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 affect 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, 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!
As regular readers know my personal research tends to focus on developments in Southern China and Hong Kong. A lot has happened there over the last few days as the pro-democracy student strikes have been joined by a stepped-up “Occupy Central” movement. Thousands of protesters have ignored orders to disperse and have been met with tear gas and other measures meant to disperse the demonstrations. I haven’t written anything on this subject as no single coherent narrative with regards to the martial arts has yet emerged from these events. On the one hand some individuals within the Occupy movement have sought to appropriate Bruce Lee as a symbol of political resistance (see here). At the same time many of Hong Kong’s martial arts styles are eager to maintain the possibility of good relations (and even future funding) from the government across the border. While I have yet to hear a distinct “kung fu narrative” emerge from these events they are something that readers should pay attention to as they have the potential of affecting the development of Hong Kong’s civil society in profound ways.
The Shaolin Temple made headlines in the last week and, once again, the news has not been good. For some time it has been rumored that the sanctuary has been embroiled in conflict with its “management company” which is ultimately responsible to provincial government in Henan. The dispute centers around what percentage of the daily ticket sales goes to the temple vs. the management company (and ultimately state officials). Under the terms of the original contract the temple was supposed to get around 30% of the revenue, while the rest went to the management company and the state. Earlier in the year temple personal began to publicly claim that they were not receiving their cut and even seized control the ticket booths for a short while.
Shaolin has now launched a lawsuit accusing its management company of flagrantly violating its contractual obligation. The management group has responded to these public accusations not with denials, but by questioning what a group of Buddhist monks could possibly need so much money for, and whether it would really be in the public’s best interest to turn it over to them, signed contracts not withstanding. As one might expect, the public has been quick to weigh in on the controversy, asking their own pointed questions as to why public officials could possibly “need” this much money, and noting that if admission to temple was made free the problem would be resolved.
Nor is this the only controversy that Shaolin has courted in the last few weeks. Matthew Polly’s widely read book American Shaolin was recently translated into Chinese. A number of readers in China were upset by Polly’s unvarnished look at life and training within the center run by the Shaolin Temple. Spokesmen for the Temple went on the defensive deciding (somewhat retrospectively) that they “do not teach Kung Fu for money” and that Polly must have been confused about where he was actually studying.
In fact there is no confusion in this text. Polly provides a minutely detailed account of traveling to the Shaolin temple and enrolling in one of its Kung Fu training programs. He names names, records conversations and paints a vivid picture of the temple’s commercial dealings at that point in time. This is precisely what makes his book so interesting. Nor have western readers found it to be off-putting. In fact, I suspect that Polly’s work has vastly increased the number of Western students traveling to the temple’s various Kung Fu programs. It would appear that Chinese audiences were less enamored with his experiences. Polly himself noted the controversy that his book caused on his twitter account, but did not respond to the temple’s specific accusations.
The Global Times recently ran an article examining aspects of Shanghai’s martial arts heritage. After opening with a nod to the Jingwu Association it went on to discuss a local branch of Mian Quan or “Cotton Boxing.” This particular lineage traces its roots in the city to the 1920s. Of course “Cotton Boxing” was a widely spread term important to the history of various arts from areas as diverse as Henan and Guangdong. It is interesting to see a more detailed discussion of a specific Cotton Boxing lineage in Shanghai today. As always it is important to note the role of the local government in promoting this art:
“The school programs are free. Sun Hongxi told the Global Times that he does not ask for rewards from his students, but is glad that the Shanghai government has rewarded Mian Quan by independently funding the publication of the first-ever book on the martial art, which Sun Hongxi called “a crucial step in passing down the heritage.”
The book, which the government has spent 160,000 yuan ($25,920) on, focuses on the history of Mian Quan and basic movements. This year Mian Quan was named a national intangible culture heritage, and with this, Sun Hongxi looks forward to a national funding that will lead to the publication of a second book illustrating different moves and styles for different ages.”
Another article took a closer look at a different sort of martial environment. The Black Tiger Fight Club in Beijing teaches MMA, Boxing and Muay Thai, and is dedicated to succeeding in China’s up-and-coming combat sports scene. Vincent Soberano is a Filipino-American who originally called California home. There are a couple of interesting things to note about this article. To begin with, it looks like his gym caters mostly to western rather than Chinese students. Secondly the rhetoric that Soberano has adopted actually sounds like what you might hear from many of the more “traditional” martial arts schools:
“This summer, Soberano released “50: Fit and Fighting”, a book that talks of how he has stayed in shape through exercise, nutrition and nourishing relationships. He wants it to send a message of hope that no matter how old people may get, they can take steps to keep fit and enjoy life.
When he visits his childhood friends, Soberano says he sees how some of them have just given up on staying fit.
“I sit next to them and I feel like I’m their grandson. The age difference between us physically is so huge,” he says.”
