“Chinese Martial Arts in the News” is a semi-regular feature here at Kung Fu Tea. Every three or four weeks I try to conduct a roundup of the major stories affecting the Chinese martial arts. Special attention is payed to how these practices are portrayed in the mainstream media. Nevertheless, there is a lot of ground to cover and its always possible that I have missed something. If so put a link in the comments. Also, if you know of a developing story that should be covered in this series drop me an email. There have been a number of important stories over the last few weeks, so lets get on to the news.
Juan Carlos Aguilar, Spanish Shaolin martial artist, arrested for murder.
It is generally a good thing when the mainstream media reports on Chinese martial artists. Sadly the news out of Spain during the last week has been tragic. Juan Carlos Aguilar, a “Shaolin Master” was arrested for murder after neighbors reported him pulling a struggling Nigerian woman (Maureen Ada Ortuya) into his martial arts school by her hair. When police arrived they were forced to break down the front gate to gain entry. They then found Aguilar standing over the body of the bound and badly beaten Ortuya. She was taken to a hospital where she survived for two days in a coma before ultimately dying.
While searching the school the police also found human remains from one or more other casualties. Sources have attributed to these to either a Czech or Colombian victim. The latest reports I was able to find indicated that Police were still searching for additional remains and where taking the precaution of dredging a nearby section of river.
There are a number of significant aspects to this story. Obviously events such as these do nothing to improve the public perception of martial artists, regardless of tradition or style. I don’t think anyone really wants to contemplate the havoc that a psychopath and professionally trained martial artist could wreak on an unsuspecting community. Luckily the press has been pretty quick to dismiss Aguilar as a “fake” monk and Shaolin master.
These murders also highlight the problem of violence against prostitutes in Spain. Both Ortuya and the second victim are believed to have been sex workers. These murders tie into larger narratives about immigration and race in the region. Not surprisingly this is the angle that the Spanish press seems to have favored.
More interesting from our perspective is what this sad incident reveals about the nature of the “Shaolin community.” The main temple in Henan and their official affiliate in Spain moved quickly to distance themselves from Aguilar and to deny that there was any connection between his group and theirs. They further accused him of misappropriating the name “Shaolin.”
In making their argument they pointed out that Aguilar was not actually an ordained monk (i.e., he was not a real member of the Sangha), he did not study at the Shaolin Temple and none of his teachers were official Shaolin monks. Clearly by this standard he had no right to claim to be practicing Shaolin Kung Fu or to be a “Shaolin Master.”
Of course by the same standard virtually no one can actually claim an affiliation with Shaolin, including the vast majority of students at the dozens of boarding schools in Dengfend which enrich both the local economy and the Temple by training thousands of “Shaolin” students a year. Most of these students are instructed by “lay masters.” A few may work directly with one of Shaolin’s former “martial monks.”
These are individuals who may have been trained to be members of one of the various “Shaolin performance teams.” But the vast majority of these athletes never actually go on to become members of the Sangha. They basically remain professional martial artists with a strong connection to the temple and sometimes a master/student relationship one of the actual monks. After leaving the performance circuit the “martial monks” often find positions as Wushu instructors. It seems to be both them, and their students, who do a lot of the instructing in the larger “Shaolin Community.”
It is actually a challenge to define who is a “real Shaolin monk” and I don’t think that is an accident. The martial traditions and business dealings of the venerable Temple make it so. In a strict sense there are only a very small number of actual ordained monks in the temple at any point in time. But Shaolin has always had a complicated relationship with the teaming martial world just outside its door.
I have not been able to track down the exact details of Aguilar’s training and lineage. Hopefully this will come out in the next few weeks. What we know right now is that he actually did study “Shaolin Kung Fu” in China during the 1990s (probably in 1997). He did not have a close association, if any, with the actual Temple. The few videos I saw of the inside of his school before they were taken down would seem to indicate that he had a very eccentric view of Buddhism and the martial arts in general.
The ease with which others have been able to pick up and spread the Shaolin mythos has been a great boon to the order of ordained monks in Henan. It has made their temple rich, their martial tradition famous and it has given them visibility that otherwise would have been impossible. However, the disadvantage of such an “easily franchised brand” is that irresponsible individuals (or in this case a psychopath) can seriously damage your image.
Shaolin has shown sensitivity to these issues in the past. They have fought legal battles to control their trademark and they have distanced themselves from some of the local boarding schools that sought to use their name and fame. It will be interesting to see whether this tragedy leads to renewed efforts to preserve the Temple’s “brand” in the global market.
Perfect World to Launch Beta Testing for Martial Arts MMORPG “Swordsman Online” on June 28
Media has always been critical to the spread of the Chinese martial arts. From the 1920s on most people (especially those from educated or middle class backgrounds) were first introduced to the traditional fighting styles through the medium of novels, newspapers and radio shows. Later movies and television programs became the dominate modes of transmission. I think that we are all familiar with the predictable influx of new students in our training halls after a hit movie comes out.
Still, times are changing. Video games are becoming a crucial piece of the larger media puzzle. Numerous studies have shown that young people are increasingly likely to choose video games over either television or movies as a form of entertainment. Large numbers of individuals, in both the east and west, are being exposed to the martial arts through this more interactive medium.
Perfect World has recently announced that they are opening beta testing for their new Massive Multi-player Online Role Playing Game (MMORPG) titled “Swordsman Online.” The product allows players to create and equip individualized characters that will then explore a virtual world based on the mythology of the Chinese martial arts.
