Welcome to 2014’s first edition of “Chinese Martial Arts in the News.” This is a semi-regular feature in which we reviewing media stories that mention or impact the the traditional fighting arts. In addition to discussing important events this column also considers how the Asian hand combat systems are portrayed in the mainstream media.
While we try to summarize all of the major stories over the last three weeks, 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 know of a developing story or event that should be covered in the future feel free to send me an email.
Lets get to the news!
Kung Fu and the Entertainment Industry
The single most widely reported news item relating to the Chinese martial arts in the last few weeks has been the death of the legendary Hong Kong film pioneer and producer Run Run Shaw. With his brother he built a cinema empire that produced many of the most iconic Chinese martial arts films of the 1960s and 1970s. It would not be much of an exaggeration to say that Run Run Shaw basically created the modern Kung Fu film industry. He died at the venerable age of 106.
His passing created one of those rare moments when the Chinese martial arts were able to capture the attention of practically the entire mainstream media. It seems that every major newspaper ran a story covering his death. For a quick survey of what is out there see the comments section of the January 7th update of the Kung Fu Tea Facebook group.
A number of these commentaries played up the fact that Hong Kong cinema is currently at a crossroads. I am not actually sure how true that is. Critics have been predicted the imminent demise of the Kung Fu genera since the 1960s. But the passing of Run Run Shaw seems to have breathed a certain sense of urgency into this reoccurring conversation.
Wong Kar-wai, the noted Chinese director, recently sat down with the New York Times to discuss his thoughts on the state of Kung Fu, the life of Ip Man and his latest film, “The Grandmaster.” In the year following the release of this movie Wong has gotten a huge amount of press. This interview may be particularly interesting to martial artists and Wing Chun students.
A couple of the things that he mentioned really stood out to me. The first was that while he grew up surrounded by the martial arts, he never studied them. This is not really surprising. His situation was actually typical of a lot of kids in his generation.
Wong’s parents were uneasy with the frequent connections between Kung Fu schools and the Triads. This was actually a fairly common fear in the post-WWII era and its something that historically has held the TCMA back. It is also an aspect of the story that we often ignore in our current discussions of the development of Kung Fu.
I also found it rather interesting that Wong decided to weigh in on some of the biographical controversies surrounding Ip Man’s life. He mentioned at one point that he did three years of interviews and research on various “Grandmasters” (including Ip Man) before he ever started shooting. The skeptic in me wonders whether this was time well spent. While the project was an undoubted artistic triumph, almost nothing in it actually reflects the reality of Republican martial arts. Apparently the ways of the auteur are unknowable.
Wong also makes the claim that Ip Man’s flight to Hong Kong in 1949 had nothing to do with his sympathies towards the KMT (who employed him as a police detective in Foshan). He states that this is simply a rumor and that in reality Ip Man probably fled because he was a property owner.
Setting aside the substantial historical overlap between those two categories, I found this statement to be rather odd. Ip Man had lost almost all of his wealth by the late 1940s. He probably hadn’t actually been a substantial “property owner” in over 20 years. Further, the entire discussion simply omitted his role as a plainclothes detective in the local police force directly prior to the communist takeover.
I don’t think that you are going to learn anything new about Ip Man’s life from Wong’s statements. The few private communications that I have been party to with Ip Man’s surviving children have been scathing in their assessment of Wong’s portrayal of their father’s personality and career.
Obviously it would be a mistake to treat a film like this as a work of biography. That should go without saying. That is not the point of drama.
Unfortunately I am able to see the Google searches that bring new readers to this blog. As such I can say with a great deal of certainty that many viewers are having trouble distinguishing Wong’s artistic vision from Ip Man’s historic personality. Still, I find it absolutely fascinating that detailed conversations about his private motivations and specific episodes of his life have become a legitimate topic of conversation in venues like the NY Times.
Lastly, Jet Li has revealed that he is facing some serious health challenges. Many news outlets in the last few weeks have reported that he is currently being treated for an overactive thyroid. While controllable with medication, this condition is effecting many other areas of life, including his ability to exercise. Obviously this is something of a concern for someone who is a professional actor and martial artist.
Kung Fu in the Popular Press
Two days ago the Wall Street Journal ran a column on the etymology and popular usage of the phrase “Kung Fu.” I found this to be particularly interesting (and slightly horrifying) as I am currently putting the finishing touches on a much longer academic article on the same topic.
The good news is that we both agree on the basic outlines of the story. The even better news is that I will still have a few twists and turns, as well as some much more specific information, to present to my readers. “Kung Fu” is an interesting topic precisely because the term is ubiquitous, but it doesn’t actually receive very much investigation or thought. It is yet another example of how the field of Chinese martial studies could benefit from a sustained reexamination of our basic terms and concepts.
Is Tai Chi the new Yoga? That is what a recent article at the Huffington Post asks. I doubt long-time practitioners of the TCMA will find anything new in this piece. Still, its an interesting example of the way that Taijiquan is often introduced and discussed in the popular press.
