Shannon Lee poses for the press at the opening of an exhibit documenting her father's life and work in Hong Kong.  Source: Associated Press.
Shannon Lee poses for the press at the opening of an exhibit documenting her father’s life and work in Hong Kong. Source: Associated Press.


Welcome!  “Chinese Martial Arts in the News” is a regular feature here at Kung Fu Tea.  Every three to four weeks we discuss the major news stories impacting the Chinese martial arts.  Special attention is payed to the ways in which the media view and discus traditional Chinese martial culture.  Of course there is a lot of news out there and its always possible that I have missed something.  Feel free to drop a link in the comments if you find something interesting.  Also, if you are aware of a developing story that should be covered in upcoming posts please shoot me an email.  This has been a busy month, so lets get to the news.

Bruce Lee’s Legacy Four Decades Later

Bruce Lee has been a major force driving interest and reporting on the Chinese martial arts over the last few weeks.  His legacy recently hit two major milestones which have been widely celebrated.  This last month has seen both the 40th anniversary of his hit film “Enter the Dragon” as well as the 40th anniversary of the young star’s untimely death.  These celebrations ranged from the dedication of new statues to the opening of a museum installation in Hong Kong.  Many major newspapers featured articles on Lee and his legacy.  In fact, there has actually been more coverage than we can report here.  To help guide readers through this thicket of stories I would like to point Kung Fu Tea readers towards some of the highlights.

The Telegraph published a tribute commemorating the anniversary of the death of Bruce Lee which is worth taking a look at.  This piece was authored by Paul Bowman who has written extensively on Lee’s career and contributions to popular culture.  Particularly interesting are some images of hand-written poems and sketches which I had not seen before.  Kung Fu Tea was also lucky to have Prof. Bowman sit down with us for a more substantive discussion of Bruce Lee and his legacy.

Not surprisingly the South China Morning Post took the lead in covering the Bruce Lee story.  Over the last few weeks they have released literally dozens of stories and news items related to his legacy.  You can find a helpful round-up of their reporting here.

The stories are wide ranging and cover a number of topics.  There are multiple discussions of the new Bruce Lee exhibit in Hong Kong and whether the time has finally come for a Bruce Lee Museum.  As a group these articles highlight Lee’s value as a symbol of local culture and resistance.

Also interesting is the coverage of the Johnnie Walker advertising campaign and the (overwhelmingly negative) public reaction to it in Hong Kong.  Some of the less pleasant pieces focused on intellectual property rights disputes within the Lee family.  Lastly the SCMP released one of their well known infographics examining Jeet Kune Do and “Bruce Lee’s Best Moves.”

Of course a number of other papers also ran stories covering these same issues.  The opening of the museum exhibit seems to have garnered them most attention.  The Daily Mail had a nice review of the events surrounding the exhibit.  Time Out Hong Kong took a slightly different approach, highlighting a few of their favorite items from the exhibit.

Shi Yongxin (L), current abbot of the Shaolin Temple, presents a sculpture of Bodhidharma to Professor Charles Mattera of United Studios of Self Defense (USSD) from the United States.
2011 photograph of Shi Yongxin, abbot of the Shaolin Temple, presenting a gift to Charles Mattera of United Studios of Self Defense (USSD).  Source

Trouble on the Horizon at Shaolin

Bruce Lee was not the only major brand making waves in the world of the Chinese Martial Arts over the last few weeks.  Odd stories and anonymous leaks are starting to emerge from the famous Shaolin Temple in Henan province.  Many individuals regard Shaolin as the spiritual (and in some cases historical) home of the Chinese martial arts.  Over the last two decades it has emerged as a major tourist destination, generating much needed revenue for multiple layers of local government in a region that suffers from under-development and chronic poverty.

These same tourist dollars also support the community of monks who reside at Shaolin, their various charitable projects and the aggressive building campaign that they have been waging in recent years to both restore and expand the existing temple complex.  Of course major revenue streams always come with their own set of complications.  In this case there appears to be some brewing dissatisfaction with how the wealth is being administered and divided.

