Robert Downey Jr.gloves




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!


Robert Downey Jr. and Eric Orem working on the wooden dummy.
Robert Downey Jr. and Eric Oram working on the wooden dummy.


Chinese Martial Arts in the News

As you can tell from this blog’s subtitle, I write about Wing Chun in addition to the history of the Chinese martial arts as a whole.  As such I am always on the lookout for a good Wing Chun story when putting these news updates together.  But needless to say, very few of the leading stories have much to do with my personal style.  The closest we usually get is something about Bruce Lee.  This month, it seems, is the exception to the rule.  Wing Chun was in the news a lot.

Perhaps the mostly widely read story discussing these Chinese martial arts this month actually came out on Christmas Day.  Shortly after Robert Downey Jr. received a pardon for some prior offenses related to his personal struggles with substance abuse a slew of stories emerged about the role of Wing Chun in helping to motivate him to both seek and find sobriety.  As is often the case most of them seem to have been based on the same source material.  I personally liked TMZ’s piece, which included interview material with his Sifu Eric Oram as well as a link to a nice video.

As a side note I should mention that people always ask me about the impact of the recent Ip Man films on popular interest in Wing Chun.  It is true that those projects have given the art some great exposure.  But after Sherlock Holmes came out I was seeing just as many people coming into my Sifu’s school because of Downey as Ip Man.  I think it would be unwise to underestimate the publicity that he, and his story of overcoming serious challenges in his life, has brought the art.  And for at least a few days this was probably the most widely read story dealing with the TCMA in the mainstream press.


Nima King.Wing Chun School
Wing chun is the essence of correct and efficient movement, says Nima King at his school in the Central District of HK. Photo: Bruce Yan, SCMP.  Also note the very expensive looking dummy in the background.

This was not the only Wing Chun related story to find its way into the news over the last few weeks.  The South China Morning Post recently ran a feature on Sifu Nima King’s Central District school titled “The Ip Man in all of us: classes teach kung fu for Hong Kong office workers.”  This is a more detailed profile than what you normally get and we even hear a little bit about Nima’s teacher, the late (and highly respected) Chu Shong Tin.  As with any martial art there are different types of emphasis that can be brought to the fore when teaching or discussing Wing Chun.  In this case what might be thought of as lifestyles issues (rather than fitness or self defense) dominate the discussion.  But in that sense this fits nicely with the somewhat similar emphasis that arises out of the Robert Downey Jr. narrative that also seems to have gained traction over the last few years.


Taijiquan practitioners in a park. Source:
Taijiquan practitioners in a park. Source:

Wing Chun is not the only traditional art to be in the news.  As usual there were a number of stories about the health benefits of Taijiquan.  One of the more interesting of these was run on the English language webpage of CCTV and was titled “Tai Chi Groups Taking Over the Parks.”  This will not come as much of a surprise to anyone who has spent time in a major city in China where martial artists have long staked out their claim to a great deal of real estate in that countries public spaces.  But, as the article notes, we are starting to see the same thing in other areas as well.  The article hints at the “Americanization” of Taijiquan as it moves abroad, but aside from some vague hints at the “Orientalization” of the art in the Western imagination, this aspect of the article is not as extensively developed as one might like.



Representatives of Chinese Sanda fighters participate Wednesday's news conference. [Photo provided for]
Representatives of Chinese Sanda fighters participate Wednesday’s news conference. Source:

I am not sure that I would personally classify modern competitive Sanda as a “traditional martial art” (honestly, on some days I doubt whether Wing Chun as taught by Ip Man would really qualify) but the good folks over at the China Daily seem to have a degree of clarity on that issue.  They recently ran an announcement that the national Wushu administrative bodies have given the go ahead to create the first competitive professional Sanda league next year.  Named the Wushu Sanda Pro League, this organization will sponsor various types of competitive fights between a relatively small, hand picked, group of high profile fighters.  It seems that the hope is to use some of the institutional mechanics that are driving the various MMA organizations competing for a share of China’s media market to raise the profile of Sanda among China’s viewers.  In fact, I rather suspect that defining Sanda as a “traditional” art in this context is simply to claim it as Chinese and thus create some dynamic tension with the more international MMA movement.  You can read more about this project here.

Yang Jian Bing. Source:
RIP Yang Jian Bing. Source:

Earlier this month Yang Jian Bing, only 21, died the day of his scheduled ONE Championship 35 fight in Manila.  It was later determined that Yang died of complications of severe dehydration as he attempted to cut weight for the upcoming fight.  This story received a lot of coverage and sparked renewed debate about the dangers of weight cutting in combat sports.  The ONE Championship has since announced a series of changes to their weigh in procedures in an attempt to prevent the use of dangerous practices to achieve drastic short term weight loss in the future.

While on the subject of death in combat sports, be sure to check out this short article in the New Yorker.  It follows the fate of an early research collection on deaths in boxing.  This may not be considered of much interest for many readers, except that these files ended up in the hands of first R. W. Smith, an important writer on the Chinese martial arts in the post-WWII period, and then Joseph Svinth, one of the more frequently cited authors on Martial Arts Studies in our current era.  It even includes some nice interview material with Svinth in which he discusses his research and writing.  Of course Smith, while initially trained as a boxer, turned against the sport as he became aware of its problem with repetitive brain injury.  This then factored into his promotion of the TCMA.  All in all its a fascinating read that includes some of the more important names in the development of Martial Arts Studies.

