Tai Chi Hero, promotional poster.
Tai Chi Hero, promotional poster.


Welcome to the April 22nd edition of “Chinese Martial Arts in the News.”  Every three weeks we stop to reflect on important events in the Chinese martial arts community and to take a look at how we are being covered in the media.  I try to hit all of the top stories from the last three weeks, but if I have missed something link to it in the comments section below.  Likewise, if you are aware of a developing story that I should be paying attention to for coverage in a future news roundup, drop me a line.  Lets get to the news!

Taiji Quan Rising

Last week I examined the idea that the internal martial arts, and more specifically Taiji, are set to see a substantial revival in popularity.  Its an interesting prediction and I have now seen multiple seasoned observers of the martial arts scene say more or less the same thing.  My post did not turn up any evidence of a dramatic recovery when looking at consumer behavior, though its clear the years of decline have stopped.  Still, it does appear that demographic trends (the aging baby-boomers) and “elite opinion” are both trending in that direction.

With that in mind it should be noted that Taiji seems to be gaining a certain currency in popular culture.  First off, Keanu Reeves is set to make his directorial debut in a relatively large and well-funded martial arts picture titled “Man of Tai Chi.”  The plot sticks close to Kung Fu convention.  If the trailer is an accurate guide it revolves around two men.  The villain, played by Reeves, is hosting a massive martial arts tournament of the sort where the losers are not expected to walk out of the ring.  The protagonist, played by Tiger Hu Chen, appears to be fighting both for his life and his soul.  Typical Kung Fu fare in that sense.

However, the fight choreography looks excellent.  This is the sort of thing that could potentially interest a lot of younger viewers in Taiji.  Its also interesting to note that this film is due to be released in China before it comes to North American markets.

Nor will this be the only Taiji themed film competing for viewers.  Stephen Fung’s Kung Fu/Steam Punk mash-up “Tai Chi 0” has proved to be successful with audiences.  I like the visual aesthetics of these films and the fact that they place the traditional martial arts in a fantasized version of modernity, complete with guns and steam engines.

“Tai Chi 0” was only the first of a three part trilogy.  The second film in the series “Tai Chi Hero” was recently screened at the Dallas International Film Festival.  Again, the reception seems to have been generally positive.  They also published a brief interview with the director.  This sort of exposure is the sort of thing that has the potential to motivate viewers to learn more about the internal arts.

Nor are all of the developments confined to the world of film.  The Chinese have been conscious of Kung Fu’s potential as a tool of public diplomacy for some time.  Taiji with its global appeal, accessibility and health benefits is an ideal tool to spread awareness of, and positive associations with, Chinese culture.  Jack Ma, head of the on-line retailing Alibaba Group has partnered with renown Martial Arts star Jet Li to do exactly that.

In 2011 they announced the creation of a group called “Tai Ji Zen” to spread both the health and spiritual benefits of “internal training.”  Not much was heard after the initial announcement but the group recently celebrated an “official launch” on April 13th of this year.  Apparently they have a Facebook group that you can access here.  It will be interesting to watch how this project develops and who they partner with.

An amature Cantonese Opera group (all male) in Oakland, 1924.  Note that the singer on the far left carries a set of older hudiedao with interestingly shaped blades.
An amateur Cantonese Opera group (all male) in Oakland, 1924. Note that the singer on the far left carries a set of older hudiedao with interestingly shaped blades.  Source: University of California, calisphere.

A Resurgence of Interest in traditional Cantonese Opera. 

The question of identity is becoming increasingly complex for residents of Hong Kong.  Long a commercial hub with no particular sense of identity or culture, the reunification with China has forced the residents of this city to reconsider what it means both to be “Chinese” as well as to hail from Hong Kong.  One of the reasons why I am interested in traditional southern martial arts, such as Wing Chun, Hung Gar and Choy Li Fut, is that they have become cultural signifiers of the region’s unique, and often contested, heritage and identity.  While the martial arts as a whole are often taken to be national symbols, the smaller fighting systems of southern China have retained a distinctly regional flavor.

Of course the martial arts are not the only practice that can be imbued with these sorts of meaning.  The stories and dramas of Cantonese language opera have long functioned as a shared repository of regional culture and knowledge.  Recently there has been an upswing of interest in these unique local art forms.  This summer the Chinese Opera Festival in Hong Kong will mount eight plays to be performed between the end of June and the end of July.  If you are traveling to Hong Kong this summer this may be well worth checking out.

I found it interesting that a number of these performances will be of “military plays” which will feature martial arts training.  A number of southern traditions (including Wing Chun) explicitly claim some link to local opera, but this is an area that definitely needs more reliable historical and social research.

The LA Times (which has reported on a number of interesting martial arts stories in the last month) has an informative article on the small but growing fan-base of Cantonese Opera.  It is well worth checking out.

Bruce Lee remains an important icon in Hong Kong, fueling demand for some sort of permanent museum.
Bruce Lee remains an important icon in Hong Kong.  Source: Wikimedia.

Remembering the Little Dragon

Matthew Polly is a well-known and respected figure in Chinese martial arts circles.  His travelogue American Shaolin was an important time capsule, recording a moment in the actual life of the Shaolin Kung Fu establishment.  Who knows how many people were inspired to deepen their training, and even to travel to China for extended periods of time, because of his writing.

Polly currently has a new project.  He is working on a biography of Bruce Lee.  He notes in an interview with the South China Morning Post that there has been an uptick of interest in Lee and his career, but we have not had a major biography of him published in the last 20 years.  Further, Polly says that his project will focus extensively on the Hong Kong side of his life, including his childhood, school year and acting career.  I for one will be quite interested to see what Polly manages to turn up.

The LA Times has also been reporting on the Bruce Lee story.  Earlier this week they ran an interesting retrospective on the “Summer of 1973” when “Enter the Dragon” took Hollywood by storm.  Be sure to check out the gallery of vintage Kung Fu movie posters that accompanies the article. For a much more nuanced discussion of the same period be sure to check out Prof. Paul Bowman’s lecture on the 1970s “Bruce Lee Phenomenon” which he just posted on-line.  Its like being back in college, but without the tuition payments.

Lastly the English language China Daily just ran a story on Foshan, the hometown to both Bruce Lee and Wing Chun.  The author points out that while Foshan is mostly known today for its incredible Kung Fu heritage, at one point in time it was much better known as a center of manufacturing and trade.  All of which are very true. Until the middle of the 19th century Foshan was an extremely wealthy commercial town.

However, as I have argued in various places, these were not unrelated facts.  It was Foshan’s vibrant economy and close connections to both domestic and international trade routes that helped to promote the growth of a market in the traditional fighting arts in the first place.  I will have more on the link between trade and the development of the martial arts in future posts.

Its facebook time!
Its Facebook time!

Other Developments

Jackie Chan is back in the news, and not in a good way.  I guess that is the problem with feeding the “outrage machine.”  Anyone who stands too near it can lose a limb, regardless of their good intentions.

      On a happier note,”The Black Kung Fu Experience” on DVD is now available for pre-order.  This documentary was produced by Martha Burr and Mei-Juin Chen.  They are the same creative team that brought us Shaolin Ulysses and a number of other interesting projects.  This is a great chance to see a well-made documentary on a critical aspect of the global martial arts experience. 

Lastly, head on over to the Facebook Group and see what you have been missing.  We have an account of a recent visit to Chen Village, a new source for traditional Chinese bows, a historical overview of the evolution of the nunchaku, a discussion of authentic rattan shields and so much more!  Check it out.