The first public hints of trouble on this front actually date back to a strike by temple employees a few years ago.  The demands of these striking workers led to the local government releasing a large “back-payment” of ticket sales proceeds to the temple.  Things appear to have quieted down for a while but now there are hints that economic tensions between the monks and the local government are once again coming to a head.

The first signs that something was amiss were widely reported rumors that a secret camera or observation equipment had been found in the bedroom of Abbot Shi Yongxin.  This created a firestorm of speculation as to whom had placed these cameras there, why, and what they may possibly have observed.

Shi Yongxin’s personality and public image make him an especially vulnerable target for such rumors.  On the one hand the Abbot is seen as a dedicated modernizer, keeping the Shaolin martial arts alive, and carefully cultivating the growth of the temple’s image, in an era when few people are all that interested in the martial arts.  It is widely reported in China that he has an MBA, though the Abbot himself has actually made conflicting statements to the press on that account.

On the other hand Shi Yongxin has proved to be both controversial and gaffe prone.  He has been associated with lurid rumors of corruption and prostitution.  Further, some of his business tactics (such as engaging in lawsuits over the Shaolin “brand name“) have been seen as unbecoming of a Buddhist monk.  Naturally when rumors of hidden cameras (with the implication of blackmail) appeared in the press, it generated a fair amount of interest.

The Shaolin Temple itself lost little time in getting its side of the story out.  An anonymous monk gave an interview to the Global Times attempting to set the record straight.  He claimed that in fact no camera or device was found in the Abbot’s chambers.  Instead he linked the trouble to the total breakdown of a revenue sharing agreement between the Temple, the local government and a tourism management company.

This is where the story becomes complicated.  Readers will want to go over this material for themselves to get all of the relevant details, but the basic outline (according to leaks from the Temple) is this.  The Shaolin Order entered into a revenue sharing agreement with the local government which gave the Temple 30% of the take from ticket sales while reserving the other 70% for the government.

The anonymous sources indicated that the Temple allocates its cut of the ticket sales in the following way:  70% goes to maintaining the sanctuary and Shaolin’s many construction projects.  20% of the budget is allocated for the cost of maintaining the community of monks and novices.  The remaining 10% is dedicated to charitable projects.

Rather than administering the local ticket sales themselves the government hired a tourism contractor (apparently through some sort of non-competitive bidding process) to handle sales.  This company was also responsible for making investments in the local area to improve its quality as a major tourist destination.  Of course only the tourism company has access to the official figures as to how many tickets are being sold, and the amount of revenue that they are passing over to the temple appears to be well below what they are actually owed.  Further, the company has been taken to task by outside auditors for failing to make any investments in the local tourism infrastructure as per the terms of their agreement.

The situation has deteriorated to the point that a local government run temple committee recently attempted to forcibly seize control of the ticket offices from the tourism contractor.  However, it would appear that a higher level of the provincial government is still supporting their embattled contractor.  The Shaolin Temple appears to be owed a large amount of money that is simply not forthcoming.  While they have the resources and clout to sue over this issue, such actions are usually avoided as they would undercut the temple’s working relationship with the local government.  That would be disastrous.

The unstated accusation in this article (which would be evident to any reader who is intimately familiar with these sorts of corruption stories) is that the provincial government gave the tourism contract in exchange for kickbacks.  In short, both the tourism company and the local government are profiting at the temple’s expense.  These sorts of corruption stories are quite common in the Chinese countryside and are regularly reported in the press.  Still, its interesting to see suggestions that the Shaolin Temple (by all accounts a pretty large and savvy organization) has become embroiled in such an affair.

Nevertheless, there has been some positive news on the Shaolin front.  Pundits and scholars have widely speculated on the growth of Chinese soft-power in Africa.  It would appear that the venerable temple has been reaching out to that continent as well, and its efforts to spread Shaolin Wushu are starting to pay off.

