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!
News and Events from all Over
Our leading story today will be of special interest to Bruce Lee fans and collectors. In fact, its really remarkable how many news items he managed to show up in over the last few weeks. We are quickly approaching his 75th birthday and the cultural relevance of the Little Dragon shows no sign of diminishing any time soon.
The Daily Mail recently reported that an important book from Lee’s private collection was auctioned earlier this month by Bloomsbury in London. The text appears to be a 1950s-1960s era Kung Fu manual that Lee studied and made extensive notations in, outlining the evolution of some of his various theories and ideas. He then gave the book to his close friend and student Taky Kimura. The book recently sold at auction for an eye watering 52,000 British Pounds (roughly 80,800 USD) including fees. The Daily Mail erroneously identifies the text as a Wing Chun book that he learned his art from. But the few pictures provided indicate that Wing Chun was not the subject of this manual. (Nor have I come across any Chinese language manuals on Wing Chun from the late 1950s or early 1960s. If any readers know of one please let me know).
This points to what I find to be the most remarkable aspect of this story. In all of the reporting there doesn’t seem to be much interest in the actual title, author or content of the manual itself, let alone how it may have substantively influenced Lee’s thinking. The original entry in the auction catalog is slightly more helpful. It dates the book to the early 1960s and identifies it as a “Mantis Kung Fu” manual, but it also provides no information on its actual title or author. And somewhat inexplicably the catalog even managed to flip the cover of the book upside down? So while the results of this auction and the subsequent reporting indicated a continued interest in Lee as a cultural phenomenon, they also point to a shallow appreciation of his role as a martial artist. Could we even imagine a similar case in which a large auction house sold a heavily annotated volume from Einstein’s library and subsequent reports totally neglected to mention what the title of the book was, or why its owner might have found the volume to be so interesting? Still, this might be a fantastic resource for those interested in the evolution of JKD.
Anyone who is going to be in Hong Kong between now and the middle of October will want to be sure to take some time to visit the first Hong Kong Culture Festival. This is especially true for individuals who are interested in the Hakka fighting styles or Qilin dancing. The event is being supported by Hing Chao’s International Guoshu Association (you can find periodic updates on their Facebook group) among others and a wide variety of venues will be hosting events across the city. Some of the most interesting items on the itinerary include a public Kung Fu performance to be held at Victoria and Qingyin Park on September 26-27, a meeting of the Kung Fu and creative/fashion industries at the Full Moon Party on the 25th (at HK Polytechnic University), and a Hakka Unicorn Dance and Kung Fu Carnival at the HK Cultural Center on October 18th.
If you have a chance to attend any of these events I would love to hear how they went!
There were a couple of interesting stories touching on the topic of Kung Fu diplomacy making the rounds over the last few weeks. As regular readers will already know, various Chinese media outlets tend to produce quite a few of these stories both as reflections of China’s growing cultural influence abroad and as part of its public diplomacy strategy. Usually these stories are short and unremarkable, which is what makes today’s entries so valuable. They are much more detailed and tend to be explicit about the cultural values that these programs are hoping to promote. They also tend to be a little more transparent about the actual actors promoting these efforts.
The first of these stories looks at the growth of a successful Chinese martial arts program at a high-school in Kenya. These particular classes are run by the local Confucius Institute (which is coordinating an ever greater number of martial arts classes around the globe). Its also interesting as it speaks to some of the anxieties that both Kenyan and Chinese parents might share when deciding to allow their children to enroll in Wushu classes. This one is definitely worth the read for anyone interested in how China is using the martial arts to promote its public image abroad.
If anything the second Kung Fu Diplomacy story is even more interesting. This reports focuses on a one day conference held in Helsinki between various Finnish officials and individuals from the tourism industry and a team from Zhenzhou (a city about 50 miles away from the Shaolin Temple in Henan). The actual article itself is little more than a note, but it includes a link to a five minute video discussion of the conference which is well worth watching. In addition to a peak at the sleek promotional materials that Zhenzhou has put together (unsurprisingly they are interested in promoting themselves as a gateway to northern China’s various martial arts destinations), we are treated to the rare spectacle of actual diplomats holding forth on the success and broader importance of Kung Fu diplomacy.
