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!
Shaolin’s Australian Expansion Draws Fire
The Shaolin Temple is no stranger to controversy. Over the last decade the Henan based religious order has come under frequent attack for the perceived commercialization of both its martial arts and Chan Buddhist heritage. Of course Meir Shahar (the most prominent international scholar of the Shaolin tradition) has pointed out that this is really nothing new. Visitors to Shaolin have been complaining about its commercialization and slipping martial arts standards since at least the 15th century. In a very real way this sort of discourse is an authentic aspect of traditional Shaolin heritage.
With that in mind, a new round of complaints emerged in the last week or so. I have been following the proposed plans to build a new Shaolin Temple complex along the Gold Coast of New South Wales in Australia for a couple of years now. The original project was projected to include a temple, public auditoriums, outdoor parks, meditation spaces, a 500 room luxury hotel, a golf course and a luxury housing development. A recent environmental impact study nixed the last part of the development, so you are out of luck if you were looking for a Kung Fu themed condo. But the Shaolin Temple recently made news by going ahead with their purchase of the land in preparation for the construction of the other elements.
Up until this purchase there had been almost no discussion of this project in either the Chinese or international press that I could see. Almost all of the coverage was by local Australian papers and news programs. Nor was all of this discussion positive as residents worried about the impact that the project would have on traffic, the environment and whether the promised job creation benefits would actually appear.
Still, the recent movement on the project seems to have finally attracted some attention in China and elsewhere. Initially a few relatively short articles (such as this one in the South China Morning Post) came out describing the project in neutral or positive terms. Unfortunately the public response to the planned expansion within China has been decidedly mixed. The idea of a monastic order building a luxury hotel and golf course did not set well with everyone. Within days there were literally dozens of articles discussing these criticisms as well as the Temple’s (at times quite tone-def) defense of its business plans.
Given that there have actually been too many articles on this subject to list, I have selected a representative sample. The South China Morning Post ran a second article focusing on the growing controversy. Then there is this piece outlining Abbot Shi Yongxin’s response to the various criticisms that have started to emerge.
However, the most detailed English language reporting on this incident can be found in the Global Times. This article is particularly nice as it summarizes some of the editorial positions being taken by various newspapers around China.
One quote from a newspaper in the Shaolin’s temple home province was particularly interesting:
The Hainan Province-based news site hinews.cn also warned the Shaolin Temple to be careful about its overseas promotional strategies and its development because the Shaolin Temple and Shaolin kung fu does not belong to a specific person or organization but is part of Chinese cultural heritage.
This is fascinating as it is one of the few times that I have seen open reservations about the “cultural appropriation” of the traditional martial arts in an article like this. Of course given the importance of martial arts tourism to the region’s economy, it may be that there are also more materialist considerations in play.
The same article does a good job of detailing the Temple’s various defenses. Abbot Shi Yongxin claimed that in fact only the religious, cultural and farming structures in the new complex would be directly owned by the Temple. The hotel and golf course would instead be owned by other development companies. As such they would not present any conflict of interest with the order’s religious goals. Of course these companies would still be paying hefty rents and contract fees to the temple, which literally owns the land that their structures would stand on.
Without a doubt this would have to be my favorite statement on the entire subject as it seems to cut directly to heart of the competing cultural anxieties that inspired this conversation:
“If Disney can be introduced to China, why can’t the Shaolin Temple be introduced to foreign countries?” Xinhua quoted Shi Yongxin as saying. “It is an honor for our culture to go abroad.”
Two New Bruce Lee Bio-Pics in Development
Multiple sources are reporting that two new Bruce Lee bio-pics are entering production. At this point both projects appear to have producers and scripts, but not a complete cast. Significantly, only one of them has the legal backing of the Lee Estate, including the vocal support of Shannon Lee (Bruce’s daughter). Given his popularity in Hong Kong its should be no surprise that the early stages of both projects are being covered by the local press.
