I am happy to say that I have returned from my three week research/training trip. In my absence Kung Fu Tea hosted the “2013 Symposium on Chinese Martial Studies.” We had a number of distinguished scholars and guests drop by who helped us think more clearly about this important subject. The reader response to these posts was very strong and Kung Fu Tea saw a very notable upsurge in traffic. I am excited to see these sorts of conversations become a regular part of the blog and look forward to hosting similar events in the future. If by some chance you fell behind just click on the links below to see what you may have missed.
1. Noted Chinese martial arts historian Brian Kennedy opened our symposium by revisiting some of his research on the use of large sabers (dadao) in the Republic of China military.
2. Rob Argent, a martial artist and writer from the UK, presented a fascinating study of the history of martial arts in video games. Increasingly this is where young people are first exposed to the traditional fighting styles so its an important subject that deserves some thought.
3. Professor Paul Bowman and I hosted a roundtable discussion of the development and future of the field of Chinese martial studies. We also got into some interesting territory regarding why it is significant that this is an “interdisciplinary field” and what the future implications of that might be. I also drew on an older post discussing the work of Prof. Kai Filipiak to offer a different perspective on some of these questions.
4. Professor Daniel Mroz presented a fascinating update on his recent sabbatical and outlined an ambitious research agenda examining the meaning and development of northern Asian martial movements in a variety of contexts. You will want to be sure to check out his thoughts on this subject if you have not already done so.
5. Of course research is only half of what most academics do. Professor Adam D. Frank contributed a very thoughtful post looking at different strategies for discussing and using Chinese martial arts in a university classroom. This is a important topic for many of us and I was very happy to see him tackle it.
6. Lastly, Melisa Spence offered us a thoughtful reader’s response to a few of the issues raised by Chinese martial studies. Her letter to Kung Fu Tea brings an important and unique perspective to this conversation.
I think we can safely say that this years symposium on Chinese martial studies was a success. I would like to once again publicly thank all of the contributors and readers for making this such an interesting and educational event. Your hard work was much appreciated.
Kung Fu Tea will now be returning to its normally scheduled programing. It looks like it has been about two months since our last discussion of Chinese martial arts in the news, so that will be our first order of business. For new readers, this is a regular feature (usually published every 3 weeks) in which we look back at major news stories that might affect the Chinese martial arts, or examine how mainstream news outlets address developments in the traditional fighting arts. If you know of an important story that I missed feel free to drop a link to it in the comments. Alternatively if there are developments that I should be watching for inclusion in a future news update feel free to shoot me an email.
Ip Man, Keanu Reeves and the Jackie Chan Experience
There has been quite a bit of news coming out of the film and entertainment industry in the last few weeks, so lets start there. The Grandmaster, Wong Kar-wai’s martial arts epic which addresses the legacy of the Wing Chun legend Ip Man, has opened to very positive reviews in North America. Viewer response has been good, and a number of sources are asking whether this might be the next “crouching tiger.”
Unfortunately the critics seem less enamored with Keanu Reeves‘s directorial debut, Man of Tai Chi. Where as Wong Kar-wai took the martial arts genera in a new (dreamy) direction, Reeves’s film looks to be a more faithful tribute to the genera. That is rarely a good a thing so far as critics are concerned. The Guardian ran a mostly negative review of the film following its opening at the Toronto film festival. However, Prof. Paul Bowman has found the film to be a useful jumping off point for a fascinating discussion of his own.
Last but not least, Jackie Chan has been back in the news. This time he is not promoting a new film. Rather he is floating the idea of a self-named theme park just outside of Beijing.
Readers may recall that earlier in the year he was heavily criticized for donating a number of rare antique sandalwood homes to the Singapore University of Technology and Design. Apparently this was a good-faith effort on his part to have the homes preserved after his own plans for their restoration had been foiled by a number of local officials with different construction and development priorities. Still, the incident touched a raw nerve as the illegal export of antiquities is a sensitive topic in China today.
The upshot of all of this is that Chan still has a number of structures that he wishes to conserve and it has become politically impossible to move them out of country. As such he is now floating the idea of creating a Jackie Chan themed amusement park outside of Beijing that would provide a location where these structures could be restored and opened to the public. None of the critical details have yet to be worked out, but I for one would love to see to an amusement park dedicated to traditional Chinese architecture and martial arts. I am not totally sure how the roller-coasters fit into this, but I am sure that they work something out.