One of the issues that this report does not bring up, but may nevertheless be important to contemplate, is the long term effect of individual cities or regions conducting their own public diplomacy campaigns. Will this diversity of approaches ultimately strengthen the appeal of Kung Fu diplomacy? Or will it further erode the central government’s ability to promote a single, carefully crafted, image of the martial arts? These will be critical issues to watch in the coming years.
Not everyone is equally happy with this ever tightening association between Kung Fu and Chinese culture. This particular blogger from Montreal would like to remind you that the vast majority of Chinese people don’t study the martial arts, and that formal Kung Fu training is totally unnecessary to smack you upside the head the next time you ask them about it. One suspects that not everyone will find these sorts of self-Orientalizing exercises to be equally charming.
Another tried and true genera of martial arts reporting is the photo essay. In a sense this is very understandable given the visually spectacular (or sometimes odd) nature of the many of the traditional martial arts. This week’s update has one entry for both of these categories. The first of these essays focuses on elegant images of a Shaolin performance team rehearsing on a beach in Bognor Regis one week ahead of their appearance on stage in the UK. These are the sorts of pictures that everyone has seen before….and they are spectacular.
The other photo essay was shot in Chengdu. It focuses on a local school with an interesting tradition. Kung Fu lore is rife with tales of students being forced to endure countless hours in the horse stance, or some other sadistic ritual, before being accepted as full students in their school of choice. Not to be outdone this local teacher requires his students to hang from trees for an hour, to prove their dedication, before being accepted. So I guess we can file these photos under “odd things that martial artists do.”
Which is not say that Kung Fu is all hanging from trees and having fun. In a recent blog post reported in the South China Morning Post John Tsang (HK’s Finance Secretary), who apparently studied Kung Fu as a youth, warned that the martial arts were on the verge of being reduced to just another fashionable hobby. He lamented the fact that in the past individuals studied Kung Fu as a way of making a living, where as now the arts risked becoming shallow and distorted in the hands of fair weather students.
Tsang, who studied kung fu at a young age, said historically martial arts were about making a living or even survival, but today they had become a hobby and viewed as fashionable.
“Master Li Tin-loi said, ‘in the past, people only asked you which school of kung fu you practised. But today, people ask you how many forms you can perform. It seems the more you know, the better’,” Tsang wrote.
The actual transition that he seems to be referring to was already complete by the 1920s, well before his time. Statements like these may be an important reminder of how Kung Fu is idealized and understood in the public imagination. This then leads to the odd phenomenon that Kung Fu has been “dying” since literally the day that these more modern approaches to the art came into being. This fear of the disappearance of “tradition” appears to be baked into the very DNA of Kung Fu. More immediately his remarks seem to have been in support of the upcoming Hong Kong Culture Festival discussed above. So what better way to support a festival aimed at the preservation of “traditional culture” than to publicly question its ultimate viability?
It seems that even fans of the iconoclastic Bruce Lee are being forced to worry about historical preservation. The Business Insider recently ran an update on the saga to determine the fate of the actor’s Hong Kong residence. Fans want the site to be preserved and possibly turned into a museum, while real estate developers are much more interested in the land that the building sits on. You can read more about the current state of the debate here.
Lastly, what sort of smart phones do Shaolin Monks really want? One intrepid Japanese writer decided to find out. (Hint: iPhones, but not for the reason you would suspect.) Click to learn more!
The Martial Arts on Screen
The Vancouver Sun recently ran a short note reporting that the Birth of the Dragon (the much anticipated Bruce Lee biopic) is set to start shooting in their fair city next month. Hopefully we will be seeing from pictures from the set soon.
Are you wondering what martial arts film to see next? If so Slate would like to make a suggestion. They recently ran a piece calling Assassins “a new martial arts masterpiece.” That certainly got my attention. This film, set in the 9th century Tang Dynasty, is supposed to be beautifully shot. It is about to make its North American debut at the New York Film Festival. Hopefully it will start making the rounds of art house theaters after that.
