there is an ever greater demand to find new ways to leverage these properties.  This has certainly been an issue at a number of temples connected to the traditional martial arts.  In many cases the businesses and restaurants surrounding a sacred site can overshadow the sanctuary itself.

It is interesting to see the government taking a stand on this particular cultural issue now.  However, reading between the lines I suspect that preserving the sanctity of the nation’s spiritual heritage actually isn’t their highest priority.  Instead the government seems to be increasingly concerned by the number of temples attempting to have IPOs and sell themselves on local or national stock exchanges as a way of raising capital.

There were rumors about the Shaolin temple in Henan doing this a few years back but nothing ever came of it.  So why would IPOs be a problem for the government?  The Chinese state has a very strong regulatory role in the nation’s religious marketplace.  In fact, the state basically licenses and owns the various religions.  And they “own” the temples too (remember, this is still a Marxist state).  Selling stocks in a temple would be a de facto move towards the privatization of religion, and the state is making a strong argument that they are now willing to accept that.

Will the “Octagon” survive in China’s crowded market for martial arts?

2. Will the UFC and MMA succeed in China?  Only time can tell, but the next year will present the rapidly growing sport with opportunities and challenges.

On November 10th the UFC will be holding it’s first sanctioned fight on Chinese soil (Macau).  The match headlines Cung Le, a Vietnamese-American fighter.  Mixed Martial Arts have been struggling to raise their profile in China and the UFC is actively trying to build a profitable brand.  The potential payouts are huge, but there are also a number of problems.  Not least among them is that China hasn’t exhibited much interest in MMA and doesn’t have a deep bench of “star fighters” to inspire consumers to buy tickets or other paraphernalia.  This is where Le comes in.  He is a popular figure in China and it is hoped that he will help to build an audience.

But here is my question.  Sanda and Sanshou already have a dedicated audience in China.  What happens to that market when the UFC tries to move in?  This is especially pressing considering the strong ties that these other sports have with the government and the official state controlled martial arts sector.  Is there room for three different combat sports in the Chinese market?

Bruce Lee remains an important icon in Hong Kong, fueling demand for some sort of permanent museum.

3. Bruce Lee’s Hong Kong home will go on sale ($23 million USD) after its owner and developer announced the failure to negotiate an agreement with the government.  As a condition of the sale the owner wanted to expand the property (by adding three additional floors and other structures), turning it into a museum and tourist destination.  There has been public discussion of this dispute for a few years now, but this time it looks like the project might really be dead.  This is a shame as there is fairly widespread support for some sort of “Bruce Lee Museum” in Hong Kong.

Nor is this the first building critical to the area’s martial arts history to fall through the cracks.  Until quite recently Hong Kong has not treated its past with a great deal of nostalgia, ruthlessly demolishing the old to make way for the new.  In the last few years there seems to have been a greater appreciation for the city’s unique history and identity, and there has been some progress made in terms of preserving historic buildings.  However, martial arts groups, and martial culture more generally, have struggled to gain official recognition in this process.  This is an important issue to watch and not just from a historical perspective.  What a society decides to preserves from the past tells you a lot about what they aspire to in the future.

3. The Wall Street Journal is not the first place I go for news on Kung Fu films.  Stock market analysis yes-Chinese martial arts, no.  So when they start writing articles on “The Man with the Iron Fist” I think we can safely conclude that RZA has has created a cultural phenomenon.

This might be the last panda on the internet that is not doing Kung Fu.

4. In my last news update I mentioned the rise of “Kung Fu Pandas” (note the use of the plural) and asked questions about “cultural appropriation” in the Chinese martial arts.  Recently the CCTV English language channel aired a documentary about a show called “Shichahai.”  This high budget spectacular combines traditional opera, martial arts and extensive special effects to the tell the story of two young individuals who go on a surreal journey to discover the true Chinese origins of their hero “Kongfu Panda.”

I have heard about this production before, but I thought that it was interesting that CCTV would choose the current moment to start promoting it in English.  It certainly is an interesting response to some of the fears I discussed last time.  I suspect that using Po as a “teachable moment” is probably a more successful strategy in the long run than something more confrontational (like the proposed boycott).

5.  Chinese archery just keeps getting bigger.

CCTV has also released a new English language documentary on traditional Chinese archery.  If you have any interest in Asian archery you will want to check it out.  The total run time is a less than half an hour, but a lot of the footage is very nice.  Now if only CCTV would start selling some of this stuff on DVD.  I would love to be able to use it in the classroom!

Antique hudiedao or “butterfly swords” from the author’s personal collection.  These weapons are commonly seen in a number of styles of southern Kung Fu including Choy Li Fut, Hung Gar and Wing Chun.

6. Kung Fu Tea on Facebook.

Be sure to check out the Kung Fu Tea Facebook group.  Over the last few weeks I have posted my thoughts on a recent book on Buddhism in the martial arts, Nancy Chen’s study of Qigong in China, linked to a couple of classic martial arts clips, and looked at Sifu Sergio’s research on Vietnamese Wing Chun.  That is all for this update.  Drop me a line if you hear of a developing story.

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