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 month, 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!
Over the past couple of months things have been quiet on the Bruce Lee front. But his name has shown up in a surprising number of articles in the last few weeks suggesting that he remains as closely linked with the Asian martial arts in the popular psyche as ever. Of course this isn’t really a surprise. But what has been interesting to me is the sheer variety of stories in which his memory is being invoked.
A number of these recent articles center around developments in the entertainment industry. Students of popular culture and Asian Studies will no doubt already be aware of the discussion sparked by the release of the new TV show “Fresh off the Boat.” In general critics have praised it for its treatment of Asian characters. But (as is always the case) not everyone has been equally impressed. The Huffington Post ran a longer essay comparing this new program to Bruce Lee’s legacy titled simply “I’m Tired of Being Laughed At.” Obviously cultural critics have been split on the degree to which Lee really advanced the image of Asian men in Hollywood. Did he destroy stereotypes or simply create a new set of orientalist fantasies? Its a contentious question that we won’t be resolving today, but its always interesting to see some of these same themes emerging in popular discussions.
Nicolas Cage has also been talking about Bruce Lee. While promoting his recent film Outcast he discussed seeing Lee on screen for the first time at the age of eight and realizing that he wanted to be an actor. I have heard lots of personal narratives in which Lee is credited with inspiring people to take up the martial arts, but its fun to see someone who went the other way and decided to become an actor.
The Shanghai Daily has also been thinking about Lee’s legacy. Specifically, how Kung Fu (popularized by Lee) has led to an increased merging of Eastern and Western cultures and ways of life. This piece is also a good example of the emerging discourse that we are seeing on the nature and meaning of western students within the Chinese martial arts.
Of course this continuing success does not come without a cost. Apparently someone in China decided that Lee’s memory and reputation might be useful in the marketing of cars, so they attempted to trademark his name. Unfortunately this person was not associated with the Lee estate, which has since been involved in a lengthy legal battle to get the trademark thrown out. Beyond Lee, this story might provide an interesting glimpse into the current trademark and intellectual property climate in China.
Lastly, the LA Weekly ran a story about the large bronze statue of the famous martial artist that has been on display in the city’s Chinatown. This was originally intended to be a temporary showing. The group behind the project is still raising money to construct a permanent base for the piece and had been planning on returning the statue to a storage facility as that process was completed. Instead the statue has become a local pilgrimage site and at this point no one is in a hurry to move it out of the neighborhood. Permanent instillation or not, this version of Lee seems to have found a home.
Martial Arts Studies
Normally events in the academic field of Martial Arts Studies are discussed in a short paragraph at the end of these news updates. But this month there are enough interesting stories in the field to justify moving the topic “above the fold.” First off, a conference was recently held in Urasoe (a city in Okinawa) on Karate and the Chinese Martial Arts.
Here is the most relevant section of the article:
Using special subsidies from Okinawa promotion funding, the city held the symposium as part of a project to trace the roots of Ryukyuan karate. The research was carried out from the fiscal year 2012 to 2014.For this project, research and examination committee meetings were held several times every year. They sent a team to China to investigate into Chinese martial arts. The city plans to publish a research report on the project in March.
At the symposium, Chinese martial arts and karate demonstrations were performed. In his keynote lecture, Zhou Kunmin, the chairman of the International Southern Shaolin Ngo Cho Kun Fraternal Association, said, “Ryuykuan martial arts such as Suidii, Tumai-dii, and Naafa-dii are surprisingly similar to Quanzhou Southern Shaolin Kun.” He explained that the originators of traditional Okinawan styles of karate Gojuryu and Uechiryu studied martial arts that descended from Southern Shaolin Kun.
Over the years various theories about the origins of Karate and its association with the Southern Chinese martial arts (often either White Crane of Five Ancestors) have been put forward. Hopefully we will know more about who presented papers and what they argued later this spring.
Martial Arts Studies is not just growing as an area for research. It is also starting to appear in the lecture hall. This raises an important question. In a university setting, can one only discuss the martial arts as a historical, cultural or sociological topic? Or can the actual practice of these system become part of the educational process?
At least one professor at Mercyhurst University thinks so. He has been using the martial arts as a tool to teach and discuss diverse aspects of Chinese culture. It sounds like a fascinating course. Hopefully we will see more of this in the future.
Last year I reported on a growing debate about the expense, value and ethics of state funded “cultural centers” in universities around the world. Its not uncommon for national governments to give large sums of money to universities to create and promote institutes dedicated to different sorts of area or cultural studies. In recent years these Chinese government has funded the creation of a large number of “Confucius Institutes” at universities around the globe. These organizations usually focus on teaching classes like Chinese language, culture, history and Asian Studies. A number of them have also been involved with demonstrating, teaching or discussion of the Chinese martial arts on campuses.
