A Year in the Chinese Martial Arts: The Stories and Events that Shaped 2015

Seattle_New_Years_Eve_Fireworks_2011

 

Happy New Year!

New Years is a good time to sit back and reflect on recent accomplishments and events.  2015 has been a huge year for the field of martial arts studies.  Things had been picking up for a while, but in the last year we saw a veritable explosion of new books, articles, conferences and even a journal launch.  Likewise we have seen quite a bit of reporting on the Chinese martial arts in the popular press, including the emergence of some important trends.

Below is my personal countdown of the top 10 news stories that had the greatest impact in the world of the Chinese martial arts in 2015.  While some of these stories made a big splash during the year, others were less well reported.  A few are general patterns that appeared over the course of many months and one or two are just for fun.  Collectively they remind us of where we have been and point to a few places that we might be headed towards in the coming year.

 

Japanese and Chinese martial arts students meeting in Fujian. Source: SCMP
Japanese and Chinese martial arts students meeting in Fujian. Source: SCMP

 

10. Increased Exposure for the Southern (and other Regional) Folk Martial Arts

As part of my ongoing research I spend a fair amount of time looking at how the mainstream and more specialized media discusses the Chinese martial arts.  Some trends are more subtle than others, but there are a few things that you can always count on.  In terms of subject matter there are some clear winners.  When a new story comes out there is a decent chance that it will focus on one of a handful of topics.  Bruce Lee and Taijiquan are both very popular, as is coverage of the latest martial arts movies.  More rarely you might get a feature on some aspect of Wushu, or the promotion and practice of the Mixed Martial Arts in China.  A lot of the coverage of the traditional folk arts tends to focus on the better known “internal” styles of the North.

One of the more interesting developments of 2015 was a pronounced undercurrent of stories that bucked this general trend.  The Southern arts of Fujian and Guangdong prefectures in particular received more recognition this year than in the past.  There does not seem to have been a single driver behind this trend.  Rather what we saw in 2015 was an interesting confluence of forces.  On the one hand there was an increased awareness of global exchange and influence in the history of the development of various fighting systems, such as this series of stories on Kung Fu’s influence on Karate.  Given Southern China’s importance in Asia’s historic trade networks, it was only natural that its martial arts should be featured in some of these discussions.

Other trends also directed the media’s attention to these styles.  The interest in global exchange seems to have been accompanied by an increase of discussion in the role of certain martial arts in maintaining regional identities, or the promotion of these more local identities abroad.  At times some of these discussions even took on a political tone as local governments debated whether their resources should be used to preserve or promote various aspects of martial heritage.  A number of these strains came together in the reporting on Hing Chao’s efforts both to preserve the historic architecture of Hong Kong’s martial past, as well as his current efforts to promote the various Hakka fighting systems as a critical element of the region’s intangible cultural heritage.  Thus while Bruce Lee and the health benefits of Taiji continued to dominate headlines in 2015, the more subtle emergence of discussions of China’s many regional martial arts styles seems to point to important future trends, including a loosening of the links between the “traditional” martial arts and entho-nationalist paradigms that so dominated the 20th century.

 

International Students Fall in Love With Wushu. Source: ECNS.CN
International Students Fall in Love With Wushu. Source: ECNS.CN

 

9. Wushu

While 2015 has been a good year for the regional folk arts (at least in terms of increased media exposure), the situation for Wushu has been more mixed.  After a flurry of discussion (some of which involved direct comparisons to a newly energized movement promoting competitive Karate) it was decided that Wushu would once again be locked out of Olympic competition in the 2020 Tokyo games.  At the same time a number of stories noted that Wushu has succeeded in building a broader base of popular support among martial artists outside of China. And some of the press coverage that the sport received was quite positive.

Perhaps the most interesting development that I encountered in the Wushu story over the last year was not something that was reported in the press.  While I did not talk with anyone important in China’s sports bureaucracy, in my discussions with the various Chinese scholars and martial arts observers there seemed to be a shift in how the Wushu problem was being understood.  Increasingly these individuals were willing to step back and ask some deeper questions about whether Olympic competition would actually be good for the development of their sport (which is already very popular at the regional level).  And if not the Olympics, where should Wushu go next?  I have no idea what, if anything, will come from these sorts of more fundamental questions, but its something that I will be following in the coming year.

 

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.

 

8.  Into the Badlands – With heavy promotion

AMC, the home of such hits as The Walking Dead and Breaking Bad, recently aired their new martial arts themed series Into the Badlands.  Ostensibly inspired by the Chinese classic “Into the West,” the show has billed itself as the long awaited return of authentic martial arts to the small screen.  In fact, some of the show’s promotional material has gone so far as to suggest that it is bringing “authentic” Chinese martial arts to American television for the first time (which then leads to really interesting questions about what Bruce Lee was doing back in the 1960s).

In some ways the story here is not the series itself, which has been judged rather harshly by the critics.  While everyone agrees that the fight scenes are well done, even fans of the genera have been left to wonder whether there just might not be too many of them, and to ask more serious questions about the quality of the writing, acting and world creation that have gone into the project.

The far more interesting thing from the perspective of martial arts studies is the way in which this series has been promoted.  To begin with, this is clearly the most heavily advertised and hyped martial arts project to ever grace the western TV screen.  As I reviewed the various news updates for the year in preparation for this post I was surprised to encounter extensive promotion of this series almost a full year before the project was ever available to audiences.  So whatever the show may lack in its production values, it has more than compensated in the advertising and social media departments.  Secondly, the ways in which the series is being promoted as groundbreaking in the portrayal of Asian leading characters is fascinating.  While it is true that the story has romantic elements that would never have made it into a Bruce Lee project, its also critical to note that much of the discussion of its “revolutionary” nature sounds like it was lifted directly out of a Bruce Lee biography.  We are left with the paradox of something that claims to be “new,” but the type of “revolution” that it represents is one that will already feel very familiar to audiences.  You can read more about these questions here.

A close up of Donnie Yen in a cast photo for Rogue One. Source: Starwars.com
A close up of Donnie Yen in a cast photo for Rogue One. Source: Starwars.com

 

 

7. A Good Year for Donnie Yen

Into the Badlands is not the only entertainment story to make our top 10 list.  At times it felt like 2015 was the year of Donnie Yen.  Ip Man 3, just released, continued what can only be called one of the most successful martial arts film franchises of recent memory.  Controversies surrounding the possible role of Bruce Lee and and the Boxing Champion Mike Tyson helped to whip up even more interest in the project than might otherwise be expected.

Nor was this the only blockbuster that Yen found himself associated with.  After beating out a number of competitors (including reportedly Jet Li) it was announced that Yen had been cast in the upcoming Star Wars film, Rouge One.  While Yen has developed a substantial following among western fans of martial arts films, this new role is sure to boost his name recognition among a much wider audience.  It is also the most brilliant plan to avoid being typecast as Ip Man that I could possibly imagine.  And by accepting this role Yen has automatically endeared himself to both fans of the series who were critical of its lack of Asian characters (despite borrowing heavily from Asian martial arts lore and swordsmanship) as well as those who wanted to see established martial artists in what is been billed as a “gritty” and “more realistic” Star Wars film.

These two projects also given Donnie Yen a windfall of earned media exposure, much of which came in the way “will he, won’t he” interviews pontificating on his future within the martial arts genera, the Star Wars universe and the state of both Hollywood and Hong Kong film.  It was a good year for Donnie Yen, and one that set him up for even greater media exposure in 2016 and beyond.  And did I mention that he still found time to record the best PSA ever?

 

A "Kung Fu" nun demonstrates a pole form at a Tibetan Temple in Nepal. Nuns from this order recently traveled to CERN Switzerland where they displayed their skills and discussed "energy" with a set of confused particle physicists.
A “Kung Fu” nun demonstrates a pole form at a Tibetan Temple in Nepal. Nuns from this order recently traveled to CERN Switzerland where they displayed their skills and discussed “energy” with a set of confused particle physicists.

 

6. Gender Takes Center Stage in the Discussion of the (Chinese) Martial Arts

Scholars have been interested in the intersection of gender and the martial arts/combat sports for some time.  The area is a rich one for anyone who writes on identity formation or a number of other topics.  But 2016 was a year in which some of these discussions seemed to capture the interest of a more general readership.

Readers may recall that a devastating earthquake hit Nepal earlier in the spring.  A number of “human interest” stories on the aftermath of tragedy focused on a local order of Buddhist nuns who practice the Chinese martial arts.  In the wake of the earth quake they put both their labor and more specialized skills at the disposal of their neighbors, and a number of western media outlets detected a gendered aspect to the story.  And throughout the year media outlets such as the South China Morning Post ran features looking at the practice of the martial arts among women around the world.  Often these stories also intersected with the previously noted trend of an increased interest in regional fighting practices.  And the Assassin, perhaps the most discussed martial arts film of 2015, put forth a compelling and complex vision of a martial heroine.

Within the realm of martial arts studies we saw a number of publications on gender within the martial arts and combat sport.  The most important of these was the edited volume titled Global Perspectives on Women in Combat Sports: Women Warriors Around the World by Alex Channon and Christopher Matthews.  Other works dealing with gender in context of Martial Arts Studies gained important recognition from their peers, such as this award winning title from SUNY Press.

Other works, including this project by two sociologists at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, focused instead on the construction of masculinity in the Mixed Martial Arts and combat sports.  While not without its faults, Jonathan Gottschall’s highly engaging work, the Professor in the Cage, asked many of these same questions, while also bringing the academic study of the martial arts to a truly mass readership.

 

Taiji Boxer. Source: Burkhardt, 1953.
Taiji Boxer. Source: Burkhardt, 1953.

5. Quantifying the Health Benefits of Taijiquan

A host of factors, including greater sociological acceptance, rising health care costs, an aging population and increased skepticism of opiate based strategies for chronic pain management, have motivated the western medical community to take a more systematic look at “alternative” Asian medical practices including herbalism, qigong mediation, acupuncture and Taijiquan practice.  Indeed, the medical benefits of practices like Taijiquan have been discussed from time to time in the West for more than a century.  Yet only recently have medical professionals dedicated the attention and resources necessary to systematically test and describe the benefits of Taiji for a wide number of (most chronic) conditions.

A recent review article in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, which examined, correlated and interrogated the results of a large number of smaller studies conducted in recent years, attempted to do just that.  The results were surprisingly positive for people suffering from a very wide range of chronic conditions (including insomnia, diabetes and arthritis among others).  These findings were widely reported in a number of outlets and ended up working their way down in the mainstream media.  Hopefully this will clear the way for more individuals to discover the benefits of the traditional Chinese martial arts for themselves in the upcoming year.

 

Shi Yongxin (L), current abbot of the Shaolin Temple, presents a sculpture of Bodhidharma to Professor Charles Mattera of United Studios of Self Defense (USSD) from the United States.
Shi Yongxin (L), current abbot of the Shaolin Temple, presents a sculpture of Bodhidharma to Professor Charles Mattera of United Studios of Self Defense (USSD) from the United States.

 

4.  Abbot Shi Yongxin shows off his defensive skills

Back in 2014 there was a story about the Shaolin Temple in Henan Province advertising job openings for public relations and media specialists.  Indeed, the Temple has a knack for keeping its name in the news, and given its vital importance to Henan’s tourist industry, that is probably a good thing.  Much of its success in this area in recent years has been attributed to (or, depending on who you ask, blamed on) its current Abbot, Shi Yongxin.  Sometimes called the “CEO Monk,” the Abbot has brought modern business and promotional methods to the Temple.  He has been especially aggressive in his attempts to build his institution’s market share in both China and abroad.

Still, there complexities to Shi Yongxin’s reputation.  On the one hand he has proved to be a lightening rod for controversy (ranging from past claims that he has commercialized Chan Buddhism to consorted with prostitutes), yet he has also shown himself to be exceptionally adroit in the realm of survival.  Few of the charges thrown at him seem to stick for long.  2015, however, put even his prodigious defensive skills to the test.

Earlier this year readers of Chinese social media seem to have discovered the plans, long in the works, for the Shaolin monastery to build a combined daughter temple/kung fu complex/luxury hotel/golf course in the tourist mecca that is Australia’s Gold Coast.  This led to renewed questions as to whether the construction of costly tourist attractions and luxury hotels in foreign countries is really the sort of business that Buddhist monks are supposed to be heading up.  Luckily environmental impact concerns halted construction of the golf course and luxury condo development, blunting at least some of the more controversial optics associated with the project.

The wider Shaolin brand may also have taken another hit with the trial of Juan Carlos Aguilar, the self-styled “Shaolin Monk” responsible for torturing and killing two women in Spain.  Aguilar studied at one of the many local Kung Fu schools surrounding the Temple, but did not have any relationship with the actual Shaolin organization.  While they quickly moved to distance themselves from Aguilar, its not the sort of press that any organization wants.

Still, the worst was yet to come.  After Shi Yongxin missed a public appearance in Thailand it was suggested that the Abbot had been prohibited from leaving the country due to an investigation of a new set of charges by an anonymous insider accusing the Abbot of, among other things, having both a secret family outside of the walls of the temple and financial improprieties.  The timing of these accusations were especially dire as they coincided both with a highly publicized (and feared) crack down on corruption among public figures on the one hand, and a renewed set of investigations into wrongdoings by various religious groups on the other.  Thus Shaolin, always a favorite topic on Chinese social media, found itself at the confluence of a number of dangerous currents.

As the summer firestorm subsided Shi Yongxin reemerged in public and began to once more lead events at the temple.  His supporters have claimed that the charges against him are trumped up, and that he has laid the claims to rest (or at least proved the excellence of his bureaucratic kung fu).  However, as late as this fall his attackers were reiterating the charges and pointed to other ongoing investigations.  At the moment Shaolin appears to be taking a well deserved break from the headlines, but while reviewing the events of this summer I was once again struck by how widespread coverage of controversies at the temple have become.  While the debate may have been fueled in its early stages by micro-bloggers on Chinese social media platforms, by the summer its seems that most of the major western media platforms were talking about the story.  Hopefully the Temple will find a return to tranquility in 2016.

Martial Arts Studies.cover.issue 1
For the complete issue (including a number of review articles not listed here) go to martialartsstudies.org

 

3.  The Year that Martial Arts Studies Took Flight

Over the last few years a number of us have been tentatively discussing the creation (or renewal) of “martial arts studies” as an interdisciplinary research area dedicated to the academic investigation of the history, practice, meaning and theoretical significance of the traditional fighting systems and combat sports.  The last decade had seen a fair amount of movement in that direction, and the pace of developments had been accelerating in recent years.  Yet it is now clear that the way in which we discuss this project must change in the post-2015 environment.  Martial Arts Studies is no longer an aspiration.  2015 was the year that many long planned projects burst into full flower.  Martial Arts Studies has arrived.

The number of accomplishments over the last year is almost too great to list.  Respected university presses and academic publishers put forth a number of important titles that will help to shape both the empirical and theoretical discussion for years to come.  A sample of these include Martial Arts and the Body Politic in Indonesia by Lee Wilson (Brill, 2015), Global Perspectives on Women in Combat Sports edited by Alex Channon and Christopher Matthews (Palgrave, 2015), Kendo: Culture of the Sword by Alexander C. Bennett (University of California Press, 2015),  Taekwondo: From Martial Art to Martial Sport by Udo Moenig (Routledge, 2015), Martial Arts Studies: Disrupting Disciplinary Boundaries by Paul Bowman (Rowman & Littlefield, 2015), and my own book The Creation of Wing Chun: A Social History of the Southern Chinese Martial Arts (State University of New York Press, 2015).

While such publications are critical to the growth and acceptance of any field they are far from 2015’s only accomplishment.  A number of interdisciplinary conferences have been held