Welcome to another edition of Chinese Martial Arts in the news. This is a semi-regular feature in which we review a roundup of media stories dealing with the martial arts over the last three to four weeks. We try to look both at events that impact the TCMA community as well as how the traditional Asian fighting systems are portrayed in the media. While we try to find all of the major stories there is always a chance that we have missed something. If you are aware of an important news event relating to the TCMA feel free to drop a link in the comments section below. If you are aware of a developing story that should be covered in the future feel free to send me an email.
We have a number of stories to cover this week, so lets get to the news!
1. The Traditional Chinese Martial Arts as a tool of public diplomacy.
It is no secret that the Chinese government occasionally uses the widespread interest in the traditional fighting arts as a tool to build a positive national image and bonds of trust with groups outside of the Chinese mainland. These sorts of efforts are euphemistically referred to as “public diplomacy.” As a political scientist who studies International Relations I am always interested in these sorts of informal diplomatic efforts which revolve around attempts to cultivate and harness “soft power.”
Often these sorts of efforts can be abstract and nebulous, but a recent news story indicates that “Kung Fu Diplomacy” is about to get a lot more concrete. The Chinese government has just announced a new program which will offer martial arts training in a variety of styles to both foreign diplomatic personal and their families while they are stationed in the PRC. They are also placing instructors in foreign embassies so that when these individuals return to their home countries (or are transferred to their next overseas posting) they will be able to continue with their training. This is a great mechanism for reaching out to and building potentially long term relationships with the diplomatic elite of numerous countries. Its still technically “Public Diplomacy,” but of a very focused type.
2. Recent Archeological Find makes a Contribution to our Understanding of Ancient Chinese Martial Culture.
One of the more exciting stories to emerge in the past month was brought to us by the field of archeology. It was revealed that a group of scholars managed to locate a beautifully decorated tomb which belonged to a general or important military officer during the Northern Qi Dynasty, almost 1500 years ago. The beautifully preserved structure, in Shanxi province, had already been looted. Both the bodies and grave goods of the original inhabitants were already gone before archeologists became aware of the site. However, they arrived just in the nick of time to save the elaborately painted murals on the walls. There were actually some indications that the grave robbers were planning on coming back to remove them as well.
Students of China’s ancient martial history will probably appreciate these murals. They show the general’s troops and body guard flanking him and his wife as they settle down for an outdoor meal. The figures were painted with care and attention was paid to their costumes and weapons. A variety of other metaphysical and religious symbols were also present in the tomb’s art. Who knows what the grave robbers managed to get away with, but its hard to imagine that it could have been any more interesting and informative than what was left behind.
3. UFC to host a reality tryout show in China.
A number of outlets are reporting that the UFC has decided to shoot an upcoming series of their contestant reality show, “The Ultimate Fighter,” in China. Following their standard format, the show will feature a variety of Chinese contestants in three different weight classes vying for a contract with the UFC. It looks like plans are in place to broadcast a Chinese language version of the show in Asia, but so far there has be no suggestion of any possible North American showings. Obviously “Ultimate Fighter: China” is a vehicle created to promote the UFC brand in the PRC and to help it develop a deeper bench of local athletes. Still, this is one season of the show that I would have watched with some interest.
4. The New York Times visits a Japanese fencing school, and discovers a training program for Jedi Knights.
This next news item is not, strictly speaking, related to the Chinese martial arts. Still, its a broad enough phenomenon that I think readers will find it interesting. A few days ago the New York Times decided to profile a school of Japanese swordsmanship in the NYC area. What did they discover? Young Jedi Knights in training. No, this was not one of those places dedicated to the nascent “Jedism” movement. This was just a regular Japanese school teaching the traditional arts. Yet the reporter simply could not stop likening everything he saw, or experienced, to Star Wars.
As a field we spend a lot of time thinking about how Bruce Lee helped to make the martial arts accessible to a much wider audience. In fact, I will be doing a little bit of that myself later in the post. But Star Wars also had an important effect on who pursued the martial arts and what they hoped to find in them. Its impact is still being felt today but it remains under-theorized. This New York Times article is a good reminder that there is still some work to be done in this area.
5. Bruce Lee’s “Enter the Dragon” turns 40.
Unless you have been living under a rock you have probably heard that Bruce Lee is about to celebrate a major milestone. Depending on who you ask this year is special either as the 40th anniversary of the iconic artist’s death, or as the 40th birthday bash for his magnum opus, “Enter the Dragon.” This film did more to introduce the Chinese martial arts to the world than any single event since the Boxer Uprising. The “long awaited projects,” “retrospectives,” “revaluations” and hymns of praise have been coming fast and furious. So here is quick sample of what is going on out there.
