Pine Tree After Snow by Kawase Hasui (1929).  Yesterday we received over a foot of snow, so I thought that a little winter imagery would be appropriate.
Pine Tree After Snow by Kawase Hasui (1929). Yesterday we received over a foot of snow, so I thought that a little winter imagery would be appropriate.


New Years is upon us and that means that it is time to sit back and reflect on the year’s accomplishments and events.  This is particularly important in the martial arts as only through studying our actions and responses can we improve upon them.  Nearly all schools of hand combat are built on a rigorous foundation of self analysis.

The same is true of academics and scholarship.  2012 has been a big year for the field of Chinese martial studies.  We have made progress in some areas, but others still appear to be lacking.

Below is my own personal countdown of the news stories that have had the greatest impact on the world of the Chinese martial arts in 2012.  Some of these stories made a big splash during the year, others were less well reported, and a few are general trends that seemed to come up over and over in a variety of places.  Collectively they remind us of where we have been and point to a few places that we might be headed in the coming year.

10. The Passing of the Elders

The Chinese Martial Arts depend heavily on individual instructors to master and physically embody knowledge before it can be passed on to the next generation.  This process takes years, if not decades, to complete.  As a result, the most important and influential teachers in our community are often well past their prime.  Every year we loose some of these masters.  They are without a doubt our most valuable resources, so it seems appropriate to start this list by remembering some of those who have gone on before use.

Obviously there are too many teachers and master who have died in the last year to name them all.  As such I would like to focus to the Jeet Kune Do community as a representative sample.  Jerry Poteet (1936–2012) was an original student of Bruce Lee and a leading light in the JKD community.  In many ways his story is an interesting sociological study as it mirrors that of the martial arts in America during the 20th century.  Before meeting Bruce Lee, Poteet studied Kempo Karate with Ed Parker.  Later in life he became involved with film and trained Jason Scott Lee in JKD for his staring role in “Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story.”

On April 2, 2012, Howard Williams, another first generation Bruce Lee student and instructor, passed away.  Williams eschewed the spotlight and never sought out publicity or fame.  By all accounts he was a talented and well-liked teacher.

The deaths of these gentlemen, as well as the passing of Joe Lewis and many others, are a stark reminder that the individuals who made up the “second generation” of the American martial arts are starting to pass away.  The first generation of American martial artists, individuals like Ed Parker, Ken Chung or Bruce Lee, introduced their respective styles to a receptive American audience in the post-WWII period.  These individuals tend to be better known and their accomplishments are widely acknowledged.

However, it was the generation that came next, in the 1970s and 1980s, that really spread these arts and developed ways of successfully integrating them into western society.  Many of these individuals learned their crafts under challenging conditions and they are every bit as much pioneers as the generation that came before.  Unfortunately their stories, and the history of their efforts, tends to be less well understood even though they are the ones who shaped the environments that most of us actually practice in on a daily basis.

What can you do?  Start an oral history project for your school or lineage.  Interview your teachers, masters and elder Kung Fu brothers.  Go over the same ground a couple of times.  Make transcriptions of the interviews and distribute them in newsletters or on webpages.  Many university libraries around the country have programs to help groups wishing to start oral history projects and may even be interested in storing and archiving your material so that it will always be available to the public.  This is the time to start recording the history of our own community.

Grey Heron in Ontario, Canada.  Source: Wikimedia commons.
Grey Heron in Ontario, Canada. Source: Wikimedia commons.

9. Final issue of the Journal of Asian Martial Arts

For over twenty years the Journal of Asian Martial Arts (JAMA) was the premier popular outlet for thoughtful reflection and scholarship on the martial arts.  This summer they ceased publication.  Traditional martial artists from many communities mourned this loss.  It was especially sad for the Chinese martial arts community as JAMA had been one of the few popular outlets for high quality publication on these, slightly more esoteric, arts.

It is not entirely clear to me what ultimately drove JAMA out of business.  The magazine industry as a whole is badly hurting right now, so its not horribly surprising to see a niche publication fail.  Further, JAMA did have its eccentricities in editorial policies and writing that made it less popular with both academics and the general reading public than it might otherwise have been.

However, I suspect that something else is to blame.  At the end of the day any magazine is a money making venture, and most of that money comes from advertisers, not magazine stand sales.  It is no secret that the traditional Asian martial arts have been steadily declining in popularity in the west for the last ten years or so.  While they are still more popular here than in China, its clear that JAMA was now operating in a very different environment than the golden days of the 1990s.  Less interest in the traditional martial arts means fewer small businesses to cater to this market and reduced revenue for those selling advertising space.