While the article reviews many of the supposed health benefits of the art, it basically ignores its martial heritage or applications. I suppose that Taiji is going to be the “new Yoga” whether we want it to be or not. A more interesting question to ask is whether this is really a “good” thing, and if so to who. Needless to say the current article didn’t dig that deep.
News From Around the Globe
The Wing Chun clan recently lost one of Ip Man’s earliest pupils. Lun Kai was one of only a handful of individuals to study with him at the “cotton factory school” during WWII. In recent decades he had been active in Foshan’s Wing Chun community. Luckily for us Lun Kai seems to have spoken with a number of researchers over the years. Here is a relatively recent example of an interview conducted with him. Oral accounts such as these offer an invaluable window onto the world of Republican era martial arts. I have yet to see an official obituary for Lun Kai, and it will be interesting to see how he is remembered by the current Wing Chun community.
Bodhidharma, the Indian saint who is often credited with bringing Chan (Zen) Buddhism to China is about to receive a new memorial in his home town of Kanchi. Of course Bodhidharma is most often remembered in TCMA circles for his association with the Shaolin Temple. Late Ming and Qing era legends claim that he introduced Indian fighting forms to the monks to strengthen them, and aid them in their meditation practices.
Interestingly the Shaolin Temple in Henan is part of the group helping to build the new memorial. It will include resources to facilitate teaching and research, with the hope of making it an important center for modern Buddhist thought. I will certainly be watching this story as it evolves.
I am sure that most of you will have heard about the massive drug raid that was recently carried out in Boshe village (South East Guangdong Province.) The raid involved huge numbers of police officers who seized multiple tons of methamphetamine. You can read more about the story here.
While this isn’t really a story about the traditional martial arts, I did find it to be interesting on a number of levels. The fact that an entire village was involved in the production and distribution of these drugs reminded me of similar accounts about the regional importance of poppy cultivation and heroine production in the Republic period. Obviously these sorts of black markets (e.g., salt smuggling, heroin production, ect…) have been ensnaring martial artists for hundreds of years.
Recent reports also indicate that there is an interesting tie in with traditional Chinese medicine.
But why this small village? Boshe and the surrounding city of Lufeng are also a major distribution center for Ma Huang, a herb commonly used in Chinese medicine to alleviate wheezing, coughs and congestion, according to a report (in Chinese and with great pictures) in the Southern Metropolis Daily. Ma Huang is also known as Ephedra Sinica, a plant traditionally cultivated in arid northwestern China, which is a natural source of ephedrine, a key ingredient in methamphetamine and also in Western medicines for asthma, among other ailments.
Kung Fu Tea on Facebook – Help with the “500 Likes” Challenge!
Lastly, be sure to head on over to the Kung Fu Tea Facebook group and check out our recent posts. We have had a number of good conversations over the last few weeks. We have seen a couple of documentaries on Bagua, looked at new books on both the Chinese and Japanese martial arts, shared some great photos of Wu style Taiji players in the 1940s and discovered the syllabus for a university course on Bruce Lee’s Kung Fu films in both Hong Kong and Harlem.
The Facebook group is a great way to keep up to date on what is going on at the WordPress blog. It also gives me a less formal venue to mention what I am reading and thinking about. You may also have noticed that it is approaching 500 likes, which is a symbolically important threshold. I am sure that if I waited it would hit that number eventually. But I don’t want to wait.
So this is what I am proposing. Tell your friends and acquaintances about Kung Fu Tea. If you know a martial arts geek, a thoughtful practitioner or someone who is interested in martial studies, let them know about the Facebook group. Then, when we hit 500 likes, I will let you select the topic of an upcoming article.
Are you interested in the history of Xingyi Quan? Do you want to know more about Mongolian Wrestling? Have you ever wondered how Triad lore affected the evolution of martial arts mythology? Is it time to take a closer look at “spirit possession” among southern Chinese martial artists? Or maybe what you really want to know more about are late Qing military sabers? Is it time for another Wing Chun post? Why have I never talked about the Taiji Classics?
Personally I would like to know more about all of these subjects. Figuring out what to research next has always been one of my challenges. So I am going to let all of you select a topic for me. Once we hit 500 Likes I will open a thread where we can conduct some discussion and voting on what topic you would like to see covered here at Kung Fu Tea.
If you know anyone who is interested in the sorts of discussions that we have, send them a link. If a post here (or a status update on Facebook) catches your interest, be sure to share it with your friends. If it looks like things are going really well I might even be convinced to come up with some stretch goals. But nothing can happen without you. Lets get to 500 likes!
Want to read more? Check out: Wing Chun and the Problem of Origins: Why does it have to come from anywhere?
January 13, 2014 at 11:14 am
Lots of interesting ‘stuff’ i this article. Of course, the kung fu/gongfu article failed to mention that it only refers to physical skills (e.g., cooking; tailoring; etc.). The tai chi and yoga article is full of flaws; historically and otherwise and fails to mention that most of the clinical research on taiji is promising but inconclusive. My Ph.d. research in kinesiology is in the area of Eastern philosophy of movement & more; so I find these articles of great interest. Continued success in you writing.