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!
Wushu was once again a prominent story in the news cycle over the last few weeks. A number of articles focused on the recent 13th annual World Wushu Championships held in Jakarta. Teams from a large number of countries (including the United States) took part and the event received quite a bit of coverage in South East Asia. The following article attempted to put Wushu in a historic perspective (I particularly like the note about a young Jet Li performing for Richard Nixon at the White House) while looking ahead to future expansion in the global sporting community. As one would expect, this included a new round of speculation as to whether the Chinese fighting arts might finally find a home in the 2024 Olympic games.
The mixed martial arts have also continued to make news in China. The country’s immense media market has proved to be a valuable prize for MMA fight promotion companies in a number of states, and not just the UFC. This article looks at the South Korean based ROAD Fighting Championship and their plans to hold their first ever Chinese event in the Shanghai Oriental Sports Center.
A number of news outlets were reporting the results of a recent string of studies on the benefits of regular Taijiquan practice for individuals suffering from a wide range of chronic illnesses from congestive heart failure to cancer. One of the most visible of these articles was published in the New York Times blog and looked at the potential of Taiji to treat sleep disorders. Harvard Health Publications also ran a short article summarizing the findings of a recent study in the British Journal of Sports Medicine that had compiled data from 33 smaller studies encompassing nearly 16000 adult patients. It showed statistically significant quality of life improvements for patients suffering from a broad range of serious chronic conditions after they began Taiji practice, even in comparison to other forms of exercise.
Of course not all martial arts practices are equally good for one’s health. This fact was recently demonstrated by a martial arts enthusiast in Suzhou who, after one too many drinks, scaled a street light pole, balanced himself above a busy road, and decided to practice his forms (click for video). Luckily he managed to climb down on his own, but one suspects that the Harvard Medical School would probably not endorse this particular style of practice.
The Stoneybrook Press blog recently ran an article titled “Anatomy and Gender in Martial Arts.” It is an introductory effort and I doubt that it will contain any revelations to those who follow the topic. Still, I thought that it was interesting as a sign of the sorts of questions regarding the martial arts that popular readers are currently interested in. At this moment gender seems to be high on that list.
Bruce Lee is always a topic of interest for the media, but the last few weeks have seen a pronounced surge in the number of stories about this iconic film maker and martial arts reformer. I strongly suspect that even more pieces will be making an appearance in the next week or so. Friday the 27th is the 75th anniversary of his birth and a number of media outlets are expected to note the occasion.
A somewhat preparatory article recently appeared in the pages of the South China Morning Post. Its title (“Bruce Lee, a global hero who epitomised Hong Kong’s strengths – it’s just a pity the city could not preserve his former home“) pretty much sums up the piece. The article mixes an acknowledgement of Lee’s importance to his home city’s global image with open criticism of government officials who failed to preserve his former estate as some sort of museum to his legacy. Interestingly this article was authored by none other than Lam Woon-kwong, the convenor of Hong Kong’s Executive Council. The comments on this piece also reveal something of the current popular sentiments on the issue.
I am not sure that I could count the number of times that Bruce Lee has made the cover of Black Belt Magazine, but earlier this month I was surprised to find him gracing the front of the a special issue of Newsweek. The commemorative magazine celebrates his 75th birthday with a number of articles on various aspects of his life and career. These include a discussion of his “Flawless Technique,” an exploration of the Hong Kong cityscape that shaped his childhood and adolescence, and an overview of “Bruce Lee’s School of Hard Knocks.” I noticed that the Newsweek webpage also had an extensive excerpt of an article titled “The Kato Show: Bruce Lee as the Green Hornet’s Sidekick.” Given the discussion that has broken out in the last week as to what is (and is not) “revolutionary” about the AMC series Into the Badlands portrayal of Chinese masculinity on western television, this discussion may be worth reviewing.
The traditional art of Fujian province have also been in the news this month. Yibada.com ran a piece on the area’s White Crane tradition, how it planted roots abroad, and what needs to happen for the system to gain increased international attention. The article also contains a brief discussion of some of the ways in which local governments have sought to promote White Crane.
