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 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!
News From China
Hong Kong’s “Umbrella Revolution” is still going strong and while talks between the demonstrators and the government are pending, there has been no sign of a let up in the intensity of the protests. Events such as these provide a fascinating case-study for those of us who are interested in questions of local identity and society in Southern China. Of course the real issue is how (and whether) this will impact the subsequent development of the city’s unique civic culture. Given that the traditional martial arts can be conceptualized as one element of this larger expression of popular culture, those are not insignificant questions. As such I have been watching the news for discussions of the protests that draw on the symbolism of kung fu or directly involve the local martial arts community.
This last week provided an interesting example of an exchange that did both. In an attempt to discredit the largely peaceful nature of these protests local politician Leung Che-cheung (who supports the Mainland Government’s position) claimed that umbrellas carried by the crowds were by their very nature aggressive weapons and that the police and local government therefore had a responsibility to stop the protestors. To support this position he pointed to the repeated use of umbrellas as improvised weapons in Hong Kong Kung Fu films. Wong Fei Hung, in particular, has come to be known for the use of an umbrella as a defensive tool through the films of Jet Li and Kwan Tak-Hing.
This view has been widely challenged, including by at least a few in the martial arts community. The New Straits Times recently ran a statement by a Hung Gar master weighing in on the umbrella controversy:
Mr Pang Chi Ming, a fourth-generation descendant of Master Wong, told the Apple Daily that Mr Leung’s remarks were “a total insult to Chinese martial arts and the master”.
“An umbrella is used for self-defence in real gongfu, and is not an aggressive weapon,” said Mr Pang, who lives in Hong Kong and has been practising gongfu for more than 50 years.
“Every pose in the ‘Dragon-Tiger umbrella’ set was invented for self-defence rather than attack,” he said of the style which first emerged in the 18th century and was made famous by Master Wong, who lived from 1847 to 1924, in Guangdong.
Occupy protesters appear to have better comprehended Master Wong’s wisdom, he added.
“They just use the umbrellas to protect themselves from pepper spray, not to attack the police,” said Mr Pang.
This has not been the only story coming out of China in recent weeks suggesting the relevance of the traditional martial arts to ongoing discussions about social violence. The South China Morning Post reported on an incident in which the residents of a small community south of Beijing came into conflict with a property management firm which was using their contract with the local government to violently extort illegal payments from the residents without providing any services. Such tales are unfortunately common, but the residents of this particular municipality fought back by hiring a martial arts instructor to train and organize the town. After a number of confrontations (of mixed success) the residents forced the local government to take a second look at the contract and open negotiations. This story is interesting as it so closely parallels the use of the martial arts as a tool to organize local resistance and protection by communities in the same region during the 1920s and 1930s. Of course we have been looking at those historical cases as part of our multi-part series on the Red Spear Movement. This recent story makes a nice counterpoint to some of this older material.
In more pleasant news Zhengzhou, in Henan Province, is currently hosting the 10th International Shaolin Martial Arts Festival. The event runs from October 18th to the 22nd. As always this promises to be a massive tournament with pageantry and hundreds of competitors representing dozens of different countries.
There has also been some interesting news regarding China’s growing engagement with the non-traditional combat sports. ONE FC has been making headlines over the last couple of weeks for its aggressive efforts to capture China’s rapidly growing MMA market. The New York Post recently ran a short piece profiling their success (and the UFC’s subsequent frustration).
If you are looking for a more nuanced and granular discussion of the spread of MMA in China head on over to The Last Masters. Sascha has posted what appears to be the first essay in a series on Tibetans in the country’s growing combat sports scene. As always it provides an invaluable “real time” window onto current events, and I look forward to hearing how this story will end.
Chinese Martial Arts Around the Globe
The Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience in Seattle is making waves with the opening of their exhibit on Bruce Lee. Assembled with the cooperation of the Lee Estate, this is the only current exhibit on Lee outside of Hong Kong and it looks like a great opportunity for anyone who is interested in his ongoing legacy. As one might expect the exhibit pay’s special attention to Lee’s connections to the North West. Indeed, Lee seems to have been shaped by his time in the region in critical ways.
On the other side of the country traditional Peking opera is currently struggling to gain recognition for traditional opera. The Wall Street Journal recently ran a piece on the efforts of a group of immigrant performers to keep their art alive. Given the connections between the worlds of opera and the martial arts this is a subject that we have covered a number of times here at Kung Fu Tea before. Of course most of our posts on the subject have focused on Cantonese Opera in Hong Kong, so its nice to get a broader view of the current state of the art.
