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. Let’s get to the news!
Chinese Martial Arts in the News
A number of news outlets in the West took notice of a story that was making the rounds in China. Its basically a photo essay shot in an ethnic minority Dong village in Tianzhu. The upshot of the article is that the martial arts are very popular in this somewhat isolated agricultural community and a large number of styles seem to be practiced. Recently the village has developed a reputation for its cultivation of the martial arts, but no one seems to clearly remember how this situation first came about. The various versions of the article that I saw all relied on the sorts of Orientalist tropes that one tends to see in stories like this while resisting asking any of the more obvious questions such as the names of the style in question, or how their practice survived during the Cultural Revolution in this particular place. Or maybe the real research question is why these romantic narratives surrounding the martial arts are so persistent in not only the Western but also Chinese accounts of these communities? Interested readers can also see the South China Morning Post version of this story here.
The Chinese martial arts have also been making news a little closer to home. Recently the New York Times ran a longer piece on Zhang Huoding, a famous Peking Opera star whose performance of the “Legend of White Snake” will be opening in Lincoln Center later this week. Its an important article that touches of multiple aspects of her career and the current state of Chinese Opera. I think that readers of Kung Fu Tea will probably be most interested by the accounts of her early training in both performance and martial arts. It also looks like Wong Kar-wai, who produced the Ip Man bio-pic The Grandmaster, is currently working on a documentary of her life. I really regret that I am going to miss her live performances in Manhattan, but at least we can look forward to a new documentary on a fascinating figure in the world of Chinese opera. I also found it interesting that this article did not hesitate to tie her US performances to China’s current “soft power” diplomatic strategy.
Our main story in the last installment of “Chinese Martial Arts in the News” focused on the brewing controversy surrounding Shi Yongxin, the Shaolin Temple’s so called “CEO Monk.” As the Abbot of the venerable monastery he has raised eyebrows in the past with has adoption of modern business strategies and corporate practices to both build Shaolin’s brand and to extend its reach (most recently by building a daughter temple on Australia’s Gold Coast, a major tourist destination). Question’s of Buddhist propriety and temple management strategies notwithstanding, Shi Yongxin has also been dogged by more serious accusations surrounding his personal life. Recently a new row erupted when an anonymous source claimed to have evidence that the Abbot had both been living a double life (which included the fathering of children in violation of his monastic vows) and had been involved in large scale financial improprieties. As a result the Shi Yongxin was forced to cancel an appearance in Thailand and was reported to have been brought in for questioning.
Over the last few weeks there have been fewer stories about the abbot, and those that have emerged seem to have split into two camps regarding his likely fate. On the one hand the South China Morning Post reported that Chinese prosecutors had accepted complaints about the Abbot’s behavior for investigation. Given the dual crackdown on corruption and religious institutions that are currently underway, this is probably not a favorable turn of events. On the other hand, the Want China Times has reported that some of the accusations against the Abbot may not be as strong as were first reported and as a result he may be in a better position to survive this latest round of controversy. It looks like it may be a little while longer before we will know how this story ends.
The Indian press has carried a number of stories on the Chinese martial arts over the last few weeks. First off, the Hindustan Times has a short article on “Kung Fu Tourism” in Shandong Province. Of course this area has long been a stronghold of martial arts practice in Northern China. The main thrust of the piece seems to be the diversity of the international students flocking to the region. Next, the Times of India has a brief report on a couple setting up Wushu training opportunities in Gujarat. While both athletics and martial arts are popular in the region, they note that the development of Wushu has lagged behind. Their program intends to do something about that.
Perhaps the most interesting article in today’s review was published by The Manila Times. While the article starts off with the report of a new highway being completed in China, the author quickly veers into more interesting territory with a discussion of the life and career of General Liu Yongfu, the “Tiger of Qinzhou.” Of course he is best known to Chinese martial artists for hiring Wong Fei Hung, the famous Hung Gar master, as a medical officer and military trainer for his troops. Definitely check this piece out. I learned a couple of new facts and will need to read up on Liu in the future.
