Welcome to “Chinese Martial Arts in the News.” This is a semi-regular feature here at Kung Fu Tea 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 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.
Its been a while since our last update so there is a lot to be covered in today’s post. Lets get to the news!
Wing Chun in the News
One of the first things that attracted my notice while putting this post together was that there were an unexpected number of stories relating to Wing Chun, Ip Man and Bruce Lee in the last month. Things always seem to come and go in clumps, in part because the number of stories dedicated to the Chinese martial arts carried by the news media are still rather limited. Still, it was good to see Wing Chun some additional exposure.
The first big story that you will want to read is a biography of Ip Man published in the the Japan News blog. Obviously this piece is a reaction to interest created by the last two films (Ip Man: The Final Fight and The Grandmaster). Still, given the nature of these sorts of projects I was impressed that the author tried to dig into the details of Ip Man’s life and exceeded my expectations in terms of creating of a nuanced portrait of his personality.
It is also interesting to consider the role of Ip Man’s surviving children in crafting these narratives. Obviously Ip Chun and Ip Ching both teach in the Wing Chun system, and they have collaborated with certain projects about their father’s life (perhaps the most notable of which is the museum to his memory in Foshan). In that sense they have been active participant in the creation of the new, more mythic, Ip Man.
At the same time both sons have been very down-to-earth and frank in interviews discussing their father. One might say that they are even promoting a “warts and all” biographical project. In the past Ip Chun has been fairly open in talking about his father’s affair in the 1950s, and in this piece he discusses Ip Man’s failures as a father in plain terms.
This is one of the things that I find most interesting about Ip Man as a research subject. The public discourse about him is proceeding on two parallel tracks at the same time. On the hand we have more information about him than most other figures of similar stature, and his family has been pretty open about his life, genius and shortcomings. On the other hand, his memory has simultaneously been appropriated by a number of storytellers to advance their own social or nationalist critiques which often bear little resemblance to the actual life of Ip Man. At the moment both of these trends seem to be advancing at the same time. It will be interesting to see if this continues to be in the case in the future, or if one discourse will eclipse or subsume the other.
Speaking of the growing discourse around Ip Man, the Wall Street Journal Blog had a very nice write-up of The Grandmaster’s big night at the recent Hong Kong film awards. Wong Kar-wai’s masterful story detailing the the interplay of the Northern and Southern martial arts nearly swept the awards taking top honors in 12 of 14 possible categories. This was a major vindication for the film after being overlooked at some other awards where it had been expected to do well. Zhang Ziyi took home the prize for best actress for her masterful interpretation of Gong Er.
One of the issues for students of martial studies that requires more thought is the continually evolving relationship between Bruce Lee and Ip Man. It is interesting to consider the way that Lee has been introduced in the most recent films and how his appearance has been used by different directors to convey something about Ip Man’s understanding of the martial arts. I am not a critic, but in my own casual viewing of the films it seems to me that Lee is used by Herman Yau to indicate a discontinuity, or a rupture, between two views of the martial arts, where as in Wong Kar-wai’s story Lee (who only makes a brief appearance as a child at the end of the film) is very much portrayed as the future of the martial arts that Ip Man had foreseen and that his career has pointed towards.
All of this points to Lee’s continuing relevance as a master symbol in the social construction of popular ideas about the martial arts. As if to underscore that point Robert Downey Jr., a student and vocal supporter of Wing Chun (which he credits with assisting in turning his life around when he started to find himself in an increasingly dark place) has started to showcase a collection of incredibly hip Bruce Lee t-shirts. And the press has taken notice. While reported in the celebrity fashion section, these sorts of images still help to frame the public discussion of Wing Chun, as well as to make symbolic connections between two very different generations of film celebrities.
When considering the popularity of Wing Chun its interesting to think about how Robert Downey Jr. plays into the larger discourse surrounding Lee and Ip Man. As I talked with students entering my Sifu’s intro courses a few years back it became apparent that just as many young people seemed interested in checking the school out because of Iron Man and Sherlock Holmes as because of Wilson Ip’s vision of Ip Man.
Those interested in the evolution of Bruce Lee as a martial artist, starting with his day’s as a Wing Chun student, may want to check out the forthcoming book by Tommy Gong, Bruce Lee: The Evolution of a Martial Artist. The author has an extensive background in JKD and was a student of Ted Wong. His book has received the support of the Lee estate and is currently being heavily advertised by Black Belt magazine. You can see a nice promotional video at the link provided above.
While you are visiting Black Belt, be sure to check out their recent article titled “Meet James Yimm Lee: “the man who helped to make Bruce Lee a Success.” Lee is a fascinating figure. He was pioneer of the Chinese martial arts in North America in every sense of the word. If I could write just one book about any figure in the early history of the Chinese martial arts in the USA it would probably be him. You can see a prior post that I wrote describing some of his contributions here.
