Christmas Eve snowfall in the Genesee Valley.  Source: Photo by Benjamin Judkins.  Authors Personal Collection.
Christmas Eve snowfall in the Genesee Valley. Source: Photo by Benjamin Judkins. Authors Personal Collection.


The New Year is upon us.  As such, it is a good time to sit back and reflect on the year’s accomplishments and events.  2013 has been a big year for the field of Chinese martial studies.  We have made progress in some areas, but there is still room for growth in others.  Likewise we have seen quite a bit of reporting on the Chinese martial arts in the press, including the emergence of a couple of suggestive trends.

Below is my own personal countdown of the top dozen news stories that have had the greatest impact on the world of the Chinese martial arts in 2013.  Some of these stories made a big splash during the year, others were less well reported, and a few are general patterns that appeared over the course of many months.  Collectively they remind us of where we have been and point to a few places that we might be headed in the coming year.

I have split the list into two parts, and will be posting the second half on Monday.  Of course, this is just my list.  What do you think?  Which news stories helped to define the Chinese martial arts in 2013?  Let us know in the comments below.

Jim Kelly on the set of "Enter the Dragon."
Jim Kelly on the set of “Enter the Dragon.”

12. Passing of the Elders

In general I don’t do a lot of obituaries here at Kung Fu Tea, but this seems to be an appropriate time of the year to look back and remember some of the fine Masters, teachers and public figures that the Chinese martial arts have lost in the last year.  Sadly any comprehensive list would be too long for a post of this nature.  As such I have selected two representative figures who seemed to embody the events of this year.

The first of these is the iconic actor and martial artists Jim Kelly.  The Associated Press reported that he died of cancer in June.  Best known for his role in “Enter the Dragon,” Kelly acted in a number of other films and also taught in his own schools.  He was one of the figures who helped to make Asian hand combat accessible to modern urban students and he became one of the most iconic and recognizable martial artists of the 1970s and 1980s.

Lau Kar-leung also passed away in June.  The Hong Kong film maker is best remembered for his path-breaking fight choreography.  He brought a sense of realism to his work and helped to keep the myths and spirit of the Southern Chinese martial arts alive.  While his contributions to the genera only gained widespread acknowledgement in the last few years of his life, Lau Kar-leung was a critical architect of the golden age of Kung Fu films.  His contributions will be sorely missed.

Chinese competitor at the unofficial 2008 Olympic Wushu "Exhibition" in Beijing.
Chinese competitor at the unofficial 2008 Olympic Wushu “Exhibition” in Beijing.

11.  Wushu (Once Again) Fails to Achieve Olympic Recognition

This has been an evolving story for some years now.  Its no secret that the Chinese sporting establishment would like to see Wushu adopted as an Olympic sport.  Yet despite their growing clout, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has been reluctant to seriously consider the sport for admission.

Things got a lot more exciting when it was decided to eliminate two events from the summer games to make way for some new (more television friendly) sports.  Interestingly a lot of the debate about what to cut and what to add revolved around the combat sports.  Tae Kwon Do, which has been rocked by a number of scandals over the last decade, looked to be in serious jeopardy of losing its slot.

While a broad range of new sports (including climbing, baseball, racket sports and in-line skating) were under consideration for inclusion, a lot of the discussion ended up revolving around whether Wushu or Karate (which mounted a pretty strong campaign) would end up getting the nod.  In what can only be described as a bizarre turn of events the IOC sidestepped the entire discussion by eliminating wrestling (a move that shocked and then enraged almost the entire world) only to readopt it at the end of a lengthy process of deliberation.  As such we will not be getting another combat sport in the Olympics anytime soon.

Still, the entire process raised a number of questions.  Given the resources that have gone into developing and promoting Wushu, why was its bid still weaker than either Karate’s or Tae Kwon Do’s?  Given that this issue is clearly important to China, why have they failed to effectively promote Wushu as a tool of public diplomacy, even though their traditional martial arts are quite popular around the globe?

This was one of the very first topics that I covered here at Kung Fu Tea, and to be totally honest I don’t see it disappearing any time soon.  Look for more developments on the Wushu front in 2014.

Women practicing martial arts in India.  Source: Mirror.
Women practicing martial arts in India. Source: Mirror.

10. Growing Awareness of the Need for Self Defense Drives Women (and others) to Study Kung Fu.

A number of news items this year focused on the persistent and global problem of violence against women. Stories of rape, assault and domestic abuse are sadly common.  However, a number of individuals responded to these developments by starting new self-defense training programs.  Interestingly many of these programs turned to the traditional Chinese martial arts in an attempt to create programs that taught both basic self-defense skills and a sense of personal empowerment.

The national debate over violence against women that erupted this year in India following multiple high-profile rapes inspired the creation of a number of such groups and organizations.  Likewise there were multiple stories of women in the Middle East taking up the martial arts for similar reasons.  The nuns of Druk Amitabha Temple in Kathmandu (Nepal) have even gotten a lot of press for their practice of Kung Fu in their quest for gender equality.  

