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 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!
Chinese Martial Arts in the News
Readers of Kung Fu Tea will probably have noticed my interest in traditional Asian weaponry. As such I am happy to start this round-up of events with an account of a recent “archeological” discovery. It seems that a farmer in Chogqing found the remains of what was probably a (pretty nice) Qing era Jian while working on his property. The blade had already lost its handle and tip. Undisturbed the man polished and sharpened it (revealing both some carving and an inscription) and proceeded to use it as a vegetable knife in his kitchen for a couple of years. You can read more about the case (and see a picture of the blade) here. A slightly more extensive article that compares this case to another recent find (this time of a much older bronze blade) can be found here.
Over the last month a number of stories looking at the more competitive aspects of the Chinese martial arts have been published. A few of these have focused on the effort to get Wushu adopted as an Olympic sport for the 2020 Tokyo games. This article in Yibada is pretty typical of the preliminary sorts of discussions that are being reported. Given that Judo, the first Asian martial art to be adopted as an Olympic event, was first introduced during the 1964 Tokyo games, such a development would be poetic.
Nevertheless, most of the recent discussion of the traditional Chinese arts and modern combat sports has instead focused on the mixed martial arts. The Yahoo Sports Blog recently ran a piece titled “5 MMA Fighters with Backgrounds in the Chinese Martial Arts.” Another article playing to similar themes promised readers “Three Reasons Mixed Martial Artists Should Study Gongfu.” Given the number of people who see Bruce Lee as a forefather of the MMA movement, its probably not a coincidence that this article adopted his preferred spelling of the term “Kung Fu.” Readers might also want to take note of this short catalog of “Bruce Lee’s 5 Contributions to Modern MMA.” And while we are on the subject, what is up with all of these lists posing as articles?
In more substantive terms, Jack Slack (who writes on MMA and occasionally martial arts history for the Fightland blog) wrote an article looking at the Bubishi. He gives an overview of the text for readers who may be unfamiliar with it and then delves into reconstructions of a few specific techniques. Better yet, he promises to return to the discussion of this late Qing southern Chinese martial arts manual in future posts. Again, its always fascinating to see these more historically informed discussions working their way into contemporary treatments of the martial arts and combat sports.
Over the last couple of years we have seen a number of discussions of the ways in which the Chinese government has integrated the promotion and display of the traditional martial arts as one aspect of its larger public diplomacy strategy. In a sense this is not surprising. While China has faced some challenges in this area, its martial arts enjoy an immense amount of public recognition and popularity around the world. Various government backed institutions have promoted demonstrations of traditional crafts, arts and performance disciplines (including both the martial arts and opera) in an effort to educate the public about Chinese culture and to promote the state’s “soft power.” In fact, this recent reports (with some nice video) of a Beijing Opera performance that was hosted in South Africa as part of the ‘Year of China’ observance is a nice illustration of this trend.
Readers who are interested in the question of ‘Soft Power’ and how all of this relates to the state’s promotion of traditional practices, will probably want to check out a story titled “China’s Soft-Power: The Search for Respect” which recently ran in Foreign Affairs. This article (like most of those published in Foreign Affairs) tends to be more of a policy piece than a theoretical exploration. At the same time it does a nice job of introducing a basic discussion of the idea of “Soft-Power,” points readers to a couple of important theorists (hint: read Joseph Nye) and offers some conclusions about why Chinese public diplomacy efforts have struggled in the past. More importantly, it provides one possible context for thinking about the many sorts of reports (such as the South African account above) that we are currently seeing in the news. While not directly about the traditional martial arts (though they do get mentioned), its one of the more important things that seems to have come out in the last month for those of us interested in the international relations aspect of martial arts studies.
Also interesting is the following account of the growing popularity of martial arts among Hazara youth (a Persian speaking Shia minority community) in Quetta (Pakistan). This article is a little more detailed than most of the pieces that we see on subjects like this. It also delves a little bit deeper into the question of personal motivations and community impact. Anyone interested in the role of the martial arts in the Middle East or South Asia may want to have a look at this one.
Dream Works has just released the trailer for the much anticipated third installment of the Kung Fu Panda franchise. I have always enjoyed these films and the next installment promises to reveal important truths about Po’s past (specifically the identity of his biological father). You can see the trailer here. We have also seen an uptick in reporting on this project, including this article from the La Times exploring the implications of the film for Dream Works and some of the details of the joint partnership which is supporting its release directly into the Chinese film market. Click to read more.