While common, such institutions are not without their critics. Some university professors worry about the potential conflict of interest that can arise when any foreign government directly funds academic research and teaching. Critics in China have worried that these programs are both expensive and wasteful. Does it really make sense to subsidize foreign language training for comparatively wealthy North American and European students when so many individuals in rural China still live in poverty with little access to higher education?
Apparently such concerns have not swayed the Chinese government. Multiple sources have reported that the government has massively increased (by 180%) the funding for these programs in this years budget. Apparently they believe that this investment in the nation’s “soft power” will pay dividends in the future.
There has also been some interesting news a little closer to home. First off, Jared Miracle has posted a great essay at the journal Martial Arts Studies titled: “Deadliest Hands vs. Deadliest Man: Euhemerism, Donn Draeger, and Count Dante.” This piece provides a discussion of two of the more important figures in the western history of the Asian martial arts, and an extended meditation on the process by which flesh and blood individuals are turned into “legends” for popular consumption. Obviously this is an important topic for anyone interested in the history of the Chinese martial arts.
Secondly, Paul Bowman has posted the titles and abstracts of the papers to be presented this June at the first annual Martial Arts Studies conference (to be held at the University of Cardiff). These papers clearly demonstrate the growing interdisciplinary appeal of the martial arts and come from fields as diverse as anthropology, history, media studies, medicine and the social sciences. You can find information on registering for the conference here. We also hope to see a number of these papers being published within the pages of Martial Arts Studies over the next year, which will probably be helpful for readers not able to make it to the UK this summer.
I should also note that Paul Bowman’s forthcoming book, Martial Arts Studies: Disrupting Disciplinary Boundaries, is expected to be released prior to the conference. This last week I was snowed in at my brother’s house in central NY (ergo the lack of updates). Luckily this disruption to my personal schedule gave me a couple of days to sit down and carefully read the copy of this manuscript which I had received at the end of 2014.
This is an extremely impressive work that is going to give the field much to consider for some time to come. Rather than being focused on individual styles or historical cases it focuses on core theoretical problems and conceptual discussions. This makes it quite different from any other volume on Martial Arts Studies published to date. I highly recommend it.
Within its pages Bowman lays out an argument for why Martial Arts Studies needs to progress as both a theory driven and interdisciplinary project. Specifically, the sorts of questions raised by this research area have the ability to both respond to (and challenge) some of the core assumptions helping to define the traditional academic disciplines. Nor can scholars continue to ignore the various types of media surrounding the martial arts (movies, opera, manuals, TV programs, novels, video games, ect.) when attempting to understand their history or significance within popular culture. I suspect that we will dedicate a series of posts to this project in the “Book Club” section of this blog once Martial Arts Studies is released for sale. In the mean time, you can get a taste of some of the topics and theories that Bowman covers by taking a look at this newly compiled index.
Notes from All Over
Is the traditional student/Sifu relationship being replaced by smartphones and apps? Given the number of adds that I run across for martial arts training apps one would have to suspect that a massive number of individuals are taking advantage of these new teaching tools. Even the venerable New York Times has taken note. It discusses a few of the more recent offerings in the marketplace in this short article and video. My favorite parts is when the narrator sagely remind the audience that yes, Taijiquan actually is a martial art too!
If you follow Chinese popular culture you know that CCTV’s New Years Eve Gala is a big deal. Its not uncommon for the program to feature some sorts of martial arts component, but this year promises to be especially exciting for Kung Fu fans. You can read more about what the producers have planned here.
The growing popularity of the Chinese martial arts in Africa has also been attracting a fair amount of attention in the Chinese press. Last year most of these stories focused on African students coming to China to learn Kung Fu. However this particular story takes a look at what is going on Uganda and the unique local environment (and film industry) which is fanning the flames.
It looks like those of us waiting for the release of Kung Fu Panda 3 are in luck. A number of sources are relating that longstanding difficulties have been overcome and the that project has been green-lighted to go ahead. The new film may also reunite Po his (non-goose) father.
Lastly, the Shaolin Temple is growing on a number of fronts. This story in the Chinese press detailed the order’s recent expansion into Shanxi province through the adoption of existing sanctuaries as “sub-monasteries.” It also sketches out the extent of this same strategy in other regions of the country.
Shanxi and Yunnan are not the most exotic places where one might find a new branch of the Shaolin Temple. A number of articles in local papers seem to indicate that (after some financial irregularities) the order is going ahead with their planned temple/conference center/luxury hotel on Australia’s gold coast. Apparently the golf course and luxury housing development that were originally slated to be part of the project were nixed by the government due to environmental impact concerns.
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 contact pole sparring in Wing Chun, saw a fantastic two part documentary on the Southern Chinese martial arts in Hong Kong, and learned the real secret of General Tso’s Chicken. 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!