Chinese Martial Arts in the News, February 13, 2013: The UFC fights for market access, Ip Man lets his inner song take flight and understanding “The Black Kung Fu Experience.”

A variety of dance teams, featuring an assortment of mythological creatures, meet outside the gates of Seattles Chinatown on the first day of the Lunar New Year, 2011.  Source: Wikimedia.
A variety of dance teams, featuring an assortment of mythological creatures, meet outside the gates of Seattles Chinatown on the first day of the Lunar New Year, 2011. Source: Wikimedia.

“Chinese Martial Arts in the News” is a monthly round-up of news stories that either feature or somehow impact traditional Chinese hand combat.  If you know about a developing news story that should be covered feel free to drop me a note in the comments or shoot me an email.  The last few weeks have been very busy to lets get right too it.

1. Happy Chinese New Year!

This weekend saw the start of the Lunar New Years festival.  This is a critical time for many traditional Kung Fu schools because of their involvement with Lion, Dragon and Qilin Dancing.  In fact, Lion Dancing performances are one of the main ways that martial arts schools interact with the broader community in both China and the West.  The news feeds have been full of stories about Lion dancing and other martial arts demonstrations all week.  This holiday is probably one of the highest visibility periods of the years for many traditional Chinese martial arts schools.

With so many stories on this topic flooding local newspapers it is hard to choose just one or two to focus on.  However, the Manila Times made our job easy with the following article describing the links between Lion dancing and traditional martial arts instruction in the Philippines today.

If you are looking for something a little more exotic you might also want to check out our own post on Qilin (unicorn) dancing among the Hakka community in Southern China.  This includes a very nice ethnographic description of a typical New Years celebration in a traditional Chinese martial arts school during the 1970s by the anthropologist Daniel Amos.

Bronze copy of an ancient Greek statue of two wrestlers, circa 3rd century BC.
Bronze copy of an ancient Greek statue of two wrestlers, circa 3rd century BC.

2. Continuing Olympic Drama Takes Down Wrestling.

We have been following the on-again, off again, drama Wushu’s attempts to become an Olympic sport for some time.  Of course that decision will not be made in a vacuum.  There are a number of other combat sports in the Olympics including Tae Kwon Do, Judo, Fencing, Boxing and (until quite recently) wrestling.  Given that this competition can only host a finite number of events it is necessary to cut something before adding another sport.

The smart money believed that the IOC was likely to cut “Modern Pentathlon” at this weeks meeting to make room for a new sport to be added for the 2020 games (right now Karate seems to be favored, but Wushu still has an outside shot).

No one expected them to cut wrestling out of the program.  Wrestling is one of the few sports from the ancient Olympics to survive (in some form) in the modern games.  Wrestling has literally been central to the identity of the Olympic movement in both the ancient and modern world.  It is a popular sport practiced widely around the world (28 different countries won medals in wrestling events in London).  Unfortunately the IOC decided that it did not appeal to younger viewers and they were troubled by the fact that it was an exclusively male sport.

Its not at all clear why this happened, or how this decision was reached.  One particularly disturbing set of statements noted that unlike other sports (Tae Kwon Do and Pentathlon) wrestling had not lobbied aggressively for continued inclusion.  Apparently the governing body of the sport didn’t realize they were in danger.  With all of the various IOC problems with corruption over the years statements about “aggressive lobbying” seem almost calculated to set off alarm bells.  Of course Olympic wrestling itself is also rumored to have a rich history of corruption and scandal.

By eliminating a combat sport the IOC has opened to door to replace it with anther one.  Karate is the leading favorite right now.  Of course both Karate and Judo are of Japanese origin, and that certainly does not sit well with leaders and sporting officials in Beijing.  Its not clear to me how broad the international support for Wushu actually is.  But if the Olympics can kick out wrestling, its clear pretty much anything could happen.  Maybe Wushu still has a shot.

"The Grand Master" opened to fantastic reviews in Berlin.
“The Grand Master” opened to fantastic reviews in Berlin.

Ip Man, it just keeps growing.

The South China Morning Post’s initial reviews of Wong Kar-wai latest film “The Grandmaster” (marketed as another Ip Man bio-pic) were lukewarm at best.  That was pretty disappointing given how long fans have been waiting for this film.