There are also some interesting developments afoot on the small screen. The buzz surrounding AMC’s new series “Into the Badlands” sounds good with the network promising that their project is going to “bring the martial arts back to TV.”
And no discussion of the place of the Chinese martial arts in popular culture would be complete without taking a look at the viral videos making their way around the internet. My particular favorite as been the music video by Gener8ion + M.I.A. for “The New International Sound Pt. II.” It is basically a three minute remix of footage taken from Inigo Westmeier’s (excellent) 2012 documentary “Dragon Girls.” If you haven’t seen this one yet be sure to check it out.
Martial Arts Studies
Earlier this month (June 10-12th) the first annual martial arts studies conference was held at the University of Cardiff. I was very happy to have been able to attend this event and even had the opportunity to discuss some of my own research in a keynote address. The quality of the work that I saw in the various panels was matched only by enthusiasm of the presenters. In short, the conference exceeded my expectations and suggested that martial arts studies has a bright future ahead of it. You can read some of my more detailed thoughts on the event and its significance here. Also be sure to watch Academia.edu where a number of papers, abstracts and slide presentations from the conference are currently being posted.
The event was so successful that plans are already being made for next year! As part of this initial planning process the conference organizers have announced something new. In order to help offset the costs for students to attend the 2016 meetings, a short film contest is in the works. Interested parties are being encouraged to make a five minute film on any aspect of the martial arts or martial arts studies. These should be submitted to the conference organizers who will broadcast the entries on their various media channels and reward selected winners with free conference registrations, meals and possibly accommodations. Head on over and take a look at the announcement for the details.
Are you interested in getting some of your research out there but you need to stick a little closer to home? Don’t forget about the call for papers for inclusion in the upcoming volume the Invention of the Martial Arts. You find the details on this project here.
Two new books have also been announced that may be of interest to students of martial arts studies. First, Oxford University Press has just released Lethal Spots, Vital Secrets: Medicine and Martial Arts in South India by Roman Sieler. This work will discuss both esoteric medical and martial practices . Sieler is an Assistant Professor of anthropology at the South Asia Institute and runs their Masters Degree program on “Health and Society in South Asia.” This looks like an important text for anyone interested in the Indian martial arts. Here is the publisher’s note:
Lethal Spots, Vital Secrets provides an ethnographic study of varmakkalai, or “the art of the vital spots,” a South Indian esoteric tradition that combines medical practice and martial arts. Although siddha medicine is officially part of the Indian Government’s medically pluralistic health-care system, very little of a reliable nature has been written about it.
Drawing on a diverse array of materials, including Tamil manuscripts, interviews with practitioners, and his own personal experience as an apprentice, Sieler traces the practices of varmakkalai both in different religious traditions–such as Yoga and Ayurveda–and within various combat practices. His argument is based on in-depth ethnographic research in the southernmost region of India, where hereditary medico-martial practitioners learn their occupation from relatives or skilled gurus through an esoteric, spiritual education system. Rituals of secrecy and apprenticeship in varmakkalai are among the important focal points of Sieler’s study. Practitioners protect their esoteric knowledge, but they also engage in a kind of “lure and withdrawal”—a performance of secrecy—because secrecy functions as what might be called “symbolic capital.” Sieler argues that varmakkalai is, above all, a matter of texts in practice; knowledge transmission between teacher and student conveys tacit, non-verbal knowledge, and constitutes a “moral economy.” It is not merely plain facts that are communicated, but also moral obligations, ethical conduct and tacit, bodily knowledge.
Lethal Spots, Vital Secrets is an insightful analysis of practices rarely discussed in scholarly circles. It will be a valuable resource to students of religion, medical anthropologists, historians of medicine, Indologists, and martial arts and performance studies.
Second, Lauren Miller Griffith has a forthcoming volume titled In Search of Legitimacy: How Outsiders Become Part of the Afro-brazilian Capoeira Tradition. Obviously this book will be important for those who follow Capoeria, but beyond that it appears to touch on a number of questions that are central to current discussions martial arts studies. Unfortunately we will have to wait to until January of 2016 to get our hands on a copy. Lauren Miller Griffith is an Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Hanover College. She studies performance, tourism, and education in Latin America.
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 explored Xingyi Quan, discussed the links between opera training and the wooden dummy, and looked at some cool swords. 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!