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 an usually large number of stories to cover this week, so lets get to the news!
Chinese Martial Arts and the Entertainment Industry
The initial reports are in, and it looks like “Young Detective Dee” had a very good opening in mainland China, proving that it could hold its own against Hollywood’s various offerings. The Wall Street Journal also noticed this strong showing, and you can find their discussion of the film and its performance here.
This has also been a good couple of week for Wong Kar-wei and his masterpiece “The Grandmaster.” Hong Kong decided to use his treatment of the life of Ip Man as their submission for this years very competitive “Best Foreign Film” category at the Oscars. Given the sheer number of entries its impossible to make an informed guess as to what will happen there. However, his film also received 11 Golden Horse nominations (widely regarded as the most prestigious Chinese language film award). That only portends good things at the upcoming Taiwanese awards show.
I think that most outside observes would say that this has been a great year for the Chinese martial arts film. There have been a number of strong releases and some have been well received by mainstream audiences. Still, not everyone is happy with the state of this industry. Xu Haofeng, Professor at the Beijing Film Academy, used the recent Busan International Film festival as a forum to warn that the Chinese martial arts film genera was in danger, and it would need to be reimagined in order to save it.
Prof. Xu lamented the formulaic plots (usually focusing only on revenge), poor character development and one-sided emphasis on the technical aspect of film-making that has traditionally characterized the genera. He held up the “Grandmaster” as an exemplar of a new approach to martial arts storytelling that could revive the genera.
Of course the danger with these sorts of recommendations is that a lot of people watch genera films precisely because they know what they are getting and they like it. Ergo Keanu Reeves quite conscious decision to work within, and pay homage to, the confines of the Kung Fu genera in his directorial debut (“Man of Tai Chi”) rather than fighting against it. I am not really sure if Prof. Xu is offering good advice, but his analysis of the “globalization” of the Kung Fu genera (and the danger this poses to the Hong Kong film industry) is certainly worth reading and thinking about.
There have also been some interesting developments on the small screen. As we discussed earlier in the year, the UFC is preparing to broadcast their popular reality-based “Ultimate Fighter” show on Chinese television. As always the program will follow a group of promising martial artists as they compete for a lucrative contract as a UFC fighter. This edition of the show is different in that will be a Chinese language production and is not slated for release in the west. Time magazine has an update on the project and its expected impact in China, where the UFC is just one of many players in a rapidly expanding MMA community.
Martial Arts and Asian Society
The last few weeks have also seen a couple of interesting news stories dealing with the place of the martial arts in Chinese society and popular culture. The first of these would have to be China’s domination of the medal count in martial arts events at the East Asian Games. These regional games are interesting for many martial artists as they feature a wide variety of combat sports (including offerings like Wushu and Pencak Silat) that will probably never make it into the Olympics. China has dedicated tremendous resources into promoting and excelling in these fields and it evidently payed off in the recent East Asian games.
In an outcome that surprised no one they dominated the medal count in pretty much every martial arts contest. Of course this is one of the reasons why the IOC has refused to seriously consider Wushu for inclusion in the Olympics. There just aren’t that many states that can field a decent team (the three top competitors are usually China, Hong Kong and Taiwan).
Growing income inequality in Chinese society has also seen a rise in certain sorts of crime. As a result China’s new class of uber-wealthy entrepreneurs are turning to bodyguards (often hired as “secretaries” or “chauffeurs”) for personal protection. This has proved to be a windfall for the many students who graduate each year from China’s many full time Wushu Academies. Obviously there are not many jobs to be had as professional athletes or coaches. The military and police can only absorb so many of these graduates and many faced chronic underemployment or were vulnerable to recruitment by criminal elements. But in recent years an increasing number are finding their way into the “private security industry.”
Over the last couple of weeks a number of troubling stories about the state of the largest martial arts associations in East Timor have started to emerge and to be reported more widely in the western press. During the last decade martial arts (and particularly the Indonesian style Pencak Silat) have become very popular in East Timor, with most young males becoming somehow involved in these systems. Unfortunately after an outbreak of civil violence in 2006 these martial arts associations became the focal point of sustained intensive community violence. The basic problem is that these groups are beholden (often simultaneously) to various criminal factions, political parties and social interests all of whom seek to use them as a mechanism of social control and coercion. This led to the outbreak of the so called “martial arts war” in the wake of the 2006 uprising.
Responding to a fresh round of violence in July the government of East Timor effective banned the public and private practice of Pencak Silat. You can read my own discussion of this situation here. Now at least one researcher in Australia (who generally supports the ban) has become concerned that this turn of events may be pushing young men directly into the arms of criminal organizations and could lead to the development of new forms of community violence. Of course those sorts of unintended consequences are a likely outcome whenever you censure public associations without addressing the underlying problems that led to their creation in the first place.
Chinese Martial Arts in the Global Market Place
One of the more surprising developments over the last couple of weeks would have to be the eruption of a debate between philosophers in the pages of the New York Times over the growing popularity of a belief in Qi and Traditional Chinese Medicine in the west. The articles themselves never really get into China’s hand combat traditions, but this debate is directly relevant to the growth of interest in Taiji Quan and many aspects of the TCMA more generally.
The discussion is kicked off by Stephen T. Asma who contemplates (apparently too approvingly) the “Enigma of Chinese Medicine.” Massimo Pigliucci and Maarten Boudry wasted little time in firing off a response titled “The Dangers of Pseudoscience.” Both essays are fundamentally philosophical in nature but they are easy reading. They remind me of the sorts of epistemology that we did in graduate school. More importantly they reveal some deeper tensions within the west as ideas like “Qi” increasingly move into mainstream thought.
I have also noticed a couple of articles over the last few weeks about the use of the traditional Chinese martial arts as a form of public diplomacy. The first of these focused on an exhibition staged by a group of Shaolin Monks at the United Nations headquarters in New York City. The article provides some followup interviews that discuss the role of physical culture exchanges in pubic diplomacy.
The Daily Mail also ran a photo-essay that is worth looking at. It profiled the growing popularity of Chinese Wushu in Nepal. The Nepalese people have been interested in other Asian martial arts for decades, but traditionally they seem to have eschewed the Chinese systems in favor of their Japanese and Korean cousins. This was mirrored by the generally frosty tenor of Nepalese-Chinese political relations during the post-WWII period. Recently however China’s growing economic pull in the region has led to a major rebalancing of the geo-political books. Nepal has shown increasing deference to China’s wishes on issues such as the shared boarder with Tibet. At the same time a number of Wushu coaches have relocated to Nepal and the popularity of their art is growing (as the Daily Mail piece demonstrates).
Of course not everything is going well. The Shaolin Temple’s attempts to build a luxury hotel, spa and golfing resort along the Gold Coast of Australia have just run into major trouble with the local planning council. This project has always struck me as so odd as to be almost surreal. It will be interesting to see whether or not it will end up going forward.