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!
Martial Arts as Elements of China’s Intangible Cultural Heritage
This edition’s leading stories all revolve around attempts to promote and preserve China’s martial culture by designating parts of it as aspects of the nation’s “intangible cultural heritage.” Obviously the UN spearheads a lot of these efforts around the globe, but individual provenances and municipalities in China sometimes create their own lists which has led to the honoring of a number of martial arts traditions. This process is once again in the news as the Chinese government has recently released a new list of institutions to be so designated.
Generally speaking, the martial arts community has done well by this selection process. As we have noted in other news updates, the city of Shanghai has spent much of the last year preserving and promoting its historic association with the Jingwu (or “Pure Martial”) movement which swept across much of eastern and southern China in the 1910s-1920s. These efforts have led to the renovation and re-branding of various public buildings and parks. Now the Shanghai Daily is reporting that the City’s Jingwu tradition has been recognized as a critical aspect of the national heritage. Congratulations are in order.
But not everyone made the cut. One of the big losers in this years selection process was the legendary Daoist sage Zhang Sanfeng. Both the Chen and Yang branches of Taijiquan have previously been included on the cultural heritage registry. Given the global popularity of the art that is not much of a surprise.
Readers may recall that moves by the city Shaowu (in Zhejiang province) to give similar recognition to the Zhang Sanfeng style of Taijiquan earlier this year led to vocal protests from other groups within the martial arts community. Leaders of the Chen school have argued quite strenuously that Zhang Sanfeng (at least as he is described within Taiji circles) is a legend which obscures Chen Village’s historic role in the creation of the modern Taiji system. For its part the selection committee claimed that its decision to reject the petition was not biased by the arguments of other martial arts schools, but it is widely thought that Zhang Sanfeng’s largely fictional status counted against the effort.
This is an interesting development given the evolution of the Zhang Sanfeng debate over the years. Originally Zhang was much more likely to find support in culturally conservative circles in Taiwan and abroad. Martial arts historians within China proper followed the more “scientific” path first outlines by Tang Hao when discussing Taiji’s origins. Yet in the last few decades Zhang has once again become something of a fixture in historical debates surrounding the origin of Taiji. From the small amount of reporting that I have been able to find it is unclear to me exactly why Shaowu’s petition was actually rejected, but one wonders whether this move signals yet another shift in the official acceptance (or tolerance) of the Zhang Sanfeng narrative.
Readers interested in southern Chinese culture should note that Qilin (Unicorn) Dancing, popular in the Hakka Communities in Guangdong and Hong Kong, was also added to the list of intangible heritage items. Daniel Amos did a great study of a martial arts schools and Qilin Dance association in Kowloon during the 1970s. You can read more about it here.
“The Grand Master” Gets it UK Release
Wong Kar-wai’s Kung Fu epic “The Grand Master” has been fighting its way back into the entertainment headlines in the UK ahead of the release of the film there. It still seems a bit surreal to see reporters in major newspapers discussing the finer points of Ip Man’s life and how they relate to his various bio-pics.
Viewers in the UK might want to note that what is being released is an edited and shortened version of the film (which apparently is a different cut than the other edited versions that have previously been shown in the west). In general the reviews seem to be very positive and everyone agrees that the film is visually stunning. However, a few critics have felt that the film falls short of his best efforts and that the story itself borders on incoherence. This last object is probably a function of the recent editing that was done for the UK release and not Wong’s original film which I didn’t find all that challenging to follow. Readers interested in hearing Wong’s own thoughts on this project may want to check out this interview.
All of the publicity generated by this release seems to have inspired some public reminiscing and discussion of the Kung Fu genera. A nice example of the stuff that is circulating at the moment is this piece in the Telegraph titled “Why I get a kick out of Kung Fu.”
Ip Man is not the only southern Kung Fu master in the headlines. The new Wong Fei-hung film is starting to generate publicity material, and I have to say, the trailer looks pretty good. Anyone interested in this film will want to see this interview with Eddie Peng who pontificates on Wong Fei-hung as a character and how he has evolved over the years. If southern China ever generated a super-hero, it would have to be Wong who has now been the subject of over 50 feature length films.