The Traditional Arts in China
The traditional martial arts have a problem in China. After a few good decades in the 1980s and 1990s there has been a dramatic decrease in the number of students signing up for martial arts programs and classes. Some of this has to do with anxiety on the part of parents who would rather see their children study for the University Entrance Exams. And wushu is still (rightly or wrongly) seen as an avenue for negative influences to enter a child’s life. The kids themselves also have a much wider variety of activities and sports to choose from, and while the martial arts remain popular symbols in films and video games, fewer youngsters are actually studying them.
Faced with this reality the powers that govern the world of Wushu in mainland China are coming up with a new plan. At the moment it goes something like this: Make the martial arts a part of the required primary or secondary school physical education program and give students who excel at them a chance to earn additional points towards their University entrance exams.
“How can we promote an age-old tradition globally without a solid fan base at home?” Gao Xiaojun, director of the wushu administration, asked during the 12th National Games in Shenyang, Liaoning province.
“Wushu won’t be able to survive if our next generation has no interest in it,” he warned. “We have to shift our focus from making it popular abroad to making it widely accepted and practiced by our youngsters.”
Of course requiring youngsters to study a subject at school and making them enthusiastic consumers of it are two entirely different thing. It may be possible to use the power of the state to subsidize Wushu by creating a vast new captive audience. Yet at some point those kids are going to need to decide that this is an activity that they want to continue (and invest money in) on their own.
Kang Gew, secretary-general of the Chinese Martial Arts Research Institute (and best known in the west for his short book Spring and Autumn of the Chinese Martial Arts) has articulated the inherent challenges in this strategy. Specifically, any changes made to the various styles of the Chinese martial arts so that they can be taught safely by unskilled physical education teacher are likely to make them unappealing to students and will do little to solve the underlying problem.
“If we simplify wushu into slow-motion, non-contact stunts like radio calisthenics to make sure it’s safe, it will become boring and students won’t buy it,” he said. “It won’t reflect the deep traditional and cultural roots either.”
Of course this isn’t the first time that the martial arts establishment has sought to be subsidized by the government by working their way into the national education system. Groups like the Jingwu Association and the Central Guoshu Institute made the promotion of the martial arts in primary and secondary schools central goals of their respective institutions in the 1920s and 1930s. Its not immediately clear to me how far the current proposals will get, but this is an important set of developments to watch.
The mixed martial arts (MMA) have also been making the news in China lately. The Bloody Elbow recently ran an interesting piece on the rapid growth of MMA in China, and why the UFC may ultimately not benefit from these developments. The article is short and well worth checking out. Sascha over at the The Last Masters has had similar thoughts on his mind. He has just started a brief series of posts about a prominent figure in the Szechuan Wushu establishment that has recently turned to promoting Chinese MMA events. I think that these pieces will convey some of the flavor of the Chinese MMA world right now and are definitely worth a read.
There have also been a couple of other stories in the news that, while not directly related to the Chinese martial arts, are likely to be of interest to our readers. First, a set of martial arts manuals dating to the middle of the 19th century have been discovered and translated in Japan. New manuscript find are always exciting and these sorts of primary source documents offer historians and scholars a valuable window back onto the past. These documents are from a school that focused on fencing and the Samurai arts, revealing an interesting glimpse into the twilight of Japan’s feudal era.
Secondly, the International Olympic Committee has reinstated wrestling, possibly the most popular individual sport in the world, after removing it from the roster in an ill advised attempt to make room for more “television friendly” sports like competitive climbing or baseball. Karate and Wushu were both briefly considered for inclusion but neither of these events had nearly the support of wrestling, or even other contenders like tennis or baseball.
Wrestling is one of the few original Olympic sports to survive in the era of the modern games and it has a true international following. As such I am happy to see that the powers that be have come to their senses and reinstated the sport. But I have a feeling that this is not the last that we have heard from the Karate and Wushu camps.
New and Notable Books
It looks like Chu Shong Ting’s (one of Ip Man’s most senior students) new book Wing Chun, Volume 2 is now available to students in North America and Europe. I have the first volume in this set and I treasure it. Originally planned as a three volume project, the second and third books were combined to same money on publishing costs. Volume 2 now covers the wooden dummy, the pole and the butterfly swords, while volume 1 discusses the unarmed aspects of the system. Overall I think this is a good decision and I look forward to seeing the final product.
Unfortunately it looks like delivery of Hung Kuen Fundamentals has been delayed. Plum Publications was expecting to have the books by now but they have not yet arrived. The good news is that they are still accepting pre-orders, and this book ($45) costs less than half of Chu Shong Ting’s volume (ouch).
Finally, Martin Boedicker (author of the Philosophy of Tai Chi Chuan) has just released a short ebook exploring the place of Taiji in the history of the Chinese martial arts. I have not looked at it but for $3 it might be a good place to start if you are interested in exploring the subject.