What makes the loss of JAMA so disturbing is that it is a very visible reminder of a fundamental weakness in the American martial arts community.  Much of the energy and enthusiasm that was once poured into the traditional arts is now directed into Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) and televised UFC events.  While a turn-around is still possible, its clear that things need to change.  This is one of those times when a little soul searching and innovation are required.

8. Kayla Harrison wins Gold in Women’s Judo in the London Summer Olympics

Obviously Judo is not a Chinese martial arts and, truth be told, America has never been that much of a force in international Judo competition.  That made Kayla Harrison’s gold medal winning performance this summer in the London Olympics all the more riveting to watch.  While Judo typically receives vanishingly little television coverage in the US, networks report that her bout was among the most frequently downloaded pieces of footage from the entire 2012 Olympics.  Not only did she help to raise the profile of her sport in America, but she showed that women can succeed even at the very highest levels of a physically demanding combat sport.

Getting more young women and girls involved in the traditional martial arts is probably the single most important thing that schools and instructors could do to insure the survival and spread of these fighting systems.  Kayla Harrison overcame tremendous personal adversity during her journey to the medal podium.  She is a role model for martial artists of any age or gender.

7. Hong Kong Wushu Festival 2012

Astute readers will no doubt have noticed that our number 8 story featured Judo rather than Wushu.  Put simply, 2012 has not been a great year of China’s Olympic Wushu aspirations.  While the government and national Olympic committee continue to push for the sport’s inclusion, that does not yet appear to be anywhere on the horizon.  Not only was Wushu not featured in London, it has already missed deadlines to be included in the 2016 games.  While technically still in the running for 2020, it is a long shot compared to the more heavily favored bid for the inclusion of sport karate.  If the Japanese end up with two combat sports in the Olympics and the Chinese have none I predict a riot.

What can Wushu do to improve its chances for selection?  The IOC has raised a number of specific concerns about subjectivity and event scoring, but to be really honest the biggest thing holding this sport back is a lack of popularity.  While the folk Chinese martial arts are very popular in the west, almost no one outside the mainland actually practices the government sanctioned Wushu forms.  Further, most of the western individuals who do practice these disciplines do so part-time as amateurs and cannot really compete at the professional level.

What the 2008 Olympic Wushu exhibition in Beijing made brutally clear is that there are only three countries in the world today that can actually assemble a highly competitive Wushu team.  They are China, Hong Kong and Russia (which apparently has a surplus of gymnasts looking for a creative outlet).  And two of those three “countries” are actually just different names for China.  So that right there is the basic problem with Wushu.  Very few people actually do it.  Even most Chinese martial arts students in the west aren’t interested in it.

And that bring us to the Hong Kong 2012 Wushu Festival.  The key to making Wushu an Olympic sport is to build global support and interest.  This year was the 10th anniversary of the first Hong Kong Wushu festival and I am happy to report that the event has grown in scale and popularity.  It now regularly attracts teams from around the world and it hosts a mind boggling number of events.  Some of these center around the official government Wushu disciplines (as opposed to the “folk arts”) and slowly but surely they seem to be building a following.

It is a slow and tedious process.  But if the official, government-backed, Wushu styles are ever going to make it into the Olympics, I think that this is how its going to happen.  You need to build a national structure to support this discipline in a number of countries around the globe.  Yet even before that, one must convince people that they want to do it.  The annual Hong Kong Wushu Festival is exactly the sort of public diplomacy that official Wushu needs.

"Snow Piled in Gorges and Peaks" by Ch'ing-yen T'ang Tai.  Early 18th century.  Source: Wikimedia Commons.
“Snow Piled in Gorges and Peaks” by Ch’ing-yen T’ang Tai. Early 18th century. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

6. Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) Makes a Splash in China

Of course in our modern globalized era the export of martial arts does not always go in a single direction.  While China may by very eager to sell of the rest of the world on Wushu, the corporate entities that own and control the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) are very interested in getting the Chinese to take up MMA. The immense domestic market of mainland China is an alluring prize for any sports league.  A number of different sport have tried to break into the Chinese market, but most have failed.  So far only the NBA has proved to be popular with Chinese audiences.