The Hollywood Reporter had one of the more detailed discussions of these projects that I was able to find in a western publication. Both films will be Hollywood, rather than Hong Kong, productions. The first of these projects actually sounds pretty interesting:
Shannon Lee, the daughter of the late kung fu movie star Bruce Lee, announced on Friday plans for a new screen biography of her father, to be produced in association with Janet Yang, Lawrence Grey and Ben Everard.
Although there have been movies featuring Lee — including a 1993 biopic produced by Universal — Shannon Lee said there has never been a feature film that captured his philosophy, extensive writings and entire life history, as well as his skill as a martial artist, which is the goal of this latest development effort.
“There have been projects out there involving my father,” said Lee, “but they’ve lacked a complete understanding of his philosophies and artistry. They haven’t captured the essence of his beliefs in martial arts or storytelling. The only way to get audiences to understand the depth and uniqueness of my father is to generate our own material.”
The other film that is currently moving forward is being produced by Bill Block (“Birth of the Dragon”) and will focus on Lee’s famous fight with Wong Jack Man and feature a gangster centered storyline. Block is basing his film on an article that he acquired the rights too, but has not been able to reach a negotiated agreement with the Lee Estate. Apparently they are looking to go in a different direction with their own project. It should be interesting to see how these two films shape up in the coming year.
While on the subject of Kung Fu films, we should take a moment to talk about the Shaw Brothers. Readers might be aware that the rights to large sections of their catalog have been purchased by EL REY and they are going to once again see distribution in the coming years. If you are into classic 1960s-1980s Kung Fu films, there is a treasure trove of stuff in here. Here is an interview between Gene Ching and EL REY discussing these films and what their future may hold.
Wushu and the Olympics
The Shanghai Daily has a short article on Wushu’s bid for inclusion in future Olympics (including a slim chance of still being included in the 2020 games in Tokyo). The interesting thing about this particular article is the discussion of broadening the international appeal of Wushu so that more countries can field a decent team. This is where Africa enters the story. Apparently the hope has been that by promoting Wushu in Africa (and also Latin America) there will be greater international support for a future Olympic bid. Its a short article, but worth taking a look at, particularly as it relates to questions of soft power and the globalization of the Chinese martial arts.
“The Practical Isn’t Pretty”
Sascha Matuszak has a new post up at the Fightland blog. This is part of a series where he is attempting to establish the antecedents for some of the elements of the traditional martial arts (especially the Chinese ones) that are showing up in MMA today. This particular article is a little more historical in nature. It focuses on General Qi Jiguang and his role in the popularizing of unarmed boxing as an element of military training. For students of the Ming period this will mostly be review, but he does do a nice job of pointing out how some of the basic questions Qi Jiguang wrestled with are still being debated today. I thought that this was particularly appropriate given that we are seeing reports of traditional martial arts training being phased out of the Chinese military today.
The (Southern) Chinese Martial Arts in a Global Context
Next we have a couple of stories focusing on current trends in the Chinese martial arts. Time Out Hong Kong has released a short column on the city’s ten most popular Chinese fighting styles. Obviously Wing Chun, Hung Gar and Taijiquan make the list, but after that things get interesting. I was surprised to see that Choy Li Fut (in many ways the quintessential Guangdong style) did not make their cut. Of course one has no idea how “scientific” this discussion really is, but it may be a barometer of which styles people in Hong Kong are talking about at the moment.
Speaking of Wing Chun, CCTV recently did a spot on that art’s growing presence in the US. Unfortunately the entire segment was only a few minutes long. The subject of their interview (a Black Flag Wing Chun sifu) spent some time discussing the current business climate for Kung Fu schools in the US. The final conclusion was that while Wing Chun is growing, it remains confined to a “niche market.”
Have you ever thought of traveling to China or Japan (or some other destination) to discover the source of your art? If so, you are not alone. What is more, this article claims that in the last few years there has been a notable rise in the number of martial arts tourists crisscrossing the globe in search of a little instruction. I think that this is an important observation as it touches on a wide range of subjects including economic markets, globalization and identity formation.
