A Year in the Chinese Martial Arts: The Events and Stories that Shaped 2012, Part II

New Yorkers in Times Square waiting to see the first ever ball drop, 1907.  Source: press photo for the NY Times.
New Yorkers in Times Square waiting to see the first ever ball drop, 1907. Source: press photo for the NY Times.

Introduction

The New Years holiday is a great time to take a moment to reflect on where we have been in the last year.  After all, the first step in making a useful resolution is to engage in a little self-reflection.  While this is certainly true for individuals, the same basic principle also holds true for the Chinese martial arts as a whole.  As we saw in the first part of this post, 2012 demonstrates the need for some collective critical assessment and planning.

Below is my own personal countdown of the top five 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.

5.   Blizzard Discovers that Kung Fu Fighting Pandas are Cool, Tells Everyone on the Internet.

Its hard to overstate how important the media can be when trying to understand trends in the development and spread of the martial arts.  Just ask any long time karate teacher what happened at their school after the first Karate Kid movie came out.  That single film franchise literally changed the face of the martial arts in America.

If anything media coverage has been even more important to the Chinese martial arts.  American servicemen learned about Karate, Judo and Kendo during WWII and often sought out instruction (both in Japan and the USA) as a result of their wartime experiences.  Likewise South Korea’s participation in the Vietnam War helped to introduce another generation of American soldiers to the fighting arts of Korea.  Relatively few Americans enjoyed first hand exposure to the Chinese martial arts.  Media exposure through movies (Enter the Dragon), magazine articles (Black Belt) and television shows (Kung Fu), was how most Americans first discovered that the Chinese martial arts existed and were worth investigating.

The media remains an important player in promoting the popularity of the martial arts today.  Again, just ask any Wing Chun school what happened to their student base after the Ip Man movies came out.  Robert Downey Jr.’s loud endorsement of the style while promoting Sherlock Holmes didn’t hurt either.  But what is less obvious is that the nature of the media that most individuals consume has fundamentally changed.  It is now much more likely to come via the internet than it is through the pages of a magazine, or on either the big or the small screen.

For instance, the renown Hip Hop pioneer, and long time Kung Fu enthusiast, RZA released an eagerly awaited martial arts movie in late 2012.  The Man with the Iron Fist promised to be an homage to the old school Shaw Brothers action films of the 1970s.  Like them it featured inscrutable secrets to super human Kung Fu, a rather thin plot, and it bristled with easily recognizable star power (including Russel Crowe and Lucy Liu).  This was good stuff.  It even did well at the box office.  In its opening weekend in the USA it sold about $8 million worth of tickets.  Guessing about $10 a ticket (to keep the calculations nice and easy) that means that about 800,000 plus people saw his movie on its opening weekend.  Not to shabby.

But lets compare this for a moment to a similar event in the video game industry.  Blizzard is basically to video games what RZA is to Hip Hop.  They are both masters of their craft, well respected and reliable sellers.  Blizzard’s main claim to fame is the creation of the World of Warcraft (WoW), an innovative Massive Multi-Player On-Line Role Playing Game (MMORPG), that currently has over 10 million subscribers.

While it is the largest and most successful MMORPG out there, WoW is about a decade old (that’s nearly a 50 in “video game years”) and the platform is starting to show its age.  To keep fans from getting bored and dropping out, Blizzard occasionally releases “expansion packs.”  The 2012 expansion was titled the Mists of Pandaria and it featured (you guessed it) Kung Fu fighting pandas.  In addition to the Panda monks with their mystical powers, the expansion pack also showcased an Asian inspired landscape (complete with picturesque temples) and Chinese dragons.  Edward Said would have been proud.

So how did Blizzard’s Kung Fu pandas do during their release weekend?  They sold just under 3 million copies of the game.  Please note that this is not 3 million dollars in revenue, this is three million individual customers.  So this one video game managed to reach more than three times as many people as Hollywood’s most anticipated, star studded, martial arts action film of the year in the same time period.