Is the Kunlun Fighting Championships going to be next big thing in the Chinese Combat Sports media market? Will they be able to advance MMA in a marketplace where some other larger companies have previously stumbled? And how will Sanda fare in all of this? Check out this post to read more.
While not directly related to the martial arts, I also thought that some of you might also find this article to be interesting. It is an examination of the rising popularity of Qigong in the US, and its reception in Houston’s medical community.
Both Kung Fu movie and Star Wars fans received some great news recently. Confirming the rumors that had been circulating for about a month, an official cast list and photograph were distributed for the upcoming Star Wars Rogue One film which included Donnie Yen. You can read my more detailed breakdown of the story here.
The press has largely interpreted this move as an attempt to appeal to the increasingly important Chinese film market, and I am sure that there is a large element of truth to that. But as I argue in my own piece, Donnie Yen could bring a lot to this project that would be of great interest to the average Star Wars fan in the West as well.
One of the still unresolved questions is what sort of character he will be playing. The Chinese press initially reported that Yen would be cast as a Jedi, but the directors of Rogue One have been adamant that their film will focus on the ground war against the Empire and the efforts of normal, non-force using, individuals to bring hope to the galaxy.
Still, Yen may have muddied the water with a recent Facebook post. In it he posted a image of three prop Storm Trooper helmets (two of which were a pretty new design) with the following note: “I am the force and I fear nothing… Going to put this in my company’s display room.” So maybe his character will have some connection to the Force after all? Or maybe he was just calling on the Force to protect him from the folks at Lucas Film who tend to take a rather dim view of unauthorized set pictures and spoilers. After a flurry of phone calls Yen was later forced to take the picture down.
And for those of you looking for an update on Ip Man 3 (also starring Donnie Yen) be sure to check out this article as well.
Martial Arts Studies
The end of August is typically a pretty quiet time in the world of academics. First everyone disappears on vacation. And then when you return its to the crush of a new semester with everything which that entails. But things have a not been so quiet on the publication front.
Rowman and Littlefield has another Martial Arts Studies book due out, this one to be released through their Lexington Books imprint. Unleashing Manhood in the Cage: Masculinity and Mixed Martial Arts by Christian A. Vaccaro and Melissa L. Swauger is currently expected to ship on November 6th, 2015 (unfortunately there cover art has not yet been released). The authors are both members of the sociology department at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. The publisher’s blurb is as follows:
Unleashing Manhood in the Cage: Masculinity and Mixed Martial Arts addresses the question “Why do mixed martial arts participants endure grueling workouts and suffer through injury, with little or no pay, just to compete?” The answer is because the participants enjoy a form of idolization from their supporters, each other, and culture more generally, which is linked to masculinity. In fact, MMA organizers, from the very beginning, purposefully created elements of the sport that are linked to dominant narratives about manhood. In this context, men don thin open-fingered gloves, lock themselves in a caged enclosure, and slug it out in a fight with few rules to see who comes out on top. This all occurs while “ring girls” in high-heels and skin-tight shirts and shorts stride around outside the cage holding signs and peddling t-shirts. The sum of these elements is the creation of a type of a publicly accessible and consumable form of masculinity. The sport of mixed martial arts is a rich and intriguing space where the construction of gender can be explored through a sociological and ethnographic lens.
Readers interested in this project may also want to check out my recent review of Gottschall’s book, the Professor in the Cage. Likewise, Alex Channon and Christopher R. Matthews’ edited volume, Global Perspectives on Women in Combat Sport, also promises to make important contributions to the discussion of gender in the martial arts.
Anthropologist and ethnographers interested in the martial arts will want to take note of a new edited volume by Kalpana Ram, Christopher Houston and Michael Jackson. Titled Phenomenology in Anthropology: A Sense of Perspective, this edited volume is due out on October 19, 2015 from Indiana University Press.
