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Current Events, Pop Culture Kung Fu, Wing Chun

Chinese Martial Arts in the News: December 10th, 2012: A New Wing Chun Documentary and the Past and Future of the Mixed Martial Arts.

A new documentary seeks to present this 19th century art as a modern and sophistocated adjunt to daily life.

A new documentary by Seamus Walsh seeks to present Wing Chun as a modern and sophisticated adjunct to daily life.  This is a very interesting case of cross-marketing in which an urban renewal project and 19th century martial art are trying to mutual promote each other.

In this semi-regular segment Kung Fu Tea attempts to update readers about interesting martial arts stories in the news that you may have missed.  If you know of a story related to the Chinese martial arts that is currently developing or should be covered, drop me a line via email or leave a comment bellow.  Enjoy!

A New Wing Chun Documentary and Urban Planning in Foshan.

Any reader who practices Wing Chun or is interested in the martial arts of Southern China should be aware that there is a new documentary out there.  Best of all, this one is being distributed for free.  Check it out here. This 35 minute offering was lovingly crafted by director Seamus Walsh and Hong Kong producer Bill Yip. While brief the movie explores the philosophical dimensions of Wing Chun and how these skills can be applied to any aspect of daily life.  The documentary is shot in variety of photogenic places including training halls, modern art galleries, ancient courtyards and clean walkable street.  In short, if you have ever actually been to Foshan before, this looks noting like the city you probably saw in the past.

It turns out that there are some very good reasons why this film is so visually stunning.  With a reputed price tag of $200 Million Hong Kong Dollars (about $26 million USD) it should be.  Obviously that sort of budget is way beyond what anyone would normally spend shooting a martial arts documentary and it raises some interesting questions.  In reality this documentary is the crowning jewel of a sophisticated marketing campaign backed by a very large real estate development firm and the city of Foshan.

It is no secret that China has been in the midst of a construction and real estate boom for a few decades.  New apartment buildings, shopping complexes and sports stadiums have been going up at a furious pace.  Unfortunately not all of these projects have been well zoned or planned.  Many of China’s largest cities are now ringed with mostly empty apartment buildings (financed through real estate speculation) and shopping malls that have opened with no stores and few customers.  Needless to say, this is not great from an urban planning perspective.  To make matters worse many historic neighborhoods and classic structures were demolished to make way for construction projects of dubious long term value.  Construction has been an engine of growth in China over the last two decades, but it has not always run smoothly.

There is currently something of backlash going on against these trends.  A handful of cities are currently experimenting with new urban planning models that would preserve much of their historic core areas and adapt it for pedestrian friendly, mixed use, purposes.  These neighborhoods are meant to combine residential areas with offices and shopping all while preserving a traditional architectural feel and preserving a higher quality of life.

Empty section of New South China Mall, Dongguan, China.  Note that the mall was open for buisnes when this photo was taken in 2010.  Unfortunately no customers or stores decide to show up.  Source: Wikimedia.

Empty section of New South China Mall, Dongguan, China. Note that the mall was open for business when this photo was taken in 2010. Unfortunately no customers (or stores) decide to show up. Source: Wikimedia.

The flagship city for this sort of development is Shanghai, but Foshan has recently decided to jump on the wagon.  This is probably a positive development as no part of China is more overgrown with the detritus of the poorly planned construction boom than the area around Guangzhou.  You can read more about the specific project that is underway in Foshan here or here.

From a public relations standpoint this is also a city needs all of the help that it can get.  While it is known among Chinese martial artists, in the eyes of the general public is a sprawling, highly polluted, metropolis best known for its large community of migrant manufacturing workers (who occasionally riot) and what was quite possibly the most heartless, and widest reported, hit and run traffic death in the entire history of the automobile.  Anything that can refocus this narrative for the average consumer or tourist would be a great thing for the city.

The Wing Chun documentary does a very good job showcasing the type of city and architectural feel that the project wants to create.  And I must admit that they sold me.  The mix of old and new, classic and modern is very alluring.  The entire project won’t be done until 2020 and it will be interesting to watch how it progresses.