Undeterred the UFC is currently making a bid to drum up support for their version of combat sports.  After all, the Chinese do have a long history of watching boxing matches as entertainment, and Sanda, a form of competition fighting in the Wushu movement, is not all that different from western style MMA.  However, until very recently the Chinese have not shown much interest in any of the UFC’s fighters or their sport.

In the last year Cung Le, a Vietnamese American athlete, has started to change that.  While not Chinese he trained extensively in Sanda and Chinese kickboxing.  His fights are intelligent and and he often lands spectacular kicks and punches, demonstrating that “strikers” can succeed in the UFC.

Leveraging this “home town” popularity, the UFC schedule him to fight on November 10th in Macau.  This was the first UFC even held on Chinese soil.  Cung Le did not disappoint, knocking his opponent out cold with a well timed counter-punch six minutes into what had been a cautious bout.    The crowd went nuts and MMA took a big step towards acceptance in China.

Still, questions remain.  Cung Le was born in 1972, meaning that he is at the very end of his career.  Its not clear if there is another fighter waiting in the wings that will command the same respect in China.  Nor is it clear to me that the UFC will be allowed to succeed in China.  One of the things that I study professionally is trade protection in Asia, and if the right set of officials end up deciding that the UFC (or MMA more generally) is a threat to Wushu and Sanda (the sports that they are working so hard to get accepted into the Olympics) I predict that these American imports could be frozen out of the Chinese market.

Only time will tell, but the sight of western hand combat sports being exported to China is certainly interesting.

5. Chinese Martial Studies Gets Noticed.

One of the ironies of the current moment in history is that while the traditional martial arts seem to be declining in popularity in both the East and the West, there is a quiet revolution going on in how they are studied and conceptualized.  This trend started in the 1990s, but it was really only in the next decade that the process picked up steam.  The field of “Chinese martial studies” is continuing to professionalize and spread its influence within the academy while at the same time promoting a more historically accurate understanding of the martial arts among practitioners.

2012 turned out to be a banner year for Chinese martial studies.  In late December 2011 Cambridge University Press published Peter Lorge’s volume Chinese Martial Art.  Getting an academic book on the martial arts published anywhere is a major achievement.  Getting a volume placed with one of the most prestigious academic presses in the world is a true achievement.  Lorge brings together in one place all of the basic discussion needed to give a serious scholar or student an overview of the evolution of the Chinese martial arts and the major issues in the field.  This work is basically a survey and it leaves lots of room for future investigation.  Still, it would take most people years of private reading and study to come up with the same volume of information that Lorge presents in this slim book.  I wish I had it when I started to get involved with this line of research.

The broader field of martial studies also saw some fine additions in 2012.  D.S. Farrer and John Whallen-Bridge published an edited volume with the State University of New York Press titled Martial Arts as Embodied Knowledge.  This volume addresses a number of issues that are central to students of the Chinese martial arts and provides a good overview of how the field of martial studies is evolving.

Getting important works on traditional forms of hand combat published by major university presses is the single most important thing that we can do as a field to increase the profile of our studies and make them more widely available to academics working on a number of related projects.  The success of Lorge and Farrer demonstrate that the earlier publications of Shahar’s Shaolin Temple (Hawaii University Press 2008) and Boretz’s Gods, Ghosts and Gangster’s (Hawaii University Press 20011) were not fluke occurrences.  Increasingly scholars have come to realize that an understanding of Chinese popular culture, gender roles, civil society and even globalization can be enriched by looking at the evolution and functioning of martial arts communities.  Of course anthropologists had already known this, but its nice to see our subject being more widely acknowledged.

Still, Kai Filipiak reminds us that the field still faces an uphill battle and numerous challenges.  When the Journal of Asian Martial Arts closed they published a special 200 page farewell issue titled Asian Martial Arts: Constructive thoughts & practical applications.  I consider the highlight of that issue to be a brief essay titled “Academic Research into Chinese Martial Arts: Problems and Perspectives.”  Its well worth taking a look at.  You can also read my specific responses to Filipiak here.

It is ironic that our understanding of the history, sociology and anthropology of the Chinese martial arts should be reaching new heights at the same time that their practice among the general population seems to be slipping.  Yet this is one of the persistent trends that has characterized the last year.  2012 has been a season of contradictions.  We will see more of this in the next post when we discuss the top five news stories of the last year, and spend some time reflecting on what the upcoming one might hold.

See Part II of the top news stories and trends of 2012 by clicking here.