The rapid expansion of the Chinese martial arts in Africa has also been in the news over the last month. Perhaps the most interesting of these articles was the following report on the state of Kung Fu in Uganda. It seems that the steady rise of a homegrown action film industry (termed Wakaliwood) is creating a virtuous cycle in which domestic movies expose children to images of Kung Fu. They then go and begin to train in the martial arts with the express goal of making more movies in the future. You can read more about these trends here.
In recent years “Confucius Institutes” have become a cornerstone of China’s public diplomacy efforts around the globe. These academic centers, housed within universities in dozens of different countries, attempt to promote global understanding of Chinese language, culture, history and political positions by offering a wide variety of language and culture classes. Many also sponsor performances or speakers for the broader community.
Of course such efforts are not without their critics. A number of individuals in western universities have become increasingly wary of the political and social strings that are often attached to the money provided by the Chinese government for the maintenance of these institutes. Now it seems that there is also increased dissatisfaction with these projects within China itself. At a time when many Chinese students still do not have reliable access to higher education citizens are questioning whether the government should really be using its tax dollars to subsidize language classes for residents of wealthy western nations. Worse yet, critics are starting to ask some very pointed questions about whether these academic programs are providing much bang for their buck.
Of course China is not the only the state that supports educational ventures abroad as part of its public diplomacy. North American, European, Middle Eastern and other Asian governments all do this to one extent or another. Still, if you have been following the academic discussion over the last few years its clear that this model of educational funding is raising all sorts of anxieties and concerns. This is an issue that will be of critical importance as we consider the future shape of Chinese martial studies as an interdisciplinary academic research area. After all, these institutes have been instrumental in supporting a lot of interdisciplinary cultural work on China in the last couple of years.
Chinese Martial Arts in the Entertainment Industry
It looks like the much anticipated “Kung Fu Panda 3″ is officially happening. A release date for the film has been set for December of 2015. All of the original voice actors will be back as well as a couple of new faces. Bryan Cranston (of “Breaking Bad”) has been tapped to play Po’s father. Executive producer Guillermo del Toro (!!!!) hasn’t released many details about the plot, except to note that there will be at least two villains who will test the abilities of the Furious Five and the Dragon Warrior. Needless to say these films are a great opportunity for anyone who runs an after school kung fu program and a wonderful case-study for those of us who are interested in the globalization and cultural appropriation of Chinese martial culture.
Donnie Yen is set to star in an English language martial arts film titled the “Noodle Man.” The project is being produced by Michael Shamberg. Yen will be playing a retired police officer who left the force after his partner was killed by a drug lord 15 years earlier. When the same individual walks into his Chinatown noodle shop years later he is presented with an opportunity for revenge. This sounds like a pretty cool project. I will be interested to see how it turns out.
If you are located anywhere near New York City and your taste runs more towards classic Kung Fu films you may want to consider joining the Film Society of Lincoln Center for “An Evening with Jimmy Wong Yu.” Yu stared in a number of iconic films and helped to popularize a new genre of sword-fighting films. He is often remembered for his work in “The One Armed Swordsman” (1967) and “The Chinese Boxer” (1970). On November 11th he will be presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award. Following this there will be both an on-stage conversation with Yu and a presentation of his film “The Flying Guillotine.”
I am sure that you are all familiar with the adds for Snickers candy bars in which the public is informed that a chronic lack of peanuts and chocolate may result in one’s spontaneous transformation into a comedian. Mr. Bean is the latest personality to join this advertising campaign. Of course he brings his own unique style to project, and demonstrates in no uncertain terms what the dangers of doing of Kung Fu on an empty stomach might look like. It also turns out that he has an incredible wooden dummy routine! In fact, he has stared in an entire series of shorts which are as relentless as they are hilarious. Clear your afternoon schedule.
This is not Rowan Atkinson’s first foray into the world of the martial arts. He has been mining the comic potential of this material for years. Click here to see what I consider to be the best of these efforts. Watching these again I love the juxtaposition of the eloquent promises of cosmic transformation with the jarring reality of small personal humiliations which seem to be so universal in martial arts training. Good stuff.
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 the first public Kung Fu exhibition in the US, asked whether Ip Man is a role model, translated a Taiji sword manual and found a number of resources for the academic study of the martial arts. Of course joining the Facebook group is also a great way of keeping up with everything that is happening here at Kung Fu Tea.
If its been a while since your last visit, head on over and see what you have been missing!