Tourists at the Shaolin Temple.  Henan, 2012.
Tourists at the Shaolin Temple. Henan, 2012.  Source: Wikimedia.

Introduction: Chinese Martial Arts in the News.

Welcome!  In this semi-regular feature I present a roundup of some of the most interesting news stories to emerge over the last four weeks.  Each of these stories either focuses on the Chinese martial arts or other issues that effects them.  If you know about a breaking or ongoing story that you think should be covered here shoot me an email.  We have a number of interesting items to discuss, so lets get going.

1.  The Rise of “Martial Arts Tourism” in Mainland China.

Numerous commentators have noted the declining fortunes of the traditional martial arts in mainland China.  The “Kung Fu Fever” of the 1980s and 1990s has subsided and increasingly instructors are having trouble recruiting young people into their arts.  Yet ironically, the martial arts do not seem to be loosing any of their appeal in popular culture.

One of the areas where this is most readily apparent is in the continued rise of “Martial Arts Tourism.”  The Shaolin Temple and Chen Village (both in Henan Province) were early benefices of the economic boom that that accompanied wave after wave of curious tourists and sightseers.  While fewer individuals in China have the time and inclination to study Kung Fu, more workers have enough disposable cash and time to take vacations.  As a result tourism is a booming and highly lucrative industry.  Key martial arts temples, mountains and attractions have proven to be popular draws.

An increasingly number of cities are trying to cash in on this trend.  We have already discussed Foshan’s attempts to reinvigorate its historic downtown by drawing on the area’s popular martial legacy.  It is hoped that this association with Hung Gar and Wing Chun will attract both visitors and businesses.  Other municipalities are using similar strategies to lure tourists and investment dollars.

Most recently Fujiazhuang in Liaoning Province has announced an ambitious plan to build a martial arts museum as part of their own urban renewal campaign.  The museum will feature both displays on China’s martial culture and will have a large performance area to accommodate demonstrations and shows.  It will also offer instruction in Taiji.

It is impossible to predict how these sorts of things will ultimately turn out, but I always feel a little ambivalent when I hear about them.  I like the idea of a museum, and it is encouraging to know that enough people in China remain interested in the martial arts that they can be used as a tourist attraction.  At the same time, such projects do not always do much to preserve and promote the unique martial heritage of a given region.  Hopefully this new museum will make a positive contribution to the local martial arts scene.

2. Harvard Pays Tribute to the Kung Fu films of  King Hu.

We have a number of film related news items this week and can thank the Harvard Film Archive for the one that I find the most interesting.   For the rest for the month of March the Film Archive will be paying tribute to King Fu, a talented and visionary director of martial arts dramas.  In total they will be screening eleven of his films in a special presentation titled “King Hu and the Art of Wuxia.”  The event runs through Friday, March 24th.  If you are in Boston this would be a great event to attend.

Unfortunately I am not that close to Harvard, so I think I will be sponsoring my own private film festival timed to coincide with the main event.  I find King Fu to be interesting for a number of reasons.  He has a slightly different sense of history than many of the other directors of his generation.  His life story is also fascinating.  He was born in Mainland China, came up through the ranks in Opera School in Beijing, transitioned to film and fled to Hong Kong in 1949.  I have always found the work produced by this generation of story tellers and martial artists fascinating.  It is almost always a great source of social and political observations.

Results of a public beating at a martial arts school.  Source:
Results of a public beating at a martial arts school. Source:

3.  Child Abuse in China’s Wushu Boarding Schools.

On a sadder note, the question of child abuse in the many large martial arts focused middle and high schools in China is back in the news.  This topic made quite a splash last year when videos and images of public beatings of young students started to circulate on Chinese discussion boards and social networks.  Further investigations revealed that many of these schools routinely and savagely beat students for very minor infractions of their rules.  Most of the Chinese commentators were incensed by these videos and images.  At the time I covered this story on the Kung Fu Tea Facebook page.

Recently this story has started to appear outside of China.  Deutsche Welle just ran a piece that is worth checking out. If you are interested in the older Chinese coverage of the controversy you can start here.

One of the driving factors behind declining interest in the traditional martial arts (and even Wushu) in China today is parental opposition.  The large Wushu schools of northern China thrived in the 1990s in large part because they offered the promise of employment as either a soldier, police officer or martial arts instructor outside of the agricultural sector.  Additionally, the primitive conditions in these schools (poor food, no heat in the winter) was often no worse than the rural villages that most of their students came from.

In recent years things have changed.  The promised jobs as soldier and police officers have proved more elusive for many graduates than expected.  In some cases these unemployed martial artists have started to find their way into criminal organizations.  Standards of living have risen dramatically across the country and parents are now pushing their children to prepare for “modern” middle class careers.

The rapidly spreading perception that Wushu training is physically abusive is not doing anything to reverse this trend.  In fact, it further plays into the narrative that the martial arts are a regressive and backward aspect of society that children should be sheltered from.  Overcoming this image problem is one of the most important problems facing Chinese martial artists today.