This urban renewal project is also unique in the emphasis that it is placing on the region’s martial arts.  The new car-free zone is being constructed just south of the Ancestral Temple and will be leveraging its proximity to the Huang Fei Hung and Ip Man Tongs.  It will also be building a major training facility (named the “Wing Chun Hall”) to promote the Foshan’s ancestral relationship with this now globally famous art.  Other traditional arts, including pottery and opera are also going to be promoted in the same space.  This small city was a center of China’s handicrafts industry during the Qing dynasty and made important contributions in each of these areas as well as silk and iron production.

Spending this much money on the martial arts, and placing them at the center of an urban renewal project is unprecedented.  The government spent a lot of money on Wushu at Shaolin, but that was not part of an attempt to create a livable community, it was for straight up tourism.  And the way they are framing the martial arts as part of the cultural landscape is very interesting.  It really elevates the cultural discourse around boxing to a level that is not very common in China.  There are only a handful of other places (including Wudang) where this is done, and one really hopes it will be done well.

At the same time this project’s use of the martial arts raises some questions.  The martial arts actually were central to Foshan in a way that was quite different from what was seen in most of China.  From the mid-19th century on the art that dominated local culture was Choy Li Fut, based out of the Hung Sing Association.  Massive numbers of working class individuals were empowered by this school until it was shut down by the Nationalist Party in 1927 because of its close association with the Communist Party.  Oddly I don’t see any plans to promote Choy Li Fut in these plans, or even to remember its place in the city’s history.

Jingwu (Chinwoo) Association Hall in Foshan.  Completed in the 1930s, this sort of public infrastructure supporting the martial arts would have been unheard of in Chan Wah Shun's time.  The martial arts were deeply unfashionable for most of his teaching career.  This, more than other other factor, probably accounts for the small size of his school.

Jingwu (Chinwoo) Association Hall in Foshan. Completed in the 1930s.

Likewise the Jingwu Association played a critical role in the development of the martial arts in the region in the 1920s and 1930s.  It did more to make the martial arts a respected, educated, modern middle class phenomenon than any other force in Chinese society before or since.  The entire vision of the martial arts that this documentary is attempting to promote is actually a direct product of Jingwu and what it was able to accomplish.

Foshan was blessed to have a particularly strong local chapter that continued to operate long after the national organization collapsed in the 1920s.  The Foshan Jingwu Hall, completed just before the Second Sino-Japanese War is an architectural masterpiece.  The city is fortunate that the structure still exists, but it is underfunded and needs renovation.  26 Million dollars would have gone a long way towards this project.

While it is true that Foshan has an incredible martial heritage, I cannot help but notice that the only parts of it that are being remembered are those that spawned major movie franchises.  Obviously this creates a distorted view of the past, but it also limits the richness of what you can offer visitors and residents in the future.  There is an actual richness to Foshan’s martial heritage that exists out of all proportion to its size.  It will be interesting to watch how the city promotes and curates this inheritance as they continue with their push for urban renewal.  The initial signs look good, but there is a lot more that could be done.

2008 Olympic Tae Kwon Do bout between Mildred Alango and Wu Jingyu.  When will we see Wushu as an Olympic sport? Source: wikimedia.

2008 Olympic Tae Kwon Do bout between Mildred Alango and Wu Jingyu. When will we see Wushu as an Olympic sport? Source: wikimedia.

Wushu: Keeping the Olympic Dream Alive.

It is no secret that China has put a lot of effort into promoting Wushu (the official state sponsored kind) as an Olympic sport.  The good news on that front is that Wushu has made it the short list of ten or so sports to be voted on for inclusion in future Olympic programs.  The bad news is that there is only one open slot in the upcoming summer games and right now Karate seems have all of the momentum behind it.

Still, China is continuing to promote its bid.  Gaining international recognition of Wushu has taken on all sorts of cultural and political meanings.  It would be viewed by a lot of people as an endorsement of China’s unique physical culture.  At the very least it would show that their martial arts deserve the same respect as Judo (Japanese) and Tae Kwon Do (Korean).  If Japan ends up with two arts in the Olympics and China has none, I predict a lot of angry newspaper editorials in the coming year.