The Month that Wushu Went Viral
In the annals of Chinese martial studies November of 2014 may come to be remembered as the month that Wushu went viral. The explosion was touched off by a clip (a few years old) of a two woman set (spear vs. fist). I was surprised how much traction this performance got, and before I knew it family and friends from all over the country were emailing me clips of other Wushu performances. For a sport that can’t get the International Olympic Committee to take it seriously, Wushu suddenly seems to be generating a lot of viral enthusiasm. Here is a post that collects a bunch of the stuff that I have seen in circulation, including the performance that seems to have started it all.
Readers looking for something a little more artistic may want to check out “Sister Wudang.” Apparently she combines Taiji and traditional musical performances in a way that is generating a lot of interest among Chinese internet users.
Thinking about Combat Sports in China Today
Next we have a few items related to discussions of the modern combat sports in China today. First off, I am very happy to announce that the Kickstarter campaign for “The New Masters” was successful. Thanks to the generous efforts of hundreds of people the project is now fully funded and the production crew can complete their documentary on MMA and Kung Fu in China today. If you are interested learning more about this film you can find an interview with the production crew, and a link to trailer, here.
Sascha Matuszak, a producer and the writer for “The New Masters,” has not been resting on his laurels. Instead he has an article at Kung Fu Tai Chi magazine in which he lays out a very frank assessment of how the Chinese martial arts market has fragmented, and what the futures of traditional Kung Fu and MMA in China are likely to be. I was particularly interested in the economic aspects of his argument as market forces have always been a critical element in the evolution and development of the martial arts, even if they are not always explicitly discussed.
Readers should also note that MMA is not the only combat sport that has been making waves in China over the last few weeks. Pacquiao’s recent fight generated a large audience and its clear that Western boxing (which was also pretty popular prior to 1949) is on the upswing. Again, it was interesting to note how many mainstream media outlets picked this story up, including the USA Today.
Other News From Around the Web
I don’t normally cover stories on local teachers as there are just too many of them, but I recently ran across a couple that I thought might be of more general interest. First, while reading a local newspaper I discovered this profile of the Peaceful Water school in Tonawanda NY. The couple that runs this school teaches both Taiji and Systema (a fascinating combination) and they gave a good interview. I will need to see if I can get down to visit them sometime in the New Year. To avoid any charge of geographic partisanship I will also direct readers to this article about a new school in Costa Mesa being opened by a former student of the Shaolin temple. I cannot tell exactly where this individual fell of the “Shaolin spectrum” from the interview in the newspaper (was he in the temple’s performance troops? From one of the Dengfeng Shaolin schools? An actual ordained monk?) but he still gives a nice account of what life is like for children in the world of Shaolin Kung Fu.
While not directly related to the martial arts I also thought that a number of the readers here at Kung Fu Tea would be enjoy the next article. The South China morning post recently ran a profile on the first woman certified as a “Master of Chinese Medicine” who is also currently working in Hong Kong. She discusses the state of TCM in the city compared to the mainland and she is not impressed. Her overall impression is that Hong Kong residents do not take traditional medicine seriously, nor do they put it on the same level as western medicine. Of course that would fit with the arguments of David Palmer and Nancy Chen that the rise of TCM and Qigong in China was basically a function of the privatization of medical care on the mainland in the 1990s. Consumers in Hong Kong might not exhibit the same degree of enthusiasm for these less expensive traditional practices as they were not subjected to the same set of “market reforms.” Its an interesting observation for further consideration.
Kung Fu Tea on Facebook
As always there is a lot going on at the Kung Fu Tea Facebook group and this last month has been no exception. We discussed the White Crane pole forms, saw a documentary on Xingyi Quan and thought about India’s latest attempt to rebrand Yoga, in addition to a number of other subject. 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!