Bruce Lee inforgraphic. Source: SCMP.
Bruce Lee inforgraphic. Source: SCMP.


Over the last few months there has been much discussion of Jack Ma’s purchase of the South China Morning Post.  Various media critics (who were already concerned with what they saw as the paper’s softening editorial independence) have worried about what this means for the long term independence of the paper.  While I can’t speak to larger trends in editorial policy, the last month seems to indicate that the paper’s long standing interest in the martial arts of southern China remains fully intact.  The SCMP actually put out more features mentioning the martial arts than I can list here.  As such I have chosen the two that I personally found to be the most interesting.  The first is an “infographic” on the life and career of Bruce Lee.

I do not count myself as an expert on the life of the Little Dragon, though I am called upon to write about him from time to time.  As such I am going to be saving a copy of this timeline as a handy reference to keep on my desktop.


The home of Wing Chun as we like to imagine it. The Cantonese Opera stage on the grounds of Foshan's Ancestral Temple.
The home of Wing Chun as we like to imagine it. The Cantonese Opera stage on the grounds of Foshan’s Ancestral Temple.  Photo: Author’s Personal Collection.


The other piece that I really enjoyed was a feature titled “How to Spend 48 Hours in Foshan, City of Ceramics and Kung Fu Legends Bruce Lee and Ip Man.”  As the article correctly points out, the sights in Foshan are an easy daytrip for anyone who is going to be in Guangzhou, and this much smaller city has a lot going on, if you know where to look.  Foshan is also the home of some great martial arts history.  But if you decide to go, don’t limit yourself to just Wing Chun.  The city also saw important innovations in Choy Li Fut, Hung Gar, White Eyebrow and even Jingwu!  And if you want to know where to eat or what other cultural sites to hit while you are there, this article will help you out.

A still from the trailer for AMC's Into the Badlands presented at the 2015 Comicon.
A still from the trailer for AMC’s Into the Badlands presented at the 2015 Comicon.


Chinese Martial Arts in the Entertainment Industry

I have been discussing the press coverage surrounding AMC’s new martial arts series Into the Badlands for a few months now.  Just when I thought that there would be nothing new to say, I ran across this Wall Street Journal blog article.  Its interesting precisely because it focuses on what goes into filming the massive “50 vs. 1” fight scenes that are a staple of so many movies, and this series in particular.  It turns out that this sort of choreography presents directors with its own challenges, not least of which is where to find 50 extras who already know Chinese martial arts?  Check it out.

Probably not going to happen anytime soon. Source:
Probably not going to happen anytime soon. Source:


Donnie Yen has been back in the news.  Martial Arts fans are excited to see Ip Man 3, while Star Wars fans want to know more about his upcoming role in that iconic franchise.  You can see Yen discussing these topics, and others, in this interview that he did with the South China Morning Post.  Or if you want to cut right to the can read an early review of Ip Man 3.  It appears that the directors have deliberately moved away from sweeping nationalist themes and “fights to the death” in this last film and have instead decided to provide a much more nuanced exploration of Ip Man as a martial artist and family man.  As someone who just wrote a detailed biography of Ip Man I can vouch for the general lack of “fights to the death” in his martial arts career.  I for one am very interested to see how Yen’s portrayal of Ip Man will evolve in this film.


Michelle Yeoh. Source:
Michelle Yeoh. Source:


The Ip Man franchise is not the only one getting an new edition.  There has also been a fair amount of press coverage of the sequel to “Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon.”  You can find one such discussion here.  All of the advance footage of the film that I have seen has been just as beautiful as one might hope.

Alex staff form.cranes
One image from Ameena Rojee’s project “Hard Work.”

News From All Over

Our next item come from a somewhat unusual (if beautifully illustrated) source.  It seems that the British Journal of Photography maintains a blog.  One of their recent features profiled Ameena Rojee’s project “Hard Work.”  This collection of photographs documented life at the School of Shaolin Kung Fu in Qufu, China.  The entire shoot lasted one month and Ameena captured some striking images.  But rather than the lush, highly polished images that we are used to seeing on the tourist material, her work often emphasized the bleak nature of the landscape, the ugliness of the local pollution and construction, and the “smallness” of her subjects against the immense backdrop of the local environment  Its a different take on a subject that a lot of us feel that we are already familiar with, and its worth checking out.


The "internal" martial arts and other Qigong practices tend to be especially popular among senior citizens and others who are seeking relief from chronic conditions.

While we often discuss Chinese martial artists, less thought is typically devoted to the physical structures and spaces that organize their activities.  This is an problem as the nature of the space that one works within has a profound impact on the types of training that can occur.  We are all familiar with the images of Chinese martial artists training in public parks, but what are these spaces like, and what is their place in the local community?  The Economist recently decided to tackle this conversation in an article titled “Park life: A day in the life of one of the capital’s few green spaces.”  It mentions martial artists, but the entire article is well worth reading so that we can think a little more deeply about the spaces that these martial artists inhabit.