Morning Taiji group in Bryant Park, New York City.
Morning Taiji group in Bryant Park, New York City.  Source: Wikimedia.

Popular Culture and Taiji Quan

The western press is once again reporting good news for Taiji Quan practitioners.  Yet another study has come out touting the health benefits of this art.  So far this year we have seen studies linking Taiji to everything from improved balance in senior citizens to better blood pressure management.  The latest study goes one step further and links regular Taiji Quan practice to increased life expectancy.

But perhaps you are looking for something else.  Maybe you would like to see a little more “action” in your Taiji.  Don’t worry, because the movies have you covered.  The opening reviews are in for “Man of Tai Chi” (Keanu Reeve’s directorial debut) and overall things are looking better than expected.  I think that this movie may have benefited from initially low expectations.  Still, the general consensus seem to be that, while not without its flaws, its an interesting and very solid first effort.  I guess that means it goes back on my “to watch” list.

Or maybe you are actually looking for something a little more substantive to augment your personal practice.  Chen Zhenglei has just released a new manual covering a number of forms and Chen Style short weapons.  Best of all, this text is being published in English.  This latest release adds to the growing body of important English language texts released in the last year.  It seems that the foreign language market is starting to gain traction with traditional Chinese martial arts masters who wish to reach a broader audience.

Assorted Chinese coins.  Source: Wikimedia.
Assorted Chinese coins. Source: Wikimedia.

Chinese Martial Arts and the Media: Investing Today to Frame the Narratives of Tomorrow.

Our next story comes to us from the pages of the Financial Times.  My academic training is in political economy, so I spend a lot of time reading financial news.  That is how I came across this story.  At first it may seem unrelated to the Chinese martial arts, but I think it still deserves careful consideration.  This is especially the case for anyone interested in the intersection of the martial arts, popular culture and economic markets.

The story starts out detailing a joint venture between a Chinese and western media company.  However, things start to get interesting when the reporter asks why this is a good time for such a project.  The response is basically that the Western and Chinese markets (and by extension societies) are entering a new phase of popular culture development.  This means that these markets are ripe for new programing.  And not just new versions of established stories.  Instead they believe that consumers are actively seeking entirely “new narratives.”  If you, as a story teller or media company, introduce narratives that work now, these stories are likely to continue as profitable franchises for a long time.

The partnership has already developed a number of concepts that they would like to bring to the small screen.  So where are they turning for these new ideas?  Interestingly they are looking back to Chinese martial culture.  In fact, one of their projects even has a Bruce Lee tie in.  Here is the money quote from the article (which may require registration to view):

The production pipeline has a strong Chinese flavour, including five new Chinese superhero franchises, a film called Rise of the Terracotta Warriors and a TV series based on material written by Bruce Lee, the late Chinese-American martial arts actor.

“It’s a great time for new native narrative myths and stories” in China, says Miles Gilburne, Mr Middelhoff’s partner in a digital education company called ePals. “If you’re able to pulse the ethos of China right now and build those fundamental narratives that really resonate at the consumer level, those are the franchises that last for ever,” he says. After decades of transformative growth, he adds: “it’s the first time that China has the ability to breathe, step back and build [new] narratives.”

Its facebook time!
Its Facebook time!

Kung Fu Tea on Facebook

If its been a while since your last visit (or if you are a new reader) you may want to check out Kung Fu Tea’s Facebook group.  We have had a lot going on over the last three weeks.  Obviously Bruce Lee has been a major topic of discussion.  We have looked at some classic interviews and documentaries, as well as the major breaking news stories.

But that’s not all.  We have also examined practical cutting in the traditional Chinese sword arts, investigated the “Daoist Origins of Tai Chi Manuals in the West,” debated the sources of Wing Chun and looked at the essential concepts of Northern Mantis Kung Fu.

The Facebook group features a wide range of popular articles and video clips as well as some less formal discussions of Chinese martial studies.  Its also a great way to stay informed about updates here at the WordPress blog.  Come on by and join the fun.