Chinese Martial Arts in the New York Times
The Chinese martial arts and related subjects have made a number of appearances in the New York Times over the last few weeks. First off we have a (somewhat mixed) review of the new production “The Legend of Mulan” at Lincoln Center. If your tastes run less towards dance and more in the direction of film and documentaries, you might want to check out their review of “Kung Fu Elliot” instead. It is interesting to note that the big plot twist of this slightly uncomfortable sounding documentary centers around a “Kung Fu Pilgrimages” that does not go exactly as planned. Lastly their “wellness blog” takes a different approach to the Chinese martial arts. It asks whether there are actually any health benefits associated with the practice of Taijiquan.
Martial Arts Studies
As always, there are a number of new academic books and articles that may be of interest to students of Martial Arts Studies. First up, Prof. Sabrina Yu (Newcastle University) has a new book out titled Jet Li: Chinese Masculinity and Transnational Film Stardom (Edinburgh University Press, 2015). This will probably be the most useful to anyone who is interested in film studies, global (transnational) popular culture or who happens to be a Jet Li fan. From the blurb:
Jet Li is arguably the best martial arts actor alive, and his career has crossed numerous cultural and geographic boundaries, from mainland China to Hong Kong, from Hollywood to France. In Jet Li: Chinese Masculinity and Transnational Film Stardom, Sabrina Qiong Yu uses Li as an example to address some intriguing but under-examined issues surrounding transnational stardom in general and transnational kung fu stardom in particular.
Presenting case studies of audiences’ responses to Jet Li films and his star image, this book explores the way in which Li has evolved from a Chinese wuxia hero to a transnational kung fu star in relation to the discourses of genre, gender, sexuality, ethnicity and national identity.
Also from the film/cultural studies approach is a recent article by Kyle Barrowman. Titled Action Aesthetics: Realism and Martial Arts Cinema, you can read this paper for free over at the journal “Off Screen.” Readers should note that this article comes in two parts. It also applies some of the ongoing discussion of the construction and meaning of “realism” in martial arts film to the work of Seagal (which is a conversation that I have been looking forward to).
Readers interested in more sociological, large-N, studies may want to check out “An Investigation of Motivational Differences for Participants in Chinese Martial Arts” from the journal Sports and the Social Science (Published online: 23 Feb 2015). The results of this study are not earthshaking (“In sum, the results of the study supported a theoretical framework by which individuals participating in various forms of sport can be motivated by different factors and affected by their individual characteristics”), but its always nice to have some numbers on this stuff.
Students of martial arts and nationalism will want to check out Lee Wilson’s (Poli Sci and IR at the University of Queensland) new book Martial Arts and the Body Politic in Indonesia (Brill April 15, 2015). Its great to see another Political Scientists writing on the martial arts and I cannot wait to get a chance to review this work.
In Martial Arts and the Body Politic in Indonesia Lee Wilson offers an innovative study of nationalism and the Indonesian state through the ethnography of the martial art of Pencak Silat. Wilson shows how technologies of physical and spiritual warfare such as Pencak Silat have long played a prominent role in Indonesian political society. He demonstrates the importance of these technologies to the display and performance of power, and highlights the limitations of theories of secular modernity for understanding political forms in contemporary Indonesia. He offers a compelling argument for a revisionist account of models of power in Indonesia in which authority is understood as precarious and multiple, and the body is politically charged because of its potential for transformation.
Lastly, those interested in gender studies may want to track down this article: Alejandra Martinez. “No Longer a Girl: My Female Experience in the Masculine Field of Martial Arts” International Review of Qualitative Research Vol. 7, No. 4 (Winter 2014), pp. 442-452.
This autoethnographic paper arises from my interest in studying contemporary masculinities in the city of Córdoba, Argentina. It describes my experience as a female in the masculine space of a karate dojo and is based on records from a martial arts class between 2005 and 2010. I have selected some of the moments that I consider the most significant to convey three elements: (a) life in the dojo, including rituals and specific practices; (b) the exaltation of masculinity and the trials that men must overcome; and (c) the experience of masculinity in my body as a woman who enters a man’s world and strives to be a part of it.
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 saw a couple of great shows on the southern Chinese martial arts (courtesy of Hing Chao), watched a Wong Shun Leung documentary and discovered that “Ninja Studies” is actually a thing. 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!