Martial Arts Studies by Paul Bowman (2015)
Martial Arts Studies by Paul Bowman (2015)


Martial Arts Studies

There have been some interesting developments in the interdisciplinary realm of Martial Arts Studies over the last month.  Gene Ching, the Editor of Kung Fu Tai Chi magazine, ran a detailed two part interview with Paul Bowman on Martial Arts Studies on the journal’s webpage.  Its well worth reading and a great example of substantive engagement between the scholarly and practicing community.  Click here for Part 1 and Part 2.  While exploring this intersection between popular and scholarly discussion, be sure to also check out this short essay that Paul wrote on the theoretical implications of how we discuss and think about the now legendary fight between Wong Jack Man and Bruce Lee.


Illustration from Meyer's Longsword. Source: Bloody Elbow, MMA History Blog.
Illustration from Meyer’s Longsword. Source: Bloody Elbow, MMA History Blog.

Daniel Jaquet (a Post Doc Visiting Fellow at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, Art and Knowledge) has posted an article on (free to download and read) titled “Historical European Martial Art: A crossroad between academic research, martial heritage re-creation and martial sport practices.”  This is coming out of the German Martial Arts Studies literature that we have touched on a few times here at Kung Fu Tea.  While his article addresses issues in the relationship between historians and practitioners of the traditional European Martial Arts, it seems to me that many of these same issues could also be discussed with regards to Asian traditions.  As such his paper might make an interesting launching point for a comparative discussion.

The abstract is as follows:

Historical European martial arts (HEMA) have to be considered an important part of our common European cultural heritage. Studies within this field of research have the potential to enlighten the puzzle posed by past societies, for example in the field of history, history of science and technology, or fields related to material culture. The military aspects of history are still to be considered among the most popular themes of modern times, generating huge public interest. In the last few decades, serious HEMA study groups have started appearing all over the world – focusing on re-creating a lost martial art. The terminology “Historical European Martial Arts” therefore also refers to modern-day practices of ancient martial arts. Many of these groups focus on a “hands-on” approach, thus bringing practical experience and observation to enlighten their interpretation of the source material. However, most of the time, they do not establish inquiries based on scientific research, nor do they follow methodologies that allow for a critical analysis of the findings or observations. This paper will therefore propose and discuss, ideas on how to bridge the gap between enthusiasts and scholars; since their embodied knowledge, acquired by practice, is of tremendous value for scientific inquiries and scientific experimentation. It will also address HEMA practices in the context of modern day acceptance of experimental (or experiential) processes and their value for research purposes and restoration of an historical praxis. The goal is therefore to sketch relevant methodological and theoretical elements, suitable for a multidisciplinary approach, to HEMA, where the “H” for “historical” matters.

Warrior Women.Lisa Funnell.suny

It is the season for book awards, and I noticed that at least one of the titles that I discussed here earlier this year has done rather well for itself.  Lisa Funnell’s volume Warrior Women: Gender, Race, and the Transnational Chinese Action Star (SUNY Press) considers “the significance of Chinese female action stars in national and transnational contexts.”  It was recently named a Bronze Medalist in the 2015 Independent Publisher Book Awards in the Women’s Issues category; it grabbed the 2015 Emily Toth Award, and it was a finalist for the 2014 ForeWord IndieFab Book of the Year in Women’s Studies.  This is great news as the more recognition that titles like this earn, the more scholars will be exposed to the importance of Martial Arts Studies.

Lisa Funnell is an Assistant Professor in the Women’s and Gender Studies Program at the University of Oklahoma, where she is also an affiliated faculty member of the Film and Media Studies Program and the Center for Social Justice.

Tel Aviv University.Religion violence and the Asian Martial Arts.nov 2015

On November 23rd the Department of East Asian Studies at Tel Aviv University held a one day conference titled “Religion, Violence and the Asian Martial Arts.”  It featured a number of well known researchers as well as papers by some up and coming graduate students.  See here for a full report on this event.  This may be particularly important for anyone who is curious about the debate surrounding the possible existence of the Southern Shaolin temple in the Chinese language academic literature.

We also have some upcoming events to look forward to.  The Martial Arts Studies Research Network will be hosting a conference looking at questions of gender in the martial arts in February.  And the Second Annual Martial Arts Studies conference will be held this July at the Cardiff University.  That event has already locked in a number of confirmed speakers (including Adam Frank, Daniel Mroz, Benjamin Spatz,  Phillip Zarrilli, Paul Bowman and myself)  but if you are interested in going there is still time to submit a proposal to the organizers.  Check out this link for more information on both of these events.


Hing Kee shop in Wan Chai Road, Hong Kong.   Source: Wikimedia.
Hing Kee shop in Wan Chai Road, Hong Kong. Source: Wikimedia.



Kung Fu Tea on Facebook


As always there is a lot going on at the Kung Fu Tea Facebook group.  We discussed spirit possession in the traditional Chinese martial arts, Star Wars, female friendly training spaces and why academics need to take blogging more seriously.   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.