The biggest problem facing Wushu is that it is not Taiji.  Taiji is widely practiced around the world, but only a handful of countries can field a decent Wushu team.  Of course there be some ways around this if you are willing to play the long game.  One of those would be to leverage the power of the Chinese diaspora to train and field “national” Wushu teams of their own.  For many small countries that do not spend a lot on sports this would be quite attractive.  So I sat up and took notice when I saw an article in a newspaper in Malaysia reminding them that having an ethnically Chinese citizen win a medal in Wushu was that country’s best hope of ever seeing Olympic gold.  Its an interesting strategy to drum up votes and one designed to address the root of Wushu’s problem.  All that said, the sport is still a long-shot for inclusion.

In other Wushu related news I ran across an interesting report on doings at Wudang Mountain, the spiritual home of the “Daoist” martial arts.  Apparently quite a bit of money and effort is being spent there to film a documentary on Wushu.  Additionally, this is China’s first 3-D documentary on any subject.  Two questions logically follow this announcement.  1.  Why would you want to make a 3-D documentary on Wushu in the first place?  I get enough of that at the training hall.  2.  What documentary subject do you think really deserves the 3-D treatment?  Base jumping? Paragliding?

Will the "Octagon" survive its contract with Fox?

Will the “Octagon” survive its contract with Fox?

Deep thoughts and Long Reads on Mixed Martial Arts

Recently I posted an article looking at the growth of MMA as an amateur sport in America and the effect that it was having on the more traditional martial arts.  That post generated a fair number of hits and some good reader response, so I thought I would pass on some additional notes that I ran across this week.  First off, Slate ran an interesting article arguing that the UFC is actually in financial trouble.  You can read the whole thing here.

The crux of their argument is that this is a classic case of a young company that has expanded to fast.  In the case of the UFC that problem manifest in them signing a contract with Fox that appeared to give them more money on the surface, but actually lowered the rate of pay per event making their business model less profitable.  Additionally, the UFC agreed to stage more events than ever before, but is having trouble filling their cards with interesting fights.  Basically they don’t have enough healthy fighters with audience name recognition to keep the fans happy.  The human aspect of this sport just cannot expand as fast as the media element of it can.

Needless to say this article has generated a lot of commentary.  Most MMA fans treat it as heresy, and the traditional Chinese martial arts posters over at Kung Fu Tai Chi cannot seem to hide their schadenfreude.  Its nice to know that some things never change.

The big question that all of this raises for me is where does the UFC end and MMA begin?  To what extent does MMA still exist as an independent movement, divorced from all of the hype of big time promotion.  Granted, when you look back at its history promotion has always been a big part of what was going on here, but individual promoters and formats seems to come and go.  So if the UFC goes down in flames (just remember the Twinkies, it happens) what does that actually mean for MMA as something that attracts the time and interest of young men?

To really answer that question we would need to know a lot more about the history of the mixed martial arts.  Luckily a very interesting multi-part series on that topic has just come out.  See part 1 here and part 2 here.  Long story short, the immense amounts of money that the UFC spends on advertising is a gift of great value to the MMA industry, but this movement existed well before the modern TV dynasty came along.  It is also interesting to read these articles and think about how the current version of MMA is appropriating and using using the history of related sports and martial arts to construct a new narrative and identity.

Is this the beginning of the "mixed martial arts"?

Is this the beginning of the “mixed martial arts”?

I am always fascinated when I hear people talk about Bruce Lee and Kanō Jigorō as the “founders” of MMA.  While there are elements of the modern UFC that they would probably find fascinating, I am pretty sure neither men would actually want to take credit for what you can now watch of Fox.  They had their own ideas and goals which only partially overlapped with what MMA is currently attempting to do.  Still, this is a great example of how history is quite literally “made” to explain and give value to current social institutions.  In a sense its not that different from what the real estate developers in Foshan are doing with Wing Chun.

Kung Fu Tea on Facebook

Lastly, don’t forget to visit Kung Fu Tea on Facebook.  During the holiday season we will only be updating the blog twice a week, but the Facebook page will continue to carry short thought and interesting ideas that we run across.  Check it out today for some fragile Shaolin art, great footage of women playing Chi Sao in China, the publication of (gasp) a Wing Chun romance novel, or even pay a visit to our old friends from “Fight Quest” as they travel to Hong Kong in an attempt to learn the true meaning of Wing Chun.  We will resume our normal posting schedule after the start of the new year.

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