Welcome back for another installment of “Chinese Martial Arts in the News.” This is a semi-regular feature in which we review 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 Diplomacy
As a political scientist I am very interested in the ways in which the martial arts are invoked in public diplomacy, both in terms of imagery and institutional exchanges. There have been an unusually large number of articles on this topic in the last few weeks, all pointing to the growing profile of these fighting systems as markers of national identity and mediums of “cultural exchange” between states.
Since the early 1980s China has identified both its traditional martial arts and state sponsored Wushu programs as important tools of public diplomacy on the global stage. A recent example of this can be seen in negotiations surrounding the building of a manufacturing district in Mumbai. Obviously the construction of a major factory complex in India is an important event with all sorts of complex political and economic ramifications. But I thought that it was fascinating that as part of their package the Chinese offered to both fund a Confucius Institute at the local university as well as offering extensive martial arts instruction to its students. Even more interesting is that the press has found this small detail of a much larger (and vastly more complex) deal to be so interesting.
Apparently the Chinese are not the only ones to have discovered the value of the martial arts in international negotiations. The LA Times recently ran a story profiling Daniel Russel. He is the US Assistant Secretary of State for Asian Affairs. This is an important posting and Russel is said to have been involved in crafting the American government’s new “rebalanacing” strategy in the Pacific. It turns out that Russel is also a long time student of Aikido. He was first introduced to the art 38 years ago and current holds a 2nd Dan Black Belt. Russell claims that Aikido has had a major impact on both his life and his diplomatic style.
The Asian martial arts also enter public conversations through their links to nationalism and identity politics. I remember sitting in a lecture on late 19th century European nationalism in graduate school where my teacher claimed that at one point in time to be taken seriously as a “nation” any group had to be able to show that they possessed three things: 1) a “people” 2) a historic “homeland” – even if they did not occupy it at the moment 3) a national “folk” literature.
That last qualification may seem odd to us today, but there is a reason that the late 19th century became the golden age linguistics and folklore collection. The discovery of a lot of these “forgotten peasant epics” tended to actually be pretty political. Finland’s Kalevala is a great place to start for anyone interested in the subject.
As I follow the coverage of the martial arts I am forced to wonder if “national” hand combat traditions have come to the fill same functions of identity verification and legitimization in Asia today. Obviously the Olympics are great place to see this process at work. Judo and Tae Kwon Do’s acceptance were critical issues for both the Japanese and Korean sporting establishments, and they have raised the symbolic stakes on Wushu’s exclusion to a considerable degree.
Nor does this logic appear to be isolated to the “big three” East Asian powers. A number of smaller states are equally invested in their national martial arts institutions. A good case in point can be seen in a recent article on Vietnamnet. It reported on negotiations to insure the inclusion of Vovinam in the South East Asian Games (which already feature many interesting martial arts events).
I find it interesting that the wikipedia page on this art finds it necessary to state its total independence from all other “national arts” in direct terms. Clearly that is important to its self-definition as an expression of Vietnamese nationalism. Inclusion in a major international sporting event would confer a great deal of legitimacy in both the art and its major goals. In very general terms this seems to be similar to what we have seen in other places (Alex Gillis’ work on Tae Kwon Do comes to mind), but its interesting to see the process played out in a comparative perspective.
Privatizing Kung Fu Diplomacy
Of course the martial arts can confer credibility on all sorts of actors, not just states. Occasionally we see individuals jumping into the fray on a variety of issues. Martial artist and film star Jackie Chan has been back in the news lately. This time he is crusading for greater protection of endangered species by restricting the demand for (and trade in) animal products. Interestingly there seems to be at least two sides to Chan’s rhetoric on this issue. When speaking to primarily international audiences he has sought to reassure the public that Chinese culture is changing, at least with respect to wildlife conservation. Other discussions, aimed at a more domestic audience, tend to press the point a little harder and demand that certain social values (such as an insatiable demand for ivory) change even faster.