Nor is this an isolated incident.  Increasingly young students walking into Chinese martial arts schools are citing video games, rather than movies or television shows, as the place where they first developed an interest in the Chinese martial arts.  Looking at Blizzard’s latest release it not hard to see why.

The more you delve into this particular story the more interesting it becomes.  To begin with, one would think that selling about 3 million copies of a video game in 48 hours would be a remarkable achievement.  Anyone should be ecstatic with this, right?  Wrong.  Industry analysts wanted to see sales figures at around 3.3-3.4 million units.  That is what Blizzard’s previous expansion pack had sold.  Panderia was actually considered something of a financial flop because it only reached 3 million households in its first weekend.  So these sales figures actually understate the size of the video game market.

Secondly, the vast majority of Panderia’s early sales were online.  In fact, online sales outpaced “brick and mortar” distribution roughly 4:1.  The massive shift to online purchases (compared to previous Blizzard releases) even took some video-game industry analysts by surprise.  It is this “immediacy” that is the real secret behind the success of new media.

It takes time and effort to put on a jacket, drive to a theater, park the car and watch a movie.  The same thing applies to going to a martial arts class.  Economists call these sorts of minor annoyances or barriers as “transaction costs.”  They have known for some time that even very small transaction costs can have a disproportionately large effect on human behavior.  Never underestimate the lengths that people will go to avoid parking the car at the mall.

So why do people sit at home and argue about MMA vs. the “traditional martial arts” on Facebook rather than going to a gym and actually doing either?  Basically for the same reason that they download a video game about Kung Fu rather than getting in a car to watch a movie about the very same subject, even though the movie is full of stars that they would like to see.  Zero transaction costs will always win out at the end of the day.

This is what drives both “new media” and “social media.”  People love it, and even become addicted to it, because of the seemingly free immediate gratification that it offers.  Both of these things are having a major impact on how many people study the martial arts (generally fewer), who they are (a more complicated topic we will save for another post) and how they study it (with access to far more information than any other previous generation of martial artists).  The hand combat community (both traditional and modern) has not yet even begun to come to terms with this phenomenon.  Yet the massive sales of Panderia, which ironically still fell short of the industry’s expectations, are a clear indication of where we are going.

There is also one more thing to consider.  While Blizzard has not released any official numbers (they are actually pretty secretive about most of their financial data), WoW is incredibly popular in China.  Insiders claim that the sales of Mists of Panderia on the mainland have been huge.  This is just one more paradox to consider when thinking about the Chinese martial arts and globalization.  It took a couple of American media corporations to bring Kung Fu Pandas to China.

Seattle_New_Years_Eve_Fireworks_2011

4.  Real Estate, Historic Preservation and the Southern Chinese Martial Arts

In the west there is a widely accepted norm that historic preservation is a good thing.  We also tend to set the bar pretty low when it comes to defining what is “historic.”  Generally 100 years does the trick.  In China the situation is more complex.  This is partially due to the fact that there are fewer resources to devote to preservation, massive amounts of history has already been lost (or intentionally destroyed) in events like dynastic transitions and the Cultural Revolution, and rapid industrial expansion has transformed much of the landscape.

These issues seem to be especially acute in Southern China.  Much less property gets set aside for preservation in either Hong Kong or Guangdong than we in the west would expect.  And if something is not explicitly preserved its only a matter of time until someone decides to build a gleaming office town or shopping mall on top of it.  This leads to fierce competition for the preservation resources that are available.  Generally speaking, less socially prestigious history (such as that associated with the martial arts) tends to lose out in the triage process.  Currently the physical remains of China’s 19th and 20th century martial heritage are being destroyed at a breathtaking rate.

No story better illustrates this trend than the repeated failure of the government of Hong Kong to set aside structures that have been critical to the city’s martial arts heritage.  The Summer 2011 issue the Journal of Chinese Martial Studies ran an interesting article on the failure of the city to protect the “Blue House,” an important structure to the history of the development of both Hung Gar and Traditional Chinese Medicine.

