Welcome to the first installment of “Chinese Martial Arts in the News” of 2013. For new readers this is a semi-regular roundup of important stories or events in the world of the Chinese martial arts. In these segments I present and briefly discuss important trends in the martial arts or conversations that the wider media is having about hand combat. These discussions are less academic than a lot of the other writing here at Kung Fu Tea, so let your hair down and enjoy some light reading. If you know of a breaking news story or a trend that needs to be covered drop me a line either in the comments or via email.
Lets get to the news!
1. Jackie Chan rants about American corruption.
Rarely do stories about figures in the Chinese martial arts community end up getting extensive coverage in the mainstream press. Jackie Chan is one of the few individuals with that kind of star power, and he has had a lot to say. In an interview that can only be described as devolving into an anti-American rant, he recently asserted that America is the single most corrupt nation in the world. His evidence? The subprime mortgage debacle leading to the recent recession. China, however, gets a pass on the corruption front. Why? Because they are a young nation and they at least admit they have a corruption problem….
This is not the only problematic statement that Chan has made in recent months. In an interview with the South China Morning Post he claimed that the Chinese government needs to keep tighter control of its citizens and that protests in Hong Kong should be limited. Needless to say that position was not popular in Hong Kong, where the local population feels threatened by a number of policies being promoted by the national government. Chan also claimed that any critical discussions of China needed to happen behind closed doors. “We [can] talk about it when the door is closed. To outsiders, [we should say], ‘our country is the best’.”
In another bizarre statement Chan claimed that he is pursued and hunted the Triads when he is in Hong Kong. As a result he has to carry a gun and be armed at all times. This statement set off an immediate police investigation as handgun ownership is very tightly restricted in Hong Kong. He was eventually cleared, suggesting that he may have been exaggerating things just a little bit.
I wonder what is going on here. Is this the same sort of detachment from reality and odd behavior that we see from a variety of television and media stars? Is Chan pulling a “Tom Cruise” on us? Or is this a more calculated decision on his part? Has he decided that his career would be better served by appealing to the wide streak of wounded nationalism that runs through much of the popular discourse in mainland China?
On a certain level it may not matter what the answer to that question actually is. His comments have sparked a strong backlash in the US, and its unlikely that any western studio will want to touch projects that he is associated with for the time being. That makes me sad as I always liked his style of comic film-making. He has been a great promoter of the Chinese martial arts in the west and a really good role-model for kids. I still think his cartoon, The Jacki Chan Adventures, is one of the best martial arts related shows for youngsters. In fact, maybe I will go and watch a few episodes while I wait to see how this story develops.
2. “The Grandmaster” Released in China.
On January 9th Wong Kar-wai’s long awaited film “The Grandmaster” was released in Hong Kong. Ten years in the making this Ip Man biopic has be been hotly anticipated. Unfortunately for fans, the South China Morning Post review is tepid at best. Wong Kar-wai is known for his masterful use of dialog and silence, but apparently he neglected to include much of either in his latest offering. Instead “The Grandmaster” proceeds from fight sequence to fight sequence much like any other high budget Kung Fu film.
While originally focused on Ip Man, the script expanded and went in a variety of directions, introducing the strong female character Gong Er who is said to have dominated much of the performance. The Morning Post ended up concluding that while the movie provided beautiful visuals and two great scenes, Wong Kar-wai never developed much of story to string it all together. And I think that it goes without saying that he didn’t draw on Ip Man’s real life all that much either.
After such a long wait this was a depressing review. I will let you know what I thought of the movie when I manage to get a hold of a copy.
3. The Chinese martial arts, mental illness and recovery in New York City.
The New York Times recently ran a touching profile of a woman living in New York City. If you are looking for an uplifting discussion about the role of martial arts and martial mythology in people’s lives, read this. After struggling with mental illness for years Alejandrina Cruz discovered Kung Fu films which helped to give her the courage to confront her problems. She then became involved in the Chinese martial arts and now teaches a self defense class for women.
I think that this story is an excellent reminder of the actual value and purpose of martial arts mythology. Very often we dismiss these stories when trying to investigate a style’s actual history, and it is usually the case that this sort of story telling has nothing to do with factual record keeping. But that doesn’t mean that we should ignore these stories or let them fade. They are meant to have a transformative impact, and often they record some aspect of the “lived experience” of the martial artists who created them. Myths can tell you something that is essentially true about who you are and what you can become.
Do I believe that Yim Wing Chun was a real person? Or that Ng Moy invented Wing Chun? Or that in the 1720s the Qing government destroyed the Shaolin Temple? Nope. But I still make sure that everyone one of my students hears those stories anyway.
4. Growth of Kendo in Shanghai.
The Global Times just ran a great article titled the “Samurai of Shanghai.” Be sure to check it out. The article records the growth of the Kendo community in once city (Shanghai) since the late 1980s. I think that we need more of this sort of very focused local history in our study of Chinese martial culture.
The article also touches on the recent nationalist tensions between China and Japan. Interestingly these conflicts do not seem to have had much of an affect on the martial arts community and Kendo has continued to grow and find new students. This is an interesting phenomenon.
Adam D. Frank talked about it in his ethnography of Taijiquan (also written on Shanghai). He noted that while the rhetoric and mythology of the martial arts can be highly polarizing (dividing communities and highlighting the supposed “ancient hatreds” between them), the actual practice of the martial arts tends to have the opposite effect. What one learns in almost any school of hand combat is that people have more commonalities than differences. Further, we are free to shape our community in the way that we choose. In that sense I think that the spread of the martial arts can actually help to dampen conflict by creating new communities that cross-cut old cleavages.
The exchange of martial knowledge between China and Japan is not new. It has been quite common and has had an important impact on the development of the martial arts in both countries. Unfortunately these exchanges have not always been been on equal terms, nor have they received a lot of scholarly consideration. Hopefully we can study this issue in greater detail in 2013.
I have noticed that Kendo has been growing in popularity in a number of other areas in China as well. In general I think this is a good thing. I don’t think that Kendo will ever displace the traditional Chinese sword arts, but having a group of people around willing to put on pads and whack each other is very beneficial when it comes to figuring out what works and what does not. I think that some of the basic skills, equipment and attitude of Kendo can be really helpful when exploring aspects of other traditional weapons systems. I know that it has enriched my own understanding of the role of fencing in the Wing Chun system.
5. Age of Wushu enters beta testing.
As I have noted in previous posts, video games are becoming an important aspect of popular culture. Increasingly individuals are being introduced to the Chinese martial arts through computer games rather than by more conventional media like television or film.
“Age of Wushu,” a multi-player massive online role playing game (mmorpg), promises to be an open-ended exercise in adventure where players are free to create different types of martial heroes and wander the “Rivers and Lakes” of a fantasy China. They can explore, learn skills, make alliances or challenging other players at will. The title is being developed by Snail Games and it has recently entered the beta testing phase. The initial reports are in and it looks like the project is starting to generate some good buzz. If you are interested in the nexus between the Chinese martial arts, technology and the media this is one story that you may want to watch.
6. Visit Kung Fu Tea on Facebook!
If you are new to the blog be sure to visit our Facebook group. I use the this page to inform readers of updates to the blog and share other ideas, clips and finds that did not get a full posts of their own. There have been a number of updates to this page over the last month, so head on over and find out how a wooden dummy is made, help John Little’s efforts to crowd-source a documentary on Wong Shun Leung, or read about systematic child abuse in Wushu boarding schools in Henan Province. Be sure to check in and say hello.