This volume explores what phenomenology adds to the enterprise of anthropology, drawing on and contributing to a burgeoning field of social science research inspired by the phenomenological tradition in philosophy. Essays by leading scholars ground their discussions of theory and method in richly detailed ethnographic case studies. The contributors broaden the application of phenomenology in anthropology beyond the areas in which it has been most influential―studies of sensory perception, emotion, bodiliness, and intersubjectivity―into new areas of inquiry such as martial arts, sports, dance, music, and political discourse.
Of particular interest is the chapter by Greg Downey (a well known scholar to students of Martial Arts Studies) titled “Beneath the Horizon: The Organic Body’s Role in Athletic Experience.” This will certainly be something to look forward to.
Those more interested in philosophy will also want to remember that Barry Allen’s latest book, Striking Beauty: A Philosophical Look at the Asian Martial Arts (Columbia University Press) is now shipping with a truly impressive list of endorsements on the back and a very reasonable price tag (always a pleasant surprise when dealing with academic books).
The first book to focus on the intersection of Western philosophy and the Asian martial arts, Striking Beauty comparatively studies the historical and philosophical traditions of martial arts practice and their ethical value in the modern world. Expanding Western philosophy’s global outlook, the book forces a theoretical reckoning with the concerns of Chinese philosophy and the aesthetic and technical dimensions of martial arts practice.
Striking Beauty explains the relationship between Asian martial arts and the Chinese philosophical traditions of Confucianism, Buddhism, and Daoism, in addition to Sunzi’s Art of War. It connects martial arts practice to the Western concepts of mind-body dualism and materialism, sports aesthetics, and the ethics of violence. The work ameliorates Western philosophy’s hostility toward the body, emphasizing the pleasure of watching and engaging in martial arts, along with their beauty and the ethical problem of their violence.
Paul Bowman has announced some detailes about his forthcoming volume titled Mythologies of Martial Arts. It will be of importance to those who follow Critical Theory as well as global popular culture.
Explicitly inspired by Roland Barthes’ enormously influential Mythologies (1957), Mythologies of Martial Arts carries the spirit of Barthes’ incisive and engaging cultural and ideological criticism into the blossoming field of Martial Arts Studies.
Writing at the cutting edge of the emergence of both semiotics and deconstruction, in 1957 Mythologies pioneered an innovative and dynamic cultural criticism for the emerging post-war consumer culture. Six decades later, Mythologies of Martial Arts writes in its wake, long after semiotics and deconstruction have become ingrained in academic and intellectual discourses of all kinds, yet long before their questions and problems have become any less current. For, the questions and issues that Mythologies raised for a very diverse readership remain compelling today: what does this mean; how does this work on us; why do we desire this but not that; what effects do these images and practices have on us, and on others; where do these ideas, discourses and values come from, where do they take us, and where are they going?
Mythologies of Martial Arts focuses the key dimensions of the internationally circulating signs, signifiers and practices of martial arts in global popular culture. Informed by the author’s longstanding practical and professional experience in both martial arts (in which he has wide ranging experience) and academia (where he teaches, researches and publishes in cultural studies, film studies, media studies, postcolonial studies and martial arts studies), Mythologies of Martial Arts deploys the full range of resources that this personal and professional experience has afforded. It takes the form of short, engaging, accessible, yet fully referenced and academically informed essays on an extremely wide variety of subjects related to martial arts and the media cultures in which martial arts have always been steeped.
Lastly, students of Taijiquan will be happy to see that Via Media is releasing a collected edition titled Cheng Man-ch’ing and T’ai Chi: Echoes in the Hall of Happiness. This volume contains a number of articles first published in the Journal of Martial Arts Studies which approach the life, practices and legacy of Cheng Man-ch’ing from a variety of perspectives. Authors include Barbara Davis, Benjamin Lo, Russ Mason, Robert W. Smith, Nigel Sutton, Yizhong Xi and others. Obviously Cheng Man-ch’ing was also of more general interest as a critical figure in the spread of the Chinese martial arts in North America.