Prof. Maofu Gong is an Associate Professor of Sports Culture at Chengdu Sport University. He is also a visiting scholar with the Cornell University East Asia Program where he is working on a project titled “The Transmission and Development of the Chinese Martial Arts in America.” I recently had the great privilege of meeting Prof. Gong and discussing his views on martial arts studies and the state of the folk martial arts systems in Southwest China today. Luckily he agreed to stop by and talk about his background and some of his research with the readers at at Kung Fu Tea. I suspect that we will be hearing a lot more about his work in the future.
Kung Fu Tea (FKT): Can you tell us a little bit about yourself? Where are you currently teaching?
Prof. Maofu Gong (MFG): I was born in Pizhou of Jiangsu province. As you know, my hometown is located at the hub of a militarily important area since ancient times. It was a warlike region. And most of the people have some interest in the martial arts.
I became interested in the martial arts when I was a child. Before 2004, I lived in my hometown. In 2004, I graduated from Xuzhou Normal University (Jiangsu Normal University) from which I received a degree in Chinese martial arts higher education. Then I was accepted by the Wushu department of Shanghai Sport University. After another 2 years of study, I got my Masters degree.
In 2006, I became a professor in the Wushu department of Chengdu Sport University. I then became attracted to the folk Chinese martial arts. So I decided to begin to research them. During my PhD research from 2008 to 2011, (completed at Beijing Sport University) I investigated the Qingcheng style. After that, I published my book “Inheritance, Development and Communication: Chinese Folk martial arts”.
KFT: How did you first become involved in the martial arts? And how did you later become involved in their academic study?
MFG: As you know, there was a Wushu Fever (from 1982 to the early of 1990s) in China when I was a child. At that time I saw some martial arts films, such as “Shaolin Temple”. I was deeply impressed by these martial arts performances. When I learned that there was a master teaching the martial arts (specifically Hongquan-one of the Changquan styles- Mantis Boxing, broadsword, spear, stick and nine section whip) in a village near my home, I went to ask him whether he could teach me. To my surprise, he agreed to do just that. I was so lucky!
However, I was only able to practice certain basic skills of Changquan and stick on some days because of my parents’ wish that I continue to pay my attention on my academic study. Although I followed my parents’ suggestion, I was still able to see my master on weekends when I had free time. I also tried to find some martial arts book for self-study. From that time on I have been involved with the martial arts.
As for my academic study of martial arts, that dates back to my university years. As an undergraduate I was able to major in martial arts. Later, I decided to pursue additional studies after obtaining the bachelor’s degree. Again I had to decide what I should study. I found that the martial arts were still my favorite subject. As a result, I was accepted by the Wushu department of Shanghai Sport University, and I started my academic martial arts career.
KFT: What Wushu disciplines or folk styles is your background in? What do you currently practice?
MFG: Many years ago I practiced some mantis boxing, nine section whip, changquan, stick, spear, sword, broadsword, taiji, and so on. More recently I am interested in taiji and baji quan.
KFT: Can you tell us a little bit about the martial arts environment in Chengdu? What sorts of styles are most popular? What are the strengths or weaknesses of the martial arts in that area of China?
MFG: The martial arts environment in Chengdu is very strong. There have been many famous martial artists in Chengdu as it is the cultural, political, economic and educational center of Sichuan province. For example, Ma Zhenjiang, Liu Chongjun, Mabao, Houtan, Peng Yuanzhi, Zheng Huaixian, Zhu Guozhen, Zhang Yingzhen, Wang Shutian, Li Yaxuan, Lan Suzhen, Xiao Yingpeng, Lin Mogen, Zhong Fanghan and Fu Siqi all practiced here. There are also a number of popular styles (Menpai/Liupai) in the region, such as Huanglin pai, Sengmen, Zhaomen, Yang style Taiji, Xingyi, Bagua, Emei quan, etc.
Many of the Chinese martial arts have been practiced in Chengdu, but, undoubtedly, the Emei martial arts are the most prevalent and define the area’s strength.
KFT: Let’s talk a little bit about your academic research. What sort of field work have you been doing in Chengdu?
MFG: For the last six years I have mainly focused on the Qingcheng martial arts. I did my field work in Chengdu, Du Jiangyan and Luzhou. I then published my book titled “Inheritance, Development and Communication: Chinese Folk martial arts” (中国民间武术生存现状与传播方式研究) in 2012.
KFT: So what brought you to the USA?
MFG: As you know, the Chinese martial arts have been transmitted to all of the world, especially the USA, as part of the process of globalization. So, I wanted to see the state of the development of Chinese martial arts in America.
KFT: What sorts of research projects are you working on here?
MFG: My current project is: “The Transition and Development of Chinese Martial Arts in the US.”
KFT: Can you tell us a bit more about your current book project?