If you prefer a more “classic” approach to your Kung Fu Films, AMC has some news that may inspire you to program your DVR. To prepare the way for their new series “Into the Badlands” the networking is starting a “Kung Fu Fridays” in which some of your favorite films will be replayed on late night TV. Click here to check out their schedule.
Kung Fu fans will also be happy to note that we have a new set of production photos for Ip Man 3. These shots feature both Donnie Yen and Mike Tyson, but the promised CGI generated Bruce Lee is notably absent from the lineup. This production has led to a legal dispute with the Lee estate which is contesting their rights to use the dead actors image. However, the studio says they are going ahead with the project. We will know how all of this turns out soon enough as the film is set to open on December 25th 2015.
Martial Arts Studies
Following the theory that the best new books are free ones, I am happy to announce that the Brennan Translation Blog has just released two new English language translations of classic Chinese martial arts training manuals. This is exciting as these texts as they are literally the primary source documents of our field. Even if a given manual does not speak directly to a style that you happen to be practicing (or researching) at the moment, thy often contain other information that makes them a critical resource for understanding the evolution of Chinese martial culture.
The first of these texts is DESCENDED FROM WUDANG – THE TAIJI BOXING ART by Li Shoujian (1944). The second is titled SINGLE DEFENSE-SABER by Jin Yiming (1932). As always, both of these books look fascinating. Be sure to check them out.
Paul Bowman also released an important essay on his blog Martial Arts Studies. In it he asks whether you know your lineage? Take a look to figure out what is really at stake in this seemingly simple question. While you are there you might also want to checkout the advance copy of his recent interview with Gene Ching of Kung Fu Tai Chi magazine on the development of Martial Arts Studies.
Luke White has also stepped up to offer us another free read. He just posted a copy of his recent article article “A ‘narrow world, strewn with prohibitions’: Chang Cheh’s The Assassin and the 1967 Hong Kong riots” to Academia.edu making it available to the public. Obviously film studies students will be interested in this paper. But his discussion of the background of the 1967 riots might be helpful to a much broader readership. We often forget that this was a critical moment in Hong Kong’s modern history and it certainly had an impact on the development of the city’s various martial arts schools.
It looks like Kath Woodward’s book Globalizing Boxing (first released in 2014) is about to get another printing that should help to make it accessible to a wider audience. The publisher’s blurb sounds fascinating:
Boxing is a traditional sport in many ways, characterized by continuities in the form of practices and regulations and heavy with legends and heroes reflecting its traditional/historical values. Associations with class, hegemonic masculinity and racialized inclusions/exclusions, however, sit alongside developments such as women’s boxing and involvement in Mixed Martial Arts.
This book will be the first to use boxing as a vehicle for exploring social, cultural and political change in a global context. It will consider to what degree and in what ways boxing reflects social transformations, and whether and how it contributes to those transformations. In exploring the relationship it will provide new ways of thinking critically about the everyday.
Kath Woodward is Professor of Sociology at the Open University. This new edition began shipping a couple of weeks ago.
Finally, readers should also be on the look out for Lauren Miller Griffith’s upcoming volume Legitimacy: How Outsiders Become Part of the Afro-brazilian Capoeira Tradition. This volume is due out some time in January, but it sounds like it might be a little expensive….so start saving now. Still, it tackles a set of questions are central to many ongoing research programs within martial arts:
Every year, countless young adults from affluent, Western nations travel to Brazil to train in capoeira, the dance/martial art form that is one of the most visible strands of the Afro-Brazilian cultural tradition. In Search of Legitimacy explores why “first world” men and women leave behind their jobs, families, and friends to pursue a strenuous training regimen in a historically disparaged and marginalized practice. Using the concept of apprenticeship pilgrimage-studying with a local master at a historical point of origin-the author examines how non-Brazilian capoeiristas learn their art and claim legitimacy while navigating the complexities of wealth disparity, racial discrimination, and cultural appropriation.
Personally I cannot wait to see how she treats the concept of pilgrimage in relation to martial arts tourism. Unfortunately the cover art for this book is not yet available, but you can view her table of contents here.
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 looked at an antique Dao from the personal collection of a reader, discussed some vintage footage of a Chinese martial arts demonstrations and and asked what Martial Arts Studies owes the Kung Fu Community? 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.