Other sorts of private institutions or organizations can also be an important part of these sorts of public diplomacy efforts, They may even reap substantial private benefits from their involvement. The Shaolin Temple is perhaps the most active private actor in Kung Fu diplomacy today. It has been back in the news with its various efforts to build contacts and relationships in Africa.
Shaolin has yet to establish any schools on that continent, but its efforts to train African martial artists are gaining lots of attention. Of course all of this happening at a time when China is building both its diplomatic and economic presence in Africa, and none of these educational efforts would be possible without the active cooperation of both sets of governments. This appears to be an interesting case of convergence between Shaolin’s private goals and the Chinese government’s larger public diplomacy strategy.
Remembering Ark Yuey Wong
Recently I noticed a press release relating to one of the most important pioneers of the traditional Chinese martial arts in North America. Ark Yuey Wong was born in Guagzhou in 1900 and later immigrated to California. He is generally believed to be one of the first individuals to begin to publicly teach the traditional Chinese martial arts in the United States. He taught both the “Five Families” and “Five Animals” styles. In 1965 he was the very first Chinese master to ever be featured on the cover of Black Belt Magazine. This was a major achievement for the time and it demonstrated the rising interest in the Chinese martial arts. Wong is also remembered as one of the first Kung Fu teachers to openly accept non-Chinese students, and one of the first individuals to publish a book on the Chinese martial art.
The Martial Arts History Museum, in Burbank California, inducted Wong into their “Hall of Fame” in 2006. More recently they announced that they are unveiling a bronze bust of the this important martial artist, to be formally installed in the museum by his grandson, Seming Ma. Being an East Coast person I have never had a chance to visit this museum, but I think its very important that as a community we do more to remember the post-WWII martial artists of the 1950s-1970s. Installing this statue sounds like a step in the right direction.
New Books: The Art of Chinese Kung Fu
Amazon has announced that they are taking preorders for a book titled The Art of Chinese Kung Fu by
The first section of the book, ‘The Dream of Kung Fu,’ is concerned with aesthetic manifestations, from photography and art to modern popular culture. Kung Fu s most famous practitioners, including Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan, and seminal movies like ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’ and ‘Kill Bill’ are featured prominently. The latter sections of the book, ‘The Practice of Kung Fu’ and ‘The Legacy of Kung Fu,’ dig deeper into the history and lore of the practice in remote parts of China, in the temples and cities where it now flourishes. The philosophical beliefs behind the practice, and the important tenets of harmony and inclusiveness, are presented faithfully, before the reader is treated to centuries-old manuals of Kung Fu that offer new insights into the training and practice necessary to master this timeless martial art.
We should also note that this volume is actually a translation of an earlier edition that was released in China last year. Lots of books on the martial arts are published in China each year, but its very rare for any of them to receive an English language translation. As such we have seen the evolution to two interconnected, but still basically parallel, conversations on the TCMA on both sides of the pacific over the last few decades. Hopefully projects like this one will start to bridge that divide.
Kung Fu Tea (and Chinese Martial Studies) on Facebook
There has been quite a bit of activity and conversation on the Kung Fu Tea Facebook group over the last few weeks. If its been a while since you last visit head on over and see what you have been missing. Recent articles posted by Paul Bowman, and a guest post by Stanford Chiou, helped to inspire some fruitful discussion about the role of theory in martial studies.
A recent review article by Alex Channon and George Jennings (2014) titled “Exploring Embodiment through Martial Arts and Combat Sports: A Review of Empirical Research” also inspired some good conversation and including responses by both Bowman and one of the study’s authors (see the “Recent Posts by Others” box and look under Bowman’s thread). Also be sure to check out the link to Channon’s recent article on gender and mixed-sex training in the martial arts which was also posted to the Facebook group.
The Facebook group also features a lot of lighter topics and more practical items. In the last few weeks we checked out a dangerous looking two-sectional staff form, learned how to make portable plum blossom poles, read editorials on the future of Kung Fu and looked at a number of interesting pieces on weapons development and training in southern China. And that is just scratching the surface. Head on over and take a look at what you might have been missing!