The Mixed Martial Arts Find Religion
The mixed martial arts and mega-churches are two of the most powerful forces on the American cultural landscape today. While MMA seems to be at the peak of its popularity, if only because it has reached a level of absolute market saturation, the same cannot be said for the more conservative strains of Protestant Christianity. While still a force to be reckoned with, social scientists have noticed a marked decline in popular identification with sectarian religion in the last few years (thought interestingly not so much in raw “spirituality”). This rise of the “nones” has left a number of congregations rethinking their strategy for retaining their cultural relevance in the coming years.
This is where the mixed martial arts enter our story. It seems that a number of enterprising and athletic pastors are attempting to combine their interest and passion for both subjects in an effort to revitalize their flocks. A new documentary on these “Fight Churches” is coming out that looks at this phenomenon. Students of martial studies may find the subject to be interesting as the interaction of gender and hand combat is a major topic of conversation in the literature. Many of these Churches are using the rising popularity of MMA as a tool to construct a more masculine and heroic type of Christianity. This in turn is a response to a perceived crisis of manhood in certain sectors of the American religious landscape. Again, while not directly related to the Chinese martial arts this is a fascinating topic and well worth considering. If nothing else it helps to demonstrate the utility of martial studies in understanding a wide range of phenomenon in modern western culture.
News From Around the Globe
Historically speaking few women in China studied the martial arts prior to the 1920s (though there were a number of notable exceptions). Still, the idea of the female warrior is one of the most interesting and vital symbols to emerge from Chinese martial culture. Have you ever wondered where it came from? The following post provides readers with a brief run-down of the most notable “Badass heroines from ancient China.” In addition to being a fun read this is a valuable reminder of the sorts of literary material helped to shape and late imperial stories of female martial artists (like Yim Wing Chun).
The MMA History Blog at Bloody Elbow is kicking off a new series that many readers of Kung Fu Tea may find interesting. Some of you will be familiar with T. P. Grant from his various essays on the evolution of modern MMA. In his new series he will be looking to the past in an effort to introduce his readers to a selection of some of the most intriguing and important fighting systems that have been lost to history. You can read his introduction to the series here. His first essay taps into the current popular interest in Game of Thrones and takes on the (somewhat) lost art of European Long Sword fencing. I plan on following this series and am looking forward to future updates.
Its no secret that a break-out action film can create a ground swell of interest in a given martial arts style. Many practitioners of the Indonesian art Pencak Silat hope that “The Raid” and its sequel will given their style the sorts of international recognition that it deserves. And it turns out that Gareth Evans, the Welsh born director of these films, is one of individuals working hard to raise both the profile of this art and the Indonesian Film Industry. The Wall Street Journal has a nice overview of his efforts here.
Returning to China, it has been announced that the Shaolin Temple in Henan is about to get its own Wifi system, and yes, the monks will be allowed to have smart phones. However, they will not be allowed to play Angry Birds or Candy Crush. I guess that those are the sacrifices that you make when taking monastic vows. Still, given the fact that Shaolin is Henan province’s top tourist destination, it is not hard to see the business sense behind this decision.
Last but not least, Glen Stanway, author of Fearless the Story of Chinwoo Kung Fu, and frequent commentator on the Kung Fu Tea Facebook Group was recently photographed with Jackie Chan at his 60th Birthday Party bash. I am totally jealous. That is definitely a picture for the scrapbook!
We have a couple of quick announcement regarding the more academic side of martial studies. First off, the special edition of the JOMEC Journal edited by Paul Bowman and dedicated to martial studies is just about ready for publication. You can check out the table of contents here to start getting excited about the articles. Students of martial studies will notice quite a few familiar names and some very interesting titles. The journal will be freely available at the JOMEC webpage after its release.
Also D. S. Farrer’s has also edited a special of Social Analysis: The International Journal of Social & Cultural Practice, which will be of interest to a number of students of martial studies. His edition is titled “War Magic and Warrior Religion: Sorcery, Cognition and Embodiment.” Obviously this is a topic that comes up in the study of various fighting traditions. Its something that I have been thinking about quite a bit in relation to the various millennial uprisings that happened in China in the late 19th century. Hopefully some of the articles in this journal will provide us with better theoretical tools for contextualizing and understanding these practices. While the complete issue is not on-line, you can read Farrer’s introduction and editorial essay on the project here.
Kung Fu Tea on Facebook
There has been a lot of activity on the Kung Fu Tea Facebook group during the last month. This includes a number of news item not covered here, some great discussions of the state of MMA in China by a variety of highly informed authors, demonstrations of some classic Kung Fu styles and a couple of breathtaking photo-essays.
In addition to covering some lighter topics the Facebook group is also a great way to stay up to date on events and new posts here at the WordPress blog. If you would like to receive regular updates make sure you “like” the facebook page and set your profile settings accordingly. And if its been a while, head on over and see what you have been missing!