A slightly different situation has been evolving in China.  Over the last year we have seen an increase in violent attacks against certain types of service personal (specifically airline crews and hospital staff).  These incidents are rarely discussed in explicitly gendered terms, but it is hard to ignore the fact that many healthcare workers and flight attendants are female.  Once again various entities have turned to martial arts instruction as a stop-gap measure.

Juan Carlos Aguilar in his Bilbao “Temple” prior to his arrest for murder.  Source: Youtube.

9. Martial Arts Instructor and Self-Professed “Shaolin Monk” Juan Carlos Aguilar arrested for murder in Bilbao Spain.

Perhaps the most tragic and unexpected news this year emerged from Bilbao Spain.  Juan Carlos Aguilar, a “Shaolin Master” was arrested for murder after neighbors reported him pulling a struggling Nigerian woman (Maureen Ada Ortuya) into his martial arts school by her hair.  When police arrived they were forced to break down the front gate to gain entry.  They then found Aguilar standing over the body of the bound and badly beaten Ortuya.  She was taken to a hospital where she survived for two days in a coma before ultimately dying. While searching the school the police also found human remains from another victim.

While Aguilar had studied martial arts in the Dengfeng area in the 1990s, the main temple in Henan and their official affiliate in Spain moved quickly to distance themselves from him and to deny that there was any connection between his group and theirs.  They further accused him of misappropriating the name “Shaolin.”

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.

8. 2013 was a Good Year for Kung Fu Documentaries.

This last year has seen a resurgence in the debate surrounding the general health of the traditional Chinese martial arts.  I will address this discussion more directly in the second part of this post.  Still, I find it interesting that more resources are currently being poured into the study of the history and sociology of the Chinese martial arts than at any point in the past.  In point of fact 2013 has been a good year for Chinese martial studies (and 2012 was not too bad either).

Nowhere is this interest in understanding the traditional fighting systems more evident than in the world of documentary film making.  We were fortunate to have a number of important additions to the genera this year.  First, PBS aired a fascinating new project titled “The Black Kung Fu Experience.”  This study was directed by Martha Burr and Mei-Juin, the same creative team that brought us “Shaolin Ulysses” (2003).  Their current film examines the intersection between African American popular culture and the Chinese martial arts in post-war American society.  A trailer and some other interesting features are available here.

“Urban Dragons: The Kung Fu Experience of Latino and African-American Martial Artists” (2013) also opened to a positive response from viewers.  This documentary added to the insights provided by Martha Burr and Mei-Juin and helped to contextualize the Chinese martial arts as a truly global phenomenon.  You can find more about this film here.

The Canadian International Documentary Festival awarded a jury prize to the German director Inigo Westmeier’s for his film Dragon Girls. This unique work follows the lives of three female martial arts students at one of the large Wushu academies in Dengfeng associated with the Shaolin Temple.  Other documentaries and articles have followed the lives and training of students in these institutions, but (to the best of my knowledge) this is the first documentary to examine the lives of female students at these somewhat problematic institutions.

Readers looking to broaden their horizons might also want to check the latest offering from Empty Mind.  “One Shot. One Life” is a beautifully produced documentary on traditional archery in Japan.  Given the rise of interest in Chinese archery over the last few years there might be an appreciative cross-over market.

A bodyguard training program.
A bodyguard training program.

7. The fast growing “Personal Protection Industry” in China employs many martial artists.

The rapid growth of China’s economy has been a boon for countless individuals.  Yet this transformation has also created problems, chief among them growing rates of both economic inequality and crime.  Wealthy individuals who would travel and shop by themselves only a few years ago are feeling the brunt of this later trend.  As such they have been turning to private security firms who provide bodyguards and other services.

This boom in the protection business has proved to be a windfall for many of China’s Wushu students.  Traditionally students who graduated from Wushu high-schools looked for careers in either the military or police forces.  A small number of the very best of them might go on to become either professional athletes or teachers and coaches.  Unfortunately China’s security services have not been able to absorb all of the recent graduates.  Further, students of the Wushu schools often lacked the skills and contacts that they needed to find employment in other areas of the economy.

The increase in hiring for private security personal has been great for the “Wushu sector” as it has helped to alleviate some of the employment problems that have plagued their industry for years.  Given that private security guards in China cannot carry firearms, high quality hand-combat instruction remains a much sought-after commodity.  In fact, these recent developments are highly reminiscent of the creation of the “armed escort companies” in the late Qing dynasty which are seen in so many Kung Fu stories.

This is another one of those stories that we should be watching for future developments.  So far the government has not placed excessive regulations on the private security companies.   Of course that could change at any time.  And as more Wushu students anticipate careers as bodyguards it will be interesting as to whether (and how) the instruction that they receive in their vocational schools evolves.

New snow on Christmas Eve.  Genesee Valley.  Photo by Benjamin Judkins.
New snow on Christmas Eve. Genesee Valley. Photo by Benjamin Judkins.


That is it for now.  Be sure to check back on Monday when we will reveal the top 6 news stories that shaped the Chinese martial in 2013.  If you have any comments, thoughts or suggestions let us know in the comments below.


For a retrospective look back at the top events and news stories of 2012 click here.