Ecns.com also ran a piece looking at events in the same region. It published a short (and uninspired) photo essay of the fifth Southern Shaolin Martial Arts and Culture Festival held in Putain city (Fijian) on November 8th. In its words “The festival has brought together various schools and aims to promote Chinese Buddhist culture. Located in the east of the Qingyuan Mountain of Quanzhou, the Quanzhou Shaolin Temple, also called the South Shaolin Temple, is the birthplace of the South Shaolin martial art, which has spread to Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macao and even Southeast Asia.” Unfortunately with the exception of this single contested historical assertion, the article did not offer much in the way of a substantive description of what could have been an interesting event.
Chinese Martial Arts in Popular Entertainment
The last month has seen quite a bit of entertainment news. Perhaps the biggest event was the release of the first episode of AMC’s much anticipated (and heavily promoted) new series Into the Badlands, staring Daniel Wu and inspired by the classic Chinese fable “Journey to the West.” The initial reviews of the series have been decidedly mixed, but they make for very interesting reading, particularly for anyone concerned with the place of the Asian martial arts in current popular culture. Wired magazine kicked things off with a generally positive discussion that delved into some of the shows technical details. One of the interesting points to emerge from this piece was the author’s observation that the current martial arts action available on the small screen has tended to favor close range in-fighting (Daredevil, Green Arrow) but Badlands quite consciously breaks with this pattern of fight choreography. It will be interesting to see how subsequent action sequences in this series evolve (as well as if other choreographers begin to pick up on its more extensive style), but this observation plays into a previous conversation that I had with Paul Bowman here and here.
Other reviews were less kind. Some noted problems in the coherence of the basic ideas behind the fantasy world that the drama is set in as well its visual design aesthetic. A number of reviewers found the first episode to be too stiff and gory enough that it might have trouble moving beyond a dedicated martial arts fanbase. The English language broadcast of CCTV (basically Chinese public television) had a different take on the series. It instead viewed the project as a groundbreaking exercise in the way that Asian American were being portrayed on American television. While listening to this I could not help but be struck with dejevu as so much of this conversation is identical to the sorts of assertions that are often made about Bruce Lee (see for instance the Newsweek special issue above). In fact, by the end of the discussion I was starting to wonder if the promotional material for Badlands was engaging in some sort of subconscious erasure of the past.
USA Today published an interview with Daniel Wu that helped to address some of these points. In it he discussed Bruce Lee, Jet Li and Jackie Chan as his favorite film stars and he began to explore some of the ways in which the portrayal of the martial arts in film and TV have traditionally differed. Yet he remained largely silent on other martial arts based TV series (such as the Green Hornet, Kung Fu, Walker Texas Ranger, Daredevil etc…).
The New York Times engaged more directly with some of these points in its own, largely unfavorable, review of the series. After characterizing the show as at best “perfectly average” (and probably the weakest of AMC’s various projects) it tackled the stylistic and aesthetic parallels between Badlands, set in a post-apocalyptic “old west,” and the original Kung Fu series, starring David Carradine, which introduced many of these same themes to American TV audiences in the 1970s. In a revealing exchange Miles Millar (one of the creators of Badlands) directly attacked the earlier series and called the casting of Carradine (who was white) as a mixed-race monk “a travesty.” He then pointed to Wu’s starring role in the current production as part of an effort to “redress that old injustice.” Yet the Times critic goes on to note that the original Kung Fu series succeeded in large part because Carradine, whatever his race, was a better actor than Wu who has a limited emotional range and only really only shines in fight sequences. While a fascinating exchange it should also be noted that much of this exchange seems to rest on unexamined assumptions (held by both sides) regarding Chinese vs. Western styles of acting and even what constitutes a proper, skillful or “realistic” martial arts story. Still, if this final review by the Toronto Sun is any indication, it remains an open question as to whether the dramatic elements of this program will succeed in attracting and maintaining the diverse audience that AMC needs.
Taiwanese Director Hou Hsiao-hsien’s much lauded film The Assassin (discussed in our last news update) was the big winner at this years Golden Horse Awards presentation. Huo’s film earned a total of 11 nominations and by the end of the evening it had walked away with five winning statues. These included the Golden Horse for Best Director and (in a turn that surprised no one) Best Cinematography.
Fans of the “Ip Man” franchise have greeted the increasing flow of images, interviews and information about the upcoming film (Ip Man 3) with enthusiasm. A new trailer was even released in which you can see Donnie Yen and Mike Tyson trading blows. I personally am even more interested to see how they handle the long poles and butterfly swords in this one. Click here to see more.
