"Local Militia Shandong. 1906-1912 by Fr. Michel de Maynard.
“Local Militia Shandong. 1906-1912 by Fr. Michel de Maynard.  Click here for more photos by de Maynard.

Thinking about the Future of Kung Fu

There are a number of conversations that seem to reoccur with some frequency in the Chinese martial arts.  Recently people have been asking whether the traditional fighting styles can survive in the face of stiff competition from MMA, Wushu and the other “Olympic” martial arts.

This is not the first time that we have been having this discussion.  It seems to be a question that has reemerged every decade or two since at least the Boxer Uprising in 1900, and possibly even earlier.  Still, I was very happy to accept an invitation from my friend Sascha Matuszak over at The Last Masters to sit down and talk about the current state of the traditional Chinese martial arts.  He has been gracious enough to edit and format that interview and to post it here.

Its a focused discussion, but I think it touches on some important questions.  One of the main points that I attempted to emphasize is that the Chinese martial arts have always shown a great deal of flexibility and adaptability.  A lot of what we currently think of as “tradition” is really not all that old and was introduced as a successful “market adaptation” at some point in the not to distant past.  Indeed, “evolving with the times” is perhaps the oldest and most important tradition of Kung Fu.

Secondly, I think that we cause some confusion by comparing the state of the traditional Chinese martial arts today to the 1980s or 1990s when China was in the grip of “Kung Fu Fever.”  In truth these were exceptional times when unprecedented numbers of people took up the martial arts.  They are not the sort of decades that you really want to use as a “baseline” to set your expectations by.

In the grand scheme of things the traditional Chinese arts have always been somewhat marginal.  They have always struggled to find upwardly mobile students.  So perhaps our current situation is not as dire, or at least not as novel, as some have claimed.

Head on over to read the complete interview.  While you are there check out some of Sascha’s prior posts.  He provides a very interesting discussion of the martial arts in the Emei region that we do not often hear in the West.

Shaolin's warrior monks prior in the 1920s.  When discussing monastic violence it is often necessary to abandon preconcieved notion of who warrior monks were or what they fought for.  This picture nicely illustrates the disjoint between our romanticized notions of the Shaolin and the gritty reality of life inside the Temple.
Shaolin’s warrior monks in the 1920s. This picture nicely illustrates the many changes that the martial arts have endured through the years.


If you enjoyed this post you might also want to check out my interview with “Hiyaa! The Martial Arts Podcast.”