More recently the home of Bruce Lee, the city’s most famous son, has become the locus of controversy.  Many voices have been calling for a museum and center dedicated to the film star’s legacy for a number of years.  Given Lee’s stature and importance on both sides of the Pacific this doesn’t seem like an unreasonable idea.  One plan had been to expand and preserve Lee’s Hong Kong home using it for exactly that purpose.  Ultimately negotiations between the city and the real estate developer who owns the property broke down, and in October of this year the property was listed on the open market for $23 million USD.

While reviewing stories for this article I was struck with how many of them revolved around real estate.  Remember this story?  At the most basic level this conflict revolves around corruption and real estate development.

This probably should not be surprising.  Much of China is still experiencing rapid economic growth, and much of that growth is being driven by building.  The residents of southern China and Hong Kong have never been terribly sentimental about their architecture and have generally found that the financial gains of new construction outweigh the cultural value of historic preservation.  The vast majority of residents who live in southern China are (in my experience) very present and future oriented.  I think that the real estate woes of the martial arts community are simply emblematic of broader shifts in Chinese society and culture.

Still, there are some hopeful signs on this front.  Residents of Hong Kong are at least engaged in a discussion about historic preservation now that probably would not have been happening at all 20 years ago.  Even if the martial arts have not been big winners, these talks show that things are starting to change.

Additionally, Foshan (the birthplace of important lineages of Wing Chun, Choy Li Fut and Hung Gar) has recently embarked on an ambitious urban redevelopment project.  In an attempt to restore “quality of life,” they are preserving and updating larger sections of traditional neighborhoods in their downtown core.  These areas are currently being rebuilt for mixed residential and commercial use.

New Years fireworks display at Panama City Beach.  Source: Visit Panama City Beach.
New Years fireworks display at Panama City Beach. Source: Visit Panama City Beach.

The work that they have done so far looks very nice, and may actually be a boon to the city.  Interestingly enough, the Foshan project has decided to make the preservation and promotion of the city’s Wing Chun and Hung Gar heritage central to their planning.  In fact, the real estate development company that is responsible for these projects recently shot and released a $20 million USD documentary on Wing Chun philosophy as a way to simultaneously promote both the reputation of the art and to showcase some of their beautiful new architecture.  I found the film to be very successful on both accounts.

This is a very interesting development.  Outside of the Chen Village or Dengfeng (a city near the Shaolin Temple) you generally do not see much emphasis being given to the martial arts in urban planning.  I hope that the Foshan experiment succeeds.  I also hope that it is expanded to include other aspects of the region’s martial heritage.  The history of Choy Li Fut in Foshan is fascinating and needs to be better understood.  Additionally the Foshan Jingwu Hall is a local treasure that is perpetually underfunded and poorly maintained due to a lack of funds.  These would be two great projects to tackle next.

3.  MMA Rediscovers Bruce Lee

Discovering that millions of people around the world are first exposed to the Chinese martial arts through video games probably did not warm the hearts of many traditional stylists.  It may be some consolation to discover that 2012 also saw some high quality documentaries on the Chinese martial arts which introduced the viewing public to some much higher quality information.

Without a doubt the most important of these was “I am Bruce Lee,” a 2 hour made for TV documentary aired on the Spike TV network on March 7th of 2012.  The venue is important because at that time Spike was the home of the UFC.  This well produced program featured high production values and a number of interesting interviews.  It focused extensively on the legacy of Bruce Lee, including the impact that he had on the development of MMA in America.  If you missed it it you should check it out.  You can view it online by clicking the link above.

Of course that last point is actually pretty complicated.  I am not at all sure what Lee would have thought about MMA and I am not sure that he would have liked it.  It is quite literally impossible to know the answer to that question.  He did support serious full contact sparring in his lifetime, but that generally meant working with members of the Tae Kwon Do community.  Further, the martial arts that Lee was interested in mixing (boxing, fencing), and the tactical problems he was trying to solve (footwork, entry), were pretty different from the issue of how you win in the octagon under the UFC’s rules.

Still, the narrative that Bruce Lee is the “father” of the mixed martial arts is interesting on a number of counts.  It seems that certain members of the MMA community are looking for a sense of history and connection beyond the obvious links to BJJ and wrestling.  The fact that they would look to Lee and his background in the southern Chinese martial arts is fascinating.