Lastly, for anyone dreading the prospects of a Kung Fu free Thanksgiving, El Rey has your back. It will be celebrating the great American tradition of feuding families this Thanksgiving with a 72 hour Kung Fu movie marathon. I ran through the list of titles and it seems that all of the classics are there. Shannon Lee and Dario Cueto will host this buffet of classic martial arts cinema.
Martial Arts Studies
There have been some very exciting developments in the academic field of Martial Arts Studies over the last month. First, the new peer-reviewed interdisciplinary journal Martial Arts Studies released its Fall issue. It is free to read or share on-line and offers a number of original articles, book and literature reviews. Anyone who has been following this field (or Kung Fu Tea) will be sure to recognize a number of the names of contributing authors. Head on over to check out the journal’s crisp new homepage, or go straight to the articles. And while you are there be sure to check out the following book review by Douglas Wile!
Paul Bowman has recently traveled to South Korea to participate in an academic conference held at the Seoul National University on Martial Arts Studies. There he presented a paper titled “Everything you know about Taekwondo.” We have been promised a full report on the event after his return.
I am very excited about the next announcement. My friend Charles Russo has spent the last few years working on a book on the early history of the Chinese martial arts on the West Coast for the University of Nebraska Press titled Striking Distance: Bruce Lee and the Dawn of Martial Arts in America. It looks like his hard work has paid off and the volume is now available for pre-order on Amazon (for the very reasonable price of $25). Unfortunately we will still need to wait until June of 2016 for this volume to ship, but its never too early to mark your calendar. I expect that this book will make a big splash when it finally lands. In the mean time here is the publishers blurb:
In the spring of 1959, eighteen-year-old Bruce Lee returned to San Francisco, the city of his birth, and quickly inserted himself into the West Coast’s fledgling martial arts culture. Even though Asian fighting styles were widely unknown to mainstream America, Bruce encountered a robust fight culture in a San Francisco Bay area that was populated with talented and trailblazing practitioners such as Lau Bun, Chinatown’s aging kung fu patriarch; Wally Jay, the innovative Hawaiian jujitsu master; and James Lee, the no-nonsense Oakland street fighter. Regarded by some as a brash loudmouth and by others as a dynamic visionary, Bruce spent his first few years back in America advocating for a more modern approach to the martial arts and showing little regard for the damaged egos left in his wake.
On the Chinese calendar, 1964 was the Year of the Green Dragon. It would be a challenging and eventful year for Bruce. He would broadcast his dissenting view before the first great international martial arts gathering and then defend it by facing down Chinatown’s young ace kung fu practitioner in a legendary behind-closed-doors high noon showdown. The Year of the Green Dragon saw the dawn of martial arts in America and the rise of an icon.
Drawing on more than one hundred original interviews and an eclectic array of sources, Striking Distance is an engrossing narrative that chronicles San Francisco Bay’s pioneering martial arts scene that thrived in the early 1960s and offers an in-depth look at a widely unknown chapter of Bruce Lee’s iconic life.
If you are looking for something to read over the holiday weekend you might want to consider the following chapter from the 2012 Routledge Handbook of Heritage in Asia (eds. by Daily and Winter) titled “Fighting modernity: traditional Chinese martial arts and the transmission of intangible cultural heritage.” Patrick Daily, the author, recently posted a PDF of this piece to his Academia.edu webpage, which is a great resource as I am constantly scouring the academic journal literature on the Chinese martial arts and had never run across this paper before. I suspect that I am not the only person who missed it, but it is now available to a much broader audience. Daily is a faculty member of Nanyang Technological University, Earth Observatory of Singapore.
If you are in the mood for something a little lighter, Kung Fu Tai Chi magazine has now released the second half of my interview discussing both my recent book on the history of Wing Chun and the Southern Chinese martial arts (with Jon Nielson) and the future of martial arts studies as an academic field. You can read it here.
Kung Fu Tea on Facebook
As always there is a lot going on at the Kung Fu Tea Facebook group. We discussed Daoism in Western Taijiquan manuals, the connection between the English Suffragettes and Jujitsu and some of the ways in which China’s “One Child Policy” impacted the traditional martial arts. 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.