MFG: I am interested in the transmission and development of Sichuan folk martial arts culture. I am trying to conduct an interdisciplinary project looking at the history, culture anthropology, sociology and culture communication of these styles. Maybe, I will publish the book next year.
In that book I will show the cultural change of Sichuan folk martial arts, discuss the expression of the subjectivity of folk martial arts, the intervention of the state political power and the role of the folk martial arts culture. And I will try to pay more attention on the masters’ daily life.
KFT: What is your impression of the current state of martial arts studies as an academic project in China?
MFG: Martial arts study has a long history in China. And it involves many disciplines including history, philosophy, communication, aesthetics, cultural studies, sports training, biochemistry and so on. The current question for martial arts studies in China is how to break the stereotypes. I think that martial arts studies in China should increase its emphasis on the folk styles and interdisciplinary approaches.
KFT: What sorts of trends are we currently seeing in the Chinese language literature on the martial arts? Any trends that stands out as particularly important?
MFG: In recent years more and more Chinese scholars focus on the style (menpai/liupai), individual, group and village of the Chinese martial arts. They try to get a breakthrough by introducing some methods of cultural anthropology and oral history. I think the “逝去的武林：1934年的求武纪事”（Shi Qu De Wu Lin：1934 Nian De Qiu Wu Ji Shi）is one of the good achievements in this respect. From the dictation of Zhongxuan Li who was a master of Xingyiquan, the book described many little-known Xingyiquan’s facts having historical value for reader. Besides that, I think my book “中国民间武术生存现状与传播方式研究” (Inheritance, Development and Communication: Chinese Folk martial arts) should be one of the examples of the trend. On the basis of a considerable amount of fieldworks, in-depth interview and participant observations, I described the historical development and the contemporary living status of the Qingcheng Wushu. You can see the interaction of the master, media and the local government in the folk martial arts, the contradiction among the inheritors, the opinion coming from social elites and the cultural constructions of the Qingcheng inheritors in the book.
KFT: Who are some Chinese scholars of martial arts that, in your opinion, western researchers should be paying attention to? What sorts of work have they done recently?
MFG: In my opinion, many Chinese scholars have accomplished much in martial arts studies, including Ma Mingda, Qiu Pixiang, Dai Guobin, Cheng Dali etc. Their research mainly focuses on the history and cultural studies of the Chinese martial arts. Ma Mingda, a historian and a famous master of the Tongbeiquan, has published many papers and books on Wushu history. The book, “说剑丛稿” （Shuo Jian Cong Gao, of Professor Ma has an important value for the Wushu history.
KFT: Tell us a little bit about the current state of Wushu in China. I know there has been a big debate about the inclusion of Wushu in the Olympic Games. In your view, would that ultimately be good for Wushu? What does it need to do to continue to progress?
MFG: It’s a big question. As far as I can tell, in China the administrative institutions are still paying more attention on the competitive aspects of Wushu. Yet increasingly some people have realized that the Chinese martial arts are also a kind of cultural resource. And many ordinary people still love the Chinese martial arts.
I don’t think that the emphasis on Olympic competition is good for Wushu. Going down that road the Chinese martial arts will lose many things. I think that trying to make more people love and practice Wushu is really the most important thing.
KFT: Occasionally we see articles or blog posts claiming that the traditional martial arts are dying in China. Do you think this is the case? What sorts of challenges are the folk styles facing at this moment in time? What sort of hope do you see for the future?
MFG: I don’t think so. If you visit the Chinese folk societies, you will find that many martial artists practice the traditional styles. They love it. The most challenging question for the folk martial arts is how to adapt. As you know, people are very busy; they have to earn a living, and have to do a job. They need the time and the funding to develop the martial arts inherited from their master. Nevertheless, I think that the folk martial artists will keep the skills and cultural core of the Chinese martial arts alive.
KFT: The last time we talked you mentioned your interest in Bruce Lee. In your view, what is his continued significance for students of Chinese martial studies?
MFG: In my opinion, the Bruce Lee phenomenon suggests important puzzles for the Chinese martial arts and martial arts studies. It illustrates how the Chinese martial arts have melded with the western culture, the role of ordinary people in transmitting the martial arts to abroad and why did the western people accept Chinese martial culture.
KFT: So what sorts of project should we expect to see you working on in the future?
MFG: In the next year, I will publish my second book about the Chinese folk martial arts. After that I will mainly focus on the Chinese martial arts as culture capital and a type of the intercultural communication.
KFT: Thanks so much for stopping by Kung Fu Tea! We look forward to hearing much more about your work in the future. You will have to keep us updated on your progress.
If you enjoyed this interview you might also want to read: Dr. Daniel Amos Discusses Marginality, Martial Arts Studies and the Modern Development of Southern Chinese Kung Fu