Here is where the project gets really interesting. The game’s online world directly replicates and expands upon on the one created by the acclaimed writer Louis Cha (Jin Yong) in his wuxia (swordsmen) novels. Jin Yong, who released his first novel in 1950, is without a doubt the single most successful Chinese author of the 20th century. His works have been profoundly important to generations of young readers. Much of the current view of “martial virtue” and the nature of the “Rivers and Lakes” is a reflection of the world that he created in his novels.
Will this new game insure the popularity of his stories, and his view of the martial realm, among a new generation of youth? Or might the radically different nature of the medium change the experience beyond recognition? After all, most modern novels have plots where as MMORPGs are open-ended consensual world building exercises. By definition they cannot have grand story-arcs. It will be interesting to see how well the martial realm of the 1960s translates into a new technological medium.
Jin Yong Complete a Doctorate in Chinese Literature
Interestingly “Swordsman Online” is not the only story about Jin Yong that we have to report this week. While 89 it would appear that he is staying quite active. A recent report in the South China Morning Post indicates that he has just submitted his thesis for completion of a Doctoral degree in Chinese literature. The University of Peking indicates that he began his studies in 2009.
Congratulations on the achievement!
Bruce Lee Once Again Promoted as the Unofficial Mascot of the Mixed Martial Arts
The South China Morning Post recently ran a story on the “One Asia Mixed Martial Arts Summit” held in Singapore. Two of the guests of honor were Bruce Lee’s siblings, Robert Lee and Phoebe Lee. They reminisced about their brother and retold his story while speculating on how much he would have appreciated the current MMA movement.
I don’t want to comment on their retelling of their sibling’s life and personality as I am not a Bruce Lee expert. But I do find MMA’s recent love affair with Lee to be fascinating. It seems to me that there has been a definite uptick in this sort of adulation over the last few years. That would seem to indicate that Lee’s legacy is providing some sort of meaning to MMA discussions that people like. But what exactly is it?
Of course the ability to tie Lee’s image more closely to MMA is a godsend for those attempting to promote the sport in Asia. Japan has a long tradition of “extreme” fighting contest, but MMA generally, and the UFC in particular, have been a harder sell in other places, including China. It seems that MMA schools are starting to pick up steam, but there is still some ways to go before the sport has the same presence that it enjoys in North America. Maybe Lee’s symbolic ability to act as a cultural translator and bridge is what has been missing?
New Volume on Hung Gar (Hung Kuen) Enjoys Enthusiastic Reception
The South China Morning Post has really been on a roll this month. They have just published a favorable review of a new, comprehensive, English language hand combat manual. The book by Hing Chao is titled Hung Kuen Fundamentals: Gung Gee Fok Fu Kuen (International Guoshu Association, 2013).
This book was first discussed here. The story of its genesis is quite interesting. The author wished to preserve a more comprehensive vision of Hung Gar’s history and body of techniques. Given the current state of the southern Chinese martial arts (where many arts are now numerically dominated by westerners) he decided that this meant his manual had to be published in English.
The SCMP review is generally positive. However, I found this line particularly revealing:
“Excerpts about brawling raise questions about hung kuen’s cultural clout, but the guide is a sharply written and compact contribution to martial arts literature, which should draw more than a niche audience.”
In the west, discussions of “real life encounters” and “practical street defense” are usually seen as giving a martial art credibility. Hung Gar has always been a practical art, and I suspect that is one of the reasons it has done fairly well in the global market. Still, the author’s hesitance on this point reminds us that the “martial values” of Southern China are often not shared by everyone in society. Since the early 1980s the traditional fighting styles have been bolstered by their association with issues like “self-cultivation” and “national identity.” Yet the reviewer’s remark reminds us that there are aspects of the traditional martial arts that remain fundamentally distasteful to many individuals in Chinese society.
I have yet to purchase a copy of this book, but when I do I would love to review it either on the blog or the Facebook group.
Chinese Martial Studies in the public square: Lorge, Bowman, Judkins.
Over the last month a number of individuals from the field of Chinese Martial Studies have had an opportunity to discuss their research and ideas in public forums. First off was Paul Bowman. Prof. Bowman is the Director of Postgraduate Research Studies at the School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies, Cardiff University. He is also an all around expert on Bruce Lee and his legacy in the media. Recently he had a chance to sit down with Nick Digilio of WGN Radio in Chicago and talk about Bruce Lee, the martial arts and their place in popular culture. Be sure to check this out!
Prof. Peter Lorge, a Chinese military historian from Vanderbilt University, has also been busy. He just had an essay published in the latest issue of Kung Fu Tai Chi Magazine titled “What MMA has to teach us about the Chinese martial arts.” It has a good discussion of Ming era boxing in a military context and is sure to stimulate a lot of discussion. You can find the full text of his article here.
Lastly I had a chance to do an interview with Dave and Craig, the hosts of the “Hiyaa Martial Arts Podcast.” We talked about a number of topics including research into various types of weapons, the use of economic concepts when theorizing about the martial arts and the growing enthusiasm for academic discussions among practicing hand combat students. The entire conversation was very interesting. You can stream or download the podcast here.
Be sure to head on over to the Facebook group to check out what has been going on. You will find a great conversation about the construction of traditional Chinese spears, an interview with Wing Chun Master Samuel Kwok and a documentary (with English subtitles) on armed escorts and caravan guards in Qing era China. These are just a few of the highlights. The Facebook page is also a great way to find out about new posts and to keep up with what I have been reading and thinking about in a less formal environment.