After a relatively quiet summer we are starting to hear some updates on various martial arts films. To begin with there have been press releases and discussions of “Birth of the Dragon.” George Nolfi is due to direct this project. It looks like the script has come together and we now have a better idea about the direction that the project will take. Rather than being a strictly biographical film, the story will venture into fictional territory. Shot from the perspective of a student, it will tell the tale of Bruce’s conflicts with a group of Chinatown gangsters including (I assume) Wong Jack Man. Given that so many people feel a sense of investment in Lee’s life story, it will be interesting to see how audiences respond to this interweaving of fact and fiction.
On a slightly odder note Nicolas Cage’s latest film, a Chinese martial arts epic titled “Outcast,” was recently pulled from over 5,000 screens by Chinese censors just hours before its nation-wide release. No reason was provided for the decision to yank the project, but one can only suspect that it had something to do with the wisdom of sticking Cage in wuxia film. Apparently North American audiences will be able make up their own minds as the film is still slated for a future western release.
Lastly, check out this piece on Lethwei which CNN recently ran in their travel section. It provides a nice overview of a type of boxing that originally hails form Myanmar. The article notes that the sport is quickly acquiring a global fan-base. That may have something to do with the fact that its fighters traditionally boxed without gloves and fights tended to be decided by a small number of hard hits rather than turning into long endurance affairs. It looks like gloves and other safety equipment are now becoming more common. I wonder whether the art will be able to maintain its more aggressive nature as it moves into an environment dominated by the norms and expectations of modern combat sports.
Martial Arts Studies
Martial Arts Studies: An International Interdisciplinary Conference has issued a “call for papers.” Click the link to read more about its theme and the procedure for submitting papers. Proposals are due by December 31, 2014 and the conference itself will be held June 10-12, 2015 at Cardiff University. I look forward to meeting a number of you there!
A number of new books have been released in the last few weeks that will also be of interest to students of martial arts studies. Those who follow the literature on wuxia and kung fu novels will want to check out Sound Rising from the Paper: Nineteenth-Century Martial Arts Fiction and the Chinese Acoustic Imagination. Written by
Students of gender in martial studies will need to be aware of The Amazons: Lives and Legends of Warrior Women across the Ancient World (Princeton University Press, 2014). While Adrienne Mayor’s book begins with Greek and Middle Eastern stories of female warriors, her focus quickly shifts to the Asian nomadic horse cultures which had a profound affect on China and the rest of Asia.
“who were these bold barbarian archers on horseback who gloried in fighting, hunting, and sexual freedom? Were Amazons real? In this deeply researched, wide-ranging, and lavishly illustrated book, National Book Award finalist Adrienne Mayor presents the Amazons as they have never been seen before. This is the first comprehensive account of warrior women in myth and history across the ancient world, from the Mediterranean Sea to the Great Wall of China.
Mayor tells how amazing new archaeological discoveries of battle-scarred female skeletons buried with their weapons prove that women warriors were not merely figments of the Greek imagination. Combining classical myth and art, nomad traditions, and scientific archaeology, she reveals intimate, surprising details and original insights about the lives and legends of the women known as Amazons. Provocatively arguing that a timeless search for a balance between the sexes explains the allure of the Amazons, Mayor reminds us that there were as many Amazon love stories as there were war stories. The Greeks were not the only people enchanted by Amazons–Mayor shows that warlike women of nomadic cultures inspired exciting tales in ancient Egypt, Persia, India, Central Asia, and China.”
A wide variety of researchers within the field of martial arts studies will also want to check out Oleg Benesch’s volume Inventing the Way of the Samurai: Nationalism, Internationalism, and Bushido in Modern Japan (Harvard University Press, 2014). Rather than simply accepting Bushido as the “soul of the Japanese nation” this volume looks at the ways in which these ideas were socially constructed in the late 19th century, promoted during Japan’s military expansion and then re-imagined in the post-war era. Obviously this case study is important for anyone who is interested in the often complex relationship between the traditional martial arts, nationalism and the state. Amazon is currently accepting pre-orders for this work.
While you are waiting for these books to arrive you may also want to read “The Intimate Schoolmaster and the Ignorant Sifu: Post-structuralism, Bruce Lee and the Ignorance of Everyday Radical Pedagogy.” This paper was presented by Paul Bowman at a recent conference and it addresses a number of issues regarding the current crisis in university education. It is a nice example of martial arts studies making a contribution to a more practical “policy” discussion.
Lastly readers in Hong Kong may want to check out Hing Chao’s upcoming talk at the Asia Society. Titled ‘Hong Kong’s Grandmasters: Film and Community’ this promises to be a good opportunity to learn more about his recent book as well as the evolving place of the martial arts in southern China’s popular culture.
Kung Fu Tea on Facebook
There is always a lot going on at the Kung Fu Tea Facebook group. This last month has been no exception. We looked at documentaries on various styles of Chinese boxing, rediscover the art of the German Longsword, talked about the “36 Chambers of Shaolin” with RZA and toured a collection of traditional weapons at the Beijing Military Museum.
If its been a while since your last visit, head on over and see what you have been missing!
If you enjoyed this update you might also want to read: Two Encounters with Bruce Lee: Finding Reality in the Life of the Little Dragon.