While some readers may object that what Lee developed in the form of Jeet Kune Do was no longer a pure Chinese martial art, its harder to argue with the size of the audience that the Spike TV documentary reached.  The network claimed that the show was watched by 1.7 million households on its opening night (it has subsequently been seen many more times through reruns and the internet).  Further, the networks connection to the UFC insured that many of these individuals were interested in both the mixed and traditional martial arts.

Very few documentaries on the martial arts can claim this sort of broad viewership base.  For that reason we are naming “I Am Bruce Lee” the 2012 Chinese martial arts documentary of the year.  Its hard to think of another documentary that has gotten so much TV exposure, or involved so many individuals in a detailed discussion of the life and contributions of a Chinese martial artist.

2012 saw a number of other documentaries that are also worth watching.  Honorable mention must go to Empty Mind Films which has a history of doing good stuff on China.  This year they released not one but two documentaries on the Chinese martial arts, “A Boy in China” and “Wing Chun: A Documentary.”  While they were not able to reach the same massive consumer audiences that Spike TV could, these jewel-like productions offer a granular glimpse into authentic martial arts in China.  I highly recommend both.

2. “The Hunger Games”: Making archery and the traditional fighting arts accessible to young women.

On March 23rd of 2012 the film adaptation of The Hunger Games (originally a novel by Susan Collins) opened in North America.  The film was a run away success grossing over $400,000,000 in North American box office receipts.  Just to put that in perspective roughly 40 million individuals in North America alone saw this movie in the month of March.  These numbers are huge compared to the audiences won by the successful Bruce Lee biography (1.7 million) or the WoW expansion Mists of Panderia (3 million).

Nor do these numbers really capture the actual groundswell of enthusiasm that surround this franchise.  The series of novels that the film is based on has a dedicated fan base for years.  The theme of child-on-child violence that runs through her first books has raised some opposition from concerned parents, but this has generally only heightened the excitement around the stories with young adult readers who identify with the novels implicit critiques of a society gripped by economic stagnation and socially controlled by reality television at its most abusive.

While the books and film won over fans of both genders, younger female readers have found the portrayal of Katniss Everdeen (the protagonist of the story) to be especially empowering.  One suspects that the next movie in the series will do even better.  The “Hunger Games” proved to be the 13th top grossing movie of all time in North America.  More importantly, it was the top grossing movie ever not released during the summer or at Christmas (when the big action films traditionally come out).  A March release date is not especially auspicious in Hollywood, but Katniss once again proved her ability to defy the odds.

At one level this may seem like an odd pick for a story about the Chinese martial arts.  However, as I stated in the first half of this list, the traditional Chinese martial arts need to do a better job of attracting young female students and convincing them that it is o.k. to fight to defend themselves.  In that sense the “Hunger Games” provides a level of cultural discourse that no amount of advertising can buy.

Its also interesting to note that in both the novel and the movie Katniss is known for her skill as an archer.  Between the “Hunger Games,” “Brave” and the Summer Olympics, Archery has seen a huge surge in popularity.  Most of this interest has come from younger females taking up the sport in record numbers.

In recent years there has also been a surge of interest in traditional forms of archery in the Chinese martial arts.  Chinese archery is currently more popular than it has been at any point since the abolition of the military service exams at the end of the Qing dynasty.  Increasingly women are being introduced to the traditional Chinese martial arts through their interest in “practical” archery.

The success of the “Hunger Games” represents an important moment in western popular culture.  The question is whether the traditional martial arts will be able to recognize and position themselves to take advantage of this shift in sentiment and identity.  That will be a major challenge to look  forward to in the year 2013.

New Year in Sydney, 2009.  Source: Wikimedia.
New Year in Sydney, 2009. Source: Wikimedia.

1. School Shooting in Newtown Connecticut

Few readers will have missed this story.  A little over two weeks ago Adam Lanza, 20, walked into the Sandy Hook Elementary School and opened fire on classrooms of children and teachers.  He eventually killed 26 individuals including 20 students.  Most of the children killed were between the ages of 5 and 10.