First off, Mathew Polly has claimed a spot in Playboy. Luckily he will be keeping his cloths on and previewing his upcoming (and eagerly awaited) biography of Bruce Lee. We can also expect some movement on the documentary front. A new project titled “I am Bruce Lee” is expected to be released soon. This work is said to contain a number of important interviews and multiple previously unseen clips of Lee in action. Wing Chun students will be interested to note that it is supposed to contain at least two instances of Lee practicing Chi Sao with various people.
Of course no celebration would be complete without new statuary and museum exhibits! The LA Times recently reported on the installation of a new Bruce Lee statue in the city’s Chinatown district. Lee lived in LA for a time and obviously had ties to the area’s film and television industry.
Meanwhile residents of Hong Kong (who already have a very nice statue) are looking for their own way to celebrate their favored son. The city is about to open a new museum exhibit that is backed by both the Lee estate and the local government. The collection that will be exhibited in the venue was originally assembled for the ill fated Bruce Lee Museum that fell apart earlier this year. However, the South China Morning Post has recently reported that there is some momentum behind expanding the collection and making it a permanent display.
I have tended to shy away from obituaries when assembling the stories that I feature on “Chinese Martial Arts in the News.” However, our community has recently lost two members who each helped to craft the modern public perception of the Chinese martial arts. Lau Kar-leung recently passed away. The Hong Kong film maker is best remembered for his path-breaking fight choreography. He brought a sense of realism to his work and helped to keep the myths and spirit of the Southern Chinese martial arts alive. While his contributions to the genera only gained widespread acknowledgement in the last few years, Lau Kar-leung was a critical architect of the golden age of Kung Fu films.
Late Sunday afternoon news broke that Jim Kelly, best known for his engaging performance with Bruce Lee in “Enter the Dragon,” passed away following a battle with cancer. Kelly had opened his own karate school before becoming involved with film and he stared in a number of other projects after his work with Lee. He had an incredible screen presence and, like Lee, has become something of an iconic figure for everyone who looks back fondly on the Kung Fu craze of the late 1970s and early 1980s.
7. Chinese Martial Arts in Film: New Documentaries, Lost Kung Fu Teasures and Ip Man comes out on Top.
There are a number of cinema related stories that have emerged in the last few weeks. First, the NY Times has written a fairly comprehensive review of the New York Asian Film Festival which is currently running (for anyone in the area). I was stunned when the Times reviewer choose “Ip Man: The Final Fight” as the best offering in a show that featured a number of serious dramatic pieces. While this is the fifth Ip Man movie to be released in recent years the reviewer found it to be the most impressive, featuring both interesting character development and a memorable atmosphere.
If you are a fan of classic Kung Fu films you will want to be sure to check out this next story. It details how one guy in Portland located a stash of hundreds of original reels of Kung Fu movies from the 1960s and 1970s. These were the sorts of films that generally never got played outside of Chinatown theaters in large urban areas. He is currently involved with curating and preserving these reels. Hopefully this means that there will be another sort of film festival in the near future.
I am also happy to announce the release of two new documentaries that should be of interest to Kung Fu Tea readers. The first of these is the latest offering by Empty Mind Films. “One Shot. One Life” takes viewers on a journey through the world of traditional Japanese archery. I am big fan of their work. You can read my review of their recent Wing Chun documentary here.
The second offering also looks fascinating. “Urban Dragons” examined the experience of Latin-American and African-American martial artists in primarily urban settings. This is a very important topic, and with all of the attention being given to the 40th anniversary of “Enter the Dragon” (which kicked off the Kung Fu craze), and the death of Jim Kelly, it is perfectly timed as well.
8. Stop by the Facebook Group for More Kung Fu Tea.
This is also a great time to stop by the Kung Fu Tea Facebook group to see what you have been missing. In addition to notes about my regular posts here at the WordPress blog, I also collect links to fun articles, interviews, video clips or news stories that readers might enjoy. In the last few weeks we have discussed the changing nature of Chinese physical culture, seen an interview with Ip Ching regarding his father’s (Ip Man) school in the early 1960s, found a source for fresh translations of classic martial arts manuals and discussed the nature of symbolism in the Chinese martial arts.
That is just a sampling of the topics that we have covered on the Facebook group. Of course “liking” the groups is also a great way to make sure that you don’t miss any of the new articles here at the blog. So stop on by. We serve up another cup of Kung Fu Tea daily.
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