As Gong Er.
Zhang Ziyi recently won “Best Actress” for her performance as Gong Er in Wong Kar-wei’s “Grandmaster.”


“Chinese Martial Arts in the News” is a semi-regular feature here at Kung Fu Tea.  In these posts I attempt to round-up and briefly discuss the major stories affecting the Chinese hand combat systems.  I always pay special attention to what is being said about the martial arts in the main stream media and how they say it.

Of course there is a lot of news out there.  If I have missed a big story feel free to drop a link to it in the comments.  Likewise, if you are aware of a developing situation that might need to be included in a future post please shoot me an email and I will look into it.  In today’s post we will be catching up on recent developments in the world of film, look at a number of reports highlighting the role of the martial arts within China’s public sphere and introduce a couple of new books that might be of interest to practitioners of either the internal or the southern arts.  Lets get to the news.

Tony Jaa in Ong Bak.  Jaa has recently agreed to replace Donnie Yen in the sequel to "SPL."
Tony Jaa in Ong Bak. Jaa has recently agreed to replace Donnie Yen in the sequel to “SPL.”

Chinese Martial Arts and the Entertainment Industry

The big story today is the results of the Golden Horse film awards.  This event is hosted in Taiwan and is generally considered to be the most prestigious night in Chinese film, similar to the Oscars.  Wong Kar-wei’s epic bio-pic “The Grandmaster” had been nominated in many categories and was expected to do well.  This beautifully shot meditation on the martial arts as seen through the eyes of Ip Man even won the “Viewers Choice Award” at the Golden Horse, demonstrating its popularity with audiences across China.

Unfortunately Wong’s effort fared less well with the judges.  The only major award it took home was “Best Actress” for Zhang Ziyi portrayal of Gong Er, the daughter of a Northern martial arts master who sacrifices her personal happiness to avenge her father.  “The Grandmaster” also won in four technical categories, taking home gongs in cinematography, visual effects, art direction and best make-up/costume design.

Nevertheless, the much acclaimed martial arts film from Hong Kong surrendered the title of “Best Film” to “Ilo Ilo.”  This family drama, directed by Anthony Chen, also took homes honors for best original screenplay and best new director.  The much coveted “Best Director” award went to Tsai Ming-liang for his film “Stray Dogs” chronicling the lives of an alcoholic man and his children in Taiwan.

On paper “The Grandmaster” did quite well, even if most of its awards were in technical rather than artistic categories.  It also turned out to be a surprisingly crowded field.  Still, after all of the buildup and speculation Wong’s failure to capture the nod for best director feels like a snub to some.

There has also been some important martial arts news on the small screen.  The UFC has announced the cast and coaches for the new season of their popular reality TV show “Ultimate Fighter: China.” The program will be aired in China and there are currently no plans for a North American release.

This is the latest move in the UFC’s on-going campaign to crack the Chinese consumer market.  The strategy is not without its risks.  Critics point out that the UFC is relatively unknown in China and has had trouble attracting a deep bench or forging an emotional connection with audiences.  MMA itself is growing in popularity, but most of this enthusiasm is being channeled into other organizations.  Still, this program will increase the UFC’s media presence in a potentially lucrative market.

Lastly, Thai film star Tony Jaa is (finally) coming to Hong Kong.  He will be replacing Donnie Yen in the sequel to “SPL.”  I really like watching Jaa’s fight scenes and choreography, so it will be interesting to see how all of that translates in a different sort of production.  I will definitely be adding this to my “watch list.”

A group of African disciples study the traditional arts at Shaolin.
A group of African disciples study the traditional arts at Shaolin.

Chinese Martial Arts in the Public Sphere

Obviously readers will be well familiar with the accounts of the devastation that Typhoon Haiyan inflicted on the Philippines.  The question of Chinese aid in the wake of this natural disaster has also led to some controversy.  As such I was interested in this article run by the South China Morning Post.  It profiles a local martial arts and fitness association (Wing Chun and Pilates) that has started a fundraising campaign to assist storm victims.

Chinese martial arts association have a long history of contributing to various causes.  Often these have been more local or regionally focused.  Still, I have always wondered to what degree we can think of martial arts schools as nodes for community organization and the creation of social capital.  This story suggests that those sorts of dynamics may be in place, at least in Hong Kong.

The martial arts have also been playing a prominent role in other aspects of public diplomacy.  The last six months or so have seen a steady stream of news stories discussing the deepening ties between martial artists in China and Africa.  These exchanges are often facilitated through the sponsoring of Wushu instruction in Africa or the recruitment of “martial exchange students” to come and study in China itself.

This is a decent article profiling a group of African students working with instructors at the Shaolin Temple in Henan.  I suspect that this program has gotten more press than other like it because of the Shaolin connection.  Nevertheless, I have been hearing reports of talented African martial artists working in a variety of traditions from Beijing in the north to Guangzhou in the south.  This appears to be one of the more successful attempts to harness the “soft power” of Kung Fu for public diplomacy that I have seen in recent years.  Its a story that is well worth following.

Not all of the news about the martial arts in the public sphere have been this positive.  Apparently China is currently experiencing an increase in brazen attacks on doctors and nurses in its hospitals.  Many of these are being carried out by either patients or the families who are frustrated with long waits for treatment, minimal medical coverage and high-handed medical personal.  This pattern of pent-up frustrations leading to public outbursts of personal violence is actually reminiscent of the “air rage” problems seen on certain flight-paths where long delays and frustrating conditions have led to attacks on flight crews.

