New Years is a great time to reflect on where we have been, as well as where we are going. As such, we would like to announce our pick for the “Top Chinese Martial Arts Webpage of the Year 2012.” To be eligible for selection a webpage must have been active in the year 2012 and it must promote the study and understanding of some critical aspect of Chinese martial culture. It must also make a substantial original contribution in either its research, journalism, art or creative writing. Finally, the webpage must be available on the open internet (e.g., you should not have to be a member of an exclusive social media community to access it).
Beyond that everything can get quite subjective. “Chinese martial culture” is a huge research area with lots of different branches. Better still, there are a great many individuals devoting their time and resources to researching and spreading this information. Collectively our community turned out some great work in 2012. Picking “the best” webpage was literally impossible. There was just an embarrassment of riches and too many “apples to oranges” comparisons.
As a result we decided that the winner would be the webpage that best captured the spirit of the year and responded to both the challenges and opportunities that 2012 presented. What sorts of issues were these? You can read more about them here and here.
So, without further ado, the winner of the first annual Kung Fu Tea Webpage of the Year Award goes to chineselongsword.com. This webpage is a must read for anyone interested in reconstructing the traditional battlefield techniques recorded in Ming and Qing era fighting manuals. In fact, chineselongsword.com has translated a number of historic and important works into English, vastly expanding the audience that can now read and interact with these texts.
Anyone who has been involved in the reconstruction of historic fighting systems can tell you that translation is not even half of the battle. Figuring out how to bring the various illustrations and instructions to life in a historically accurate manner is a real challenge. Yet increasingly this seems to be a challenge that martial artists are eager to accept. The founders to this web-resource offer a number of videos and blog entries detailing their own reconstruction of the ancient fighting texts, and of course readers are free to come up with their own.
Chineselongsword.com is located in Singapore. You can read more about the young individuals behind this project in this interview. We believe this sort of project is very suggestive of a number of important trends in the Chinese martial arts today. To begin with, we like the fact that these individuals are drawing on a broad range of martial and academic skills as they attempt to solve historical problems. We also like the fact that they are willing to subject their reconstructions to experimentation to see what works under a variety of conditions.
It is also very interesting to us that the types of research they are currently carrying out happens outside of the strictures of a traditional martial arts school. At the same time, they generate a huge amount of insight and information that might be helpful to a number of different schools.
How Does Chinese Longsword Capture the Essence of 2012?
One of the worrying trends that we have observed over the last few years is that fewer young people are enrolling in schools that teach the traditional Chinese martial arts. This problem is probably more pronounced in China than in America, but the general trend is unmistakable on both sides of the pacific. Paradoxically young people continue to be interested in the Chinese martial arts on an abstract level. But they just don’t sign up for classes like they used to.
It seems that their lives are increasingly filled with a vast array of other educational, social, entertainment and employment activities. In short, many young people simply lack the time and resources to take up formal study of the martial arts. In an era when even shopping malls are going bankrupt because young people no longer have the inclination or resources to hang out and shop, what hope do traditional martial arts schools actually have? Between academic and parental pressures, most young adults cannot spare a couple of hours a night to travel to and from a traditional school.
Still, the martial arts actually remain a fairly popular subject in a wide variety of media. And increasingly students who do practice are demanding a greater degree of academic rigor in what they study and the history that they are given. The project that chineselongsword.com advances is very interesting because it can be picked up by a small group of dedicated friends and it can be studied without a formal school or Sifu. Indeed, there are no formal teachers when it comes to a topic like 16th century Shaolin staff forms. It is a matter of historical restoration, and everyone has to start from the same group of texts. The weapon forms taught in these works tend to be short and practical, as they were actually intended for military use. They are not necessarily embedded in larger hand combat systems. As a result these are modes of fighting that a small group of people working together actually do have some hope of mastering. of course a background in the traditional martial arts would help to speed that process along.
It is also interesting to note that the approach advocated by chineselongsword.com goes a long way towards abolishing one of the traditional divisions between the “Eastern” and “European” historical martial arts. Eastern arts have prided themselves on historical continuity and oral culture as a means of transmission. Western and European martial artists, on the other hand, have taken equal pride in their collections of fighting manuscripts and the painstaking reconstruction of their advice. They claim that a return to original texts saves their fighting systems from degeneration in the hands of “masters” who were unfamiliar with actual combat.
Chineselongsword.com combines the best of both these worlds and begins to erode our understanding of what the Asian martial arts “must be” and how they must be transmitted. Practical martial artists have more information available to them today than any previous generation in the past. Its high time to take advantage of that in a systematic and theoretically sound way.
Its important to remember that the “traditional Chinese martial arts school” that exists today is really a product of the early 20th century. With a few exceptions, it did not exist in all that many places prior to the process of urbanization and market reform that transformed China in the early 20th century. In fact, many places in China did not get their first “traditional martial arts schools” until the 1920s. Prior to that other sorts of economic and social arrangements existed for the transition of the martial arts that better fit the market conditions of the time.
The market conditions that supported the “traditional martial arts school” of the 20th century are once again being undermined by globalization. This change is happening on both sides of the Pacific. I suspect that in the future we will see many more loosely organized, highly informed, relatively fluid, small study groups taking advantage of public spaces and newly translated information to train. In that respect I think that chineselongsword.com points to one possible future of the Chinese martial arts.
I am not claiming that traditional, Sifu-centered, commercial schools will totally vanish. I suspect that in major urban areas there will still be enough market support to keep a number of these instructors in business. Further, they can still teach the basic skills that make “self study” possible. But whereas what we currently see is a central school surrounded by a network of daughter schools, in the future we might see instead a central school surrounded by a loose network of non-commercial study groups that come together for occasional conferences for seminars. I think we can certainly debate whether this would be a good thing, but I suspect it is the direction that we are headed in. And if that is the case, then it behooves us to do a little planning and get it right. I think the project run by chineselongsword.com is a good model to consider.
Happy New Year!