However, rumor has it that the director has substantially edited and “re-cut” the international version of the film.  This latest iteration of the project has opened to rave reviews at the highly prestigious Berlin Film Festival.  But don’t take my word for it.  Read the review here.

Needless to say, this latest round of reviews is restoring my faith in the project.  Here is the real money quote:

Wong Kar Wai’s vision places the historical tensions between the north and south of China in the human body through the contrasting martial arts practices. Reflecting its hero, the film integrates these styles into a holistic journey that ends with the breakthrough into popular culture — the martial arts icon and global superstar Bruce Lee.

In my own biographical writings on Ip Man I note this same tension between “north” and “south.”  I see him as someone who was standing on the crossroads of multiple competing narratives in Chinese culture and the martial arts.  This was what allowed him to re-imagine and reform his art so effectively in Hong Kong.  I do not think he was necessarily the most technically brilliant fighter to come out of Foshan in the 1930s, yet he knew everyone, and was able to see the critical developments that happened in the martial arts during the Republic of China era from a number of different competing perspectives.  I came to this conclusion after conducting extensive historical, biographical and ethnographic research.  It looks like I was not the only one who saw these struggles in his life and even in his martial arts.

But wait, there is more.  The life of Ip Man is about to be once again re-imagined….as a musical!

Yeah, it looks like this is actually going to happen.  The shows creators are promising a grand musical spectacle based on the life and biography of Ip Man.  They specifically state that this will not be a musical version of a martial arts movie (because that would be too weird).  Instead they are interested in exploring his life and philosophy.

Ip Ching is said to be involved with the project.  He appears in press photos and is listed as the show’s “Chief Consultant.”  It is hoped that this will add some authenticity to the discussion of Ip Man’s life and philosophy.  Given Wing Chun’s roots Cantonese Opera (among other places), this move makes sense…in a “long-wave karma” sort of way.  At the same time, the 21st century American in me just has to say it.  A musical?  Really?  This is not where I was expecting the franchise to head next.

black_kungfu_experience-01

4. The Black Kung Fu Experience

Martha Burr and Mei-Juin (the creative team that brought us Shaolin Ulysses (2003)) have produced another excellent documentary on the Chinese martial arts.  This one examines the intersection between African American popular culture and the Chinese martial arts in post-war American society.  The film is currently playing on PBS right now, so check the schedule of your local affiliated station.  A trailer and some other interesting features are available here.

I find this project very interesting because different groups in the west warmed to the martial arts at different points in time and for their own reason.  Focused studies such as this one are very helpful when attempting to build a more accurate image of how the martial arts became a cultural force in the America and the western world.

This is the third cooperative project between Martha Burr and Mei-Juin Chen to yield a very interesting and engaging documentary on the Chinese martial arts.  Their best known documentary on the subject is Shaolin Ulysses, a 2003 documentary that followed the changing lives and careers of a number of Shaolin monks (trained at the Temple in Henan) after they came to America.  In 2008 they released a documentary commissioned by PBS called Taiwan’s Kung Fu Secrets.  That film also looks interesting, but I have never been able to find a copy of it.  I wonder what other martial arts related projects*** they might have in the works?  On the odd chance that they are accepting requests I think we are long overdue for a serious documentary examination of women’s engagement with the traditional martial arts.

Martha Burr and Mei-Juin.  Photo was taken from the press packet for The Black Kung Fu Experience, 2013.
Martha Burr and Mei-Juin Chen. Photo was taken from the press packet for The Black Kung Fu Experience, 2013.

Our friends at Empty Mind Films have also been doing good work (readers will recall that they released a documentary on Wing Chun Kung Fu in 2012.)  They have just released a beautiful trailer for their new film on Japanese Budo, they have started a crowd-source funding campaign for a film titled Footsteps of the Buddha, and they have an update on their ambitious 2 part documentary on Japanese Budo.  Head on over and check it out.  It looks like 2013 should be a great year for them.

5. Gene Ching is spreading the word.

Gene Ching, the executive editor of Kung Fu Tai Chi Magazine, has also been turning out some strong work.  He wrote an article for the latest issue of his publication on the origin of the “Southern Sword” weapon and routine which are part of sporting Wushu events in mainland China.  The article is based on an interview with Professor Wang Peikun,himself an experienced martial arts scholar and writer.  Professor Wang has also been deeply involved with the creation and evolution of Wushu, and is largely responsible for the existence of the “southern sword,” a weapon with no real historical precedence.  In the interview he speaks quite openly about the early days of the Wushu movement and the creation of the southern sword routine to fill a perceived gap in the required forms.  The article opens a great window into an era of modern martial arts history that is rarely explored in the west.  I recommend anyone interested in the Wushu or the modern history of the martial arts take a look at it.

As a matter of fact, the current issue is full of interesting articles.  There is a piece on Qilin dancing that is well timed to coincide with the new year, and another shorter article on the Black Kung Fu experience discussed above.  Gene Qing’s editorial on the state of traditional Kung Fu and the mixed martial arts is also well worth the read.

In fact, he even had a chance to expand on these remarks at Jason Swanson’s blog, The Future of Martial Arts.  Gene has interesting thoughts about where our community has been, what is going on now and where we will be in the future (hint, it will be nice to be an internal practitioner).  He even addresses the recent rise of Chinese martial studies and the current trend of academic engagement with the martial arts.  Head on over and check it out.

Is this the future of the martial arts in China?
Is this the future of the martial arts in China?

6. The Economist talks about the state of MMA in China.

My friend Sascha Matuszak lives in China and writes for The Economist (among other things).  He also has a blog called The Last Masters, which readers of Kung Fu Tea may find interesting.  Recently he had a chance to travel across the country to see a large domestic MMA competition.  The Economist ran a short piece that he wrote on the trip, but its only the tip of the iceberg.  I know that Sascha has a lot more that he wants to say on the topic.  Be sure to check out this interesting piece of mainstream journalism on the current state of the Chinese martial arts.  Coming at the same topic from a different perspective, the Global Times recently ran a story about the challenges that MMA are currently facing in China.

7.  The UFC versus the State of New York

The UFC is currently locked in a potentially more important battle much closer to home.  The group is challenging New York State’s long running ban on Mixed Martial Arts.  The legislature has refused to budge on the issue and its now in the hands of the courts.  Needless to say, New York State has a large media market and the UFC would like a piece of that action as well.

And as long as we are discussing the place of MMA in American society, lets not forget this new film.  All of the reports I have heard say that this will be better than expected.

Stephen Chow in Kung Fu Hustle.
Stephen Chow in Kung Fu Hustle.

8. Martial Arts Movies and Chinese Politics: Stephen Chow steps into the ring.

In the last news update we discussed Jackie Chan’s odd string of anti-American and anti-liberal rants.  Many commentators have speculated that these statements were attempts to ingratiate himself with mainland Chinese movie audiences and leaders.  Now it appears that another well known Hong Kong action star is getting into the political act.  Stephen Chow, best known in the west for his film “Kung Fu Hustle,” was recently appointed to the Guangdong Provincial Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference.  Chow has previously kept a low profile on political questions, but last year he surprised many people by endorsing Henry Tang Ying-yen in his unsuccessful (and scandal plagued) bid to become the city’s Chief Executive.

While largely ceremonial in nature, the posting does have the potential to strengthen Chow’s image with both media and audiences on the mainland.  In recent years a number of other individuals in the entertainment industry have also been appointed to the same body.  As a political scientist I am left to wonder if this strategy is an attempt to project “soft power” into Hong Kong, or whether it is more about co-opting these individual’s “star power” for the government’s benefit.  Or perhaps its both.

Its facebook time!
Its Facebook time!

9. What is new at the Kung Fu Tea Facebook Group.

It has been a busy month at the Kung Fu Tea Facebook group.  We have posted videos of how a wooden Dummy is made, Nepalese craftsmen making kukris with only traditional tools, full contact weapons sparring, notices for upcoming academic conferences, articles on the link between Daoism and the martial arts, and documentaries on Kendo and ancient Chinese Bronze Weapons.  If any of those subjects sound interesting, head on over and check them out.  The Facebook group is also a great way to find out about new posts and updates here at Kung Fu Tea!

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