4.  The Other Shoe Drops for Jackie Chan

I recently reported on a number of bizarre anti-American comments made by the popular actor and martial artists Jackie Chan.  These statements were widely discussed in the western press.  In Hong Kong the newspapers were more concerned with his anti-liberal statements including calls for the Communist government to reign in personal freedoms and limit demonstrations.  Such statements have alienated Chan from many residents of Hong Kong where his popularity is dropping rapidly.  Many commentators saw these comments as essentially political and an attempt to curry favor with viewers and leaders in Mainland China.

The Chinese government has shown increasing interest in Hong Kong’s film industry lately.  A number of high profile actors and directors have been appointed to different political advisory bodies at both the provincial and national level in an attempt to leverage their “star power” on the government’s behalf.

It thus comes as no surprise to learn that Jackie Chan has just received an appointment to the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference.  While the appointment is largely symbolic in nature it has drawn a furious backlash from citizens in Hong Kong.  It seems clear that the Chinese government would like to borrow Chan’s “soft power,” yet its not clear that in his current state he is going to be to do much to promote a “unified Chinese state.”

If anything Chan is starting to look increasingly gaffe prone.  Recently he kicked up another storm of criticism when he was photographed using an official military car for personal travel.  The misappropriation of military cars and limos has been a sore spot for Chinese citizens who are increasingly concerned about the financial costs of corruption.  This latest controversy has increased the perception that Chan is out of touch with Hong Kong society.

Ip Man.Bruce Lee
A photograph of Bruce Lee standing with his teacher Ip Man.

5. Ip Man and Bruce Lee, Back at the Box Office.

Ip Man’s assault on the Kung Fu film industry shows no sign of letting up.  Coming fast on the heals of Wong Kar Wai’s Grandmaster, Anthony Wong will reprise the role of now older master for the film Ip Man: the Final Fight.  This movie tackles a later phase of his career, after fleeing to Hong Kong in 1949.  I have not heard any early buzz about this film but expect that we soon will.  It is currently slated to open this week at the Hong Kong Film Festival.

According to the Hollywood Reporter there is also a new Bruce Lee bio-pic in the works.  This film is titled Bruce Lee: Birth of the Dragon, and it will focus on the hugely controversial fight between Lee and Wong Jack Man.  The project is in its very early stages and the studio has hired Christopher Wilkinson and Stephen Rivele to write a preliminary script.

It will certainly be interesting to watch how this film progresses and is received.  The fight between Lee and Wong has achieved nearly epic proportions in the modern lore of the martial arts, yet almost every detail of it is contested by someone.  I am sure that this film will inspire a lot of “friendly conversation” at an internet discussion forum near you.

6. New Book on Bruce Lee and Popular Culture

While we are on the subject, now would be a good time to remind you that Amazon has just started shipping Prof. Paul Bowman’s new book, Beyond Bruce Lee: Chasing the Dragon Through Film, Philosophy, and Popular Culture Bowman is a professor at the Cardiff School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies in the UK.  He has written and lectured extensively on the “Bruce Lee Phenomenon” and his latest book looks excellent. Here is what the publisher has to say:

In order to understand Bruce Lee, we must look beyond Bruce Lee to the artist’s intricate cultural and historical contexts. This work begins by contextualising Lee, examining his films and martial arts work, and his changing cultural status within different times and places. The text examines Bruce Lee’s films and philosophy in relation to the popular culture and cultural politics of the 1960s and 1970s, and it addresses the resurgence of his popularity in Hong Kong and China in the twenty-first century.

The study also explores Lee’s ongoing legacy and influence in the West, considering his function as a shifting symbol of ethnic politics and the ways in which he continues to inform Hollywood film-fight choreography. Beyond Bruce Lee ultimately argues Lee is best understood in terms of “cultural translation” and that his interventions and importance are ongoing.

I should note that this is actually Bowman’s second major study of Bruce Lee.  Readers of Kung Fu Tea might also be interested in his first work, Theorizing Bruce Lee: Film-Fantasy-Fighting-Philosophy (Rodopi, 2009).  You can also hear him discussing some of his ideas in this recent interview.

7.  The Fate of MMA in New York State.

The mixed martial arts came one step closer to gaining legal recognition in New York, where they are currently banned by state law.  The State Senate recently passed a bill legalizing the sport, and the governor has indicated his willingness to support the effort.  However, the Assembly must now debate the measure and it is expected to face opposition in that chamber.  While one of the fastest growing sports in the USA, the UFC has not been able to sponsor or hold tournaments in New York State, which has a large and lucrative media market.  Both the governor and individuals in the Senate see MMA tournaments as a potential source of revenue for the state.


8. Visit the Kung Fu Tea Facebook Page.

If you have not been over to the Facebook page in a while, it is time to drop by and see what is going on.  Since our last update we have discovered a new lineage of Wing Chun, seen some great footage of Choy Li Fut in the California in the early 1960s, watched a documentary on traditional sword makers in Taiwan and read some interesting books.  Come on by and see what you have been missing!