As in the airline case, some hospitals have started to offer training to their medical personal, including demonstrations and self-defense lessons by a variety of martial artists and state security personal.  Interestingly I have seen no accounts of this training being provided by a traditional Chinese stylists.  Instead the hospitals seem to be turning to either police officers or Tae Kwon Do teachers for their instruction.  I wonder whether this is just pure chance or if it reflects the growing perception within mainland China that the traditional arts are ineffective as fighting systems?

The last story that I want to discuss in this section is a little more speculative in nature.  This week a number of important reforms were announced by President Xi Jinping.  The most discussed of these new programs was the abolition of prison labor-camps and a substantial relaxation of the “One Child” policy.  China will continue to maintain a pretty strict population control policy, but it now appears that if either parent was themselves an “only-child” the couple will be allowed to have a second child.  In effect this means that most families in China are now eligible to have two children.

Again, there are strings attached to a lot of this.  Nor is it clear how successful this measure will be in addressing the issue of China’s “missing girls.”  But what is certain is that millions of additional children will be born in the coming years.  So how many of these additional kids will become martial arts students?

Female student studying Wushu in a scene from Inigo Westmeier's Dragon Girls.
Female student studying Wushu in a scene from Inigo Westmeier’s Dragon Girls.

One of the biggest problems facing the traditional martial arts in China today is a lack of young students.  There are a variety of factors behind this.  Social changes and technology play a role.  School pressures are a critical issue that also needs to be carefully considered.  Still, its clear that the biggest impediment to kids studying Kung Fu is probably their own parents.

The martial arts, both the sort taught at state sponsored athletic high-schools and the type that you practice in parks on the weekend, have an image problem.  Increasingly the graduates of martial arts high-schools are having trouble finding jobs in the security sector.  Some end up doing relatively menial work, while a few turn to crime in order to make ends meet.  This issue has been getting a lot of press in China recently, and it makes parents even more reluctant to allow their kids to be associated with the traditional martial arts.

These pressures are intensified when dealing with a generation of single-child families.  In this case a son or daughter is the key to the family’s future success and happiness.  In the 1980s and 1990s parents may have believed that they were providing a better life for their child by sending them to a martial arts boarding school.  But today they want their child to succeed in an academic school as preparation for either a professional career or one in business.  Even causal training in a local kung fu club might look like a dangerous distraction in this sort of high-stakes situation.

I suspect that this dynamic helps to explain many (though probably not all) of China’s missing martial arts students.  If that is the case then the current reforms might be a great thing for the traditional martial arts, at least in the long run.

In my historical research I have noticed a pattern.  It seems that younger sons were more likely to take up martial arts training than their older siblings.  Why?  First sons were expected to inherit the family business.  Or they were expected to excel in education.  There was less pressure on younger children (also less status and security) and they seem to have been more likely to strike off on their own.  This translated to more of them becoming martial artists in the late Qing and Republic era.

I don’t know if the same pattern can reestablish itself today, but it might.  One way or another, this is a critical question to consider.  Big demographic changes are important engines of social change.  I would be very surprised if a sudden influx of new births did not have some effect on the traditional Chinese martial arts.

Bruce Lee wearing his iconic yellow track suit in "Game of Death."
Bruce Lee wearing his iconic yellow track suit in “Game of Death.”

Other Stories from Around the Internet

Are you looking for a little reading to keep you occupied in the coming months?  How about a gift for a martial artist?  If so you might want to consider a couple of recently released books.  The first of these is titled “The Chen School Gao Style Baguazhang Manual” by Liu Feng Cai.  This is the first English language translation of Liu’s work, and the volume looks to be both very comprehensive and well produced.

Or maybe you are looking for something on the Southern arts?  In that case you might want to take a look at “The White Eyebrow Style” by Thomas Cheng (a student of Cheung Bing Fat).  This book is published in both English and Chinese and it covers historical, social and technical aspects of the style.  White Eyebrow is a fascinating style with an even more interesting history.  Its good to see more books on it being published.

Anyone looking for a used yellow track suit?  If so you are in luck.  A number of Bruce Lee’s personal effects are set to be auctioned in December, including his iconic yellow outfit from “Game of Death.”  The sale is estimated to raise 1 to 1.5 million US dollars.  Some of the items being auctioned are quite significant, so I wonder what this says about the future prospects of a Bruce Lee museum in either Hong Kong or North America?

Its facebook time!
Its Facebook time!

Kung Fu Tea on Facebook

This week Kung Fu Tea got its 400th follower on Facebook!  Thank you for all of the support and positive feedback.  The Facebook page is a great way to find out about updates on the blog.  You can also subscribe directly to Kung Fu Tea through the box on the upper right-hand side of the home page.  This will ensure that you get the latest posts emailed directly to you.

The Facebook group also allows us to explore a wider range of topics in a less formal setting.  In the last few weeks we looked at a number of articles on women in the martial arts, discussed some similarities between Hung Gar and Wing Chun, got a peak at my reading list and discovered just how dangerous a nine-section chain whip can be (mostly to the wielder).  Of course we talked about a lot of other topics as well.  Drop on by and see what you have been missing.