I have always believed that it is pointless to ask why tragedies happen.  My primary field of study is international relations, which includes the study of war and other forms of low intensity conflict.  It turns out that it is not really all that uncommon for a small group of humans, sometimes a single individual, to kill a much larger group of innocent bystanders for no apparent reason.  We call it “terrorism,” “ethnic hatred,” “mental illness” or “war crimes” but at the end of the day, those labels do not really reveal that much about motivation.  If you go looking for answers the only one you will ultimately uncover is power.  In the final analysis the killers did what they did because they could.  And that is it.  It doesn’t really matter what is going on inside someones head, or what their reasons are.  The only thing that matters is how much damage they can do.

Nothing throws the frailties and shortcomings of human life into such stark contrast as a tragedy of this scale.  They make people extremely uncomfortable because they call the very basis of our lives and happiness into question.  In a well functioning society such events usually spark questions about institutional reforms that could prevent a replay of similar incidents in the future.

Already we are seeing those discussions in the American media.  Do we need to reform the ideas that go into young people’s heads?  Are violent video games and movies the problem?  Or is this indicative of a failure in how our healthcare and social service system deals with mental illness?  Or is gun control the answer?

There has been a lot of discussion of strict new gun control regulations in the last few weeks.  It seems unlikely that gun control alone could ever stop bad people from doing terrible things.  China is also seeing a bizarre spike in school attacks, most of which are carried out by deranged adults with large knives or other improvised weapons.  And unfortunately innocent students die in these attacks as well.  But there is no denying that the casualty figures are usually lower.

My background in political science makes me cautious about attempting to predict the outcome of complicated legislative processes that are just getting underway.  Yet it looks as though Sandy Hook is going to impact the legislative landscape of America in 2013.  Some of these changes may have complex effects on martial arts schools around the country.

Multiple states are almost certain to ban or restrict the ownership of handguns and semiautomatic rifles in the wake of these shootings.  Individuals who had previously depended on these weapons for a sense of safety may be more likely to seek out the martial arts after such bans go into effect.  At the same time, weapons training has always been a part of “real world” self-defense preparation.  While martial artists certainly do not need to own or carry guns, they must be familiar with them, have a sense of how they operate, how much they weigh, and the sorts of the damage that they can do.  In the future that type of training may be harder to get outside of police or military institutions.

More disturbingly some states, including Florida, are actively contemplating curtailing the right to use force to defend oneself in public places.  This is probably as much a reaction to the earlier shooting of Trayvon Martin as more recent events.  Still, the public has clearly lost sympathy for a wide range of arguments about the importance of self-defense and weapons ownership in America.  These shifts could have a profound impact on a variety of aspects of martial arts training.

It will also be interesting to see how society addresses the lingering question of violence in the media.  As we have already seen in this article, the media (both old and new) is of critical importance to the “traditional” martial arts.  To be totally honest, its unlikely that anyone in America would even know about the Chinese martial arts, or would be interested in studying them, if not for the media.

The martial arts have benefited from many of the graphic descriptions of violence available in books (like the Hunger Games), movies (such as “Ip Man”) and video games (pretty much any title you care to name).  Attempts to marginalize violence in popular culture would probably be a good thing in the long run, but they could have complex effects on the traditional martial arts in the short term.

Three of the proceeding four stories dealt explicitly with the portrayal of violence in popular culture.  They illustrated trends that have generally benefited the martial arts.  The reaction to the Sandy Hook shooting demonstrates that there are limits to society’s tolerance for any of these modes of discourse.

I suspect that the big story of 2013 will be what sorts of lasting impact (both in terms of legislation restricting weapons and other social changes) that emerge as a result of these tragic events.  It will be fascinating to see how the traditional martial arts adapt themselves to this evolving landscape.

Conclusion

This wraps up our list of the top news stories and trends for 2012.  Be sure to check back on New Years Day for our totally subjective and unscientific selection of the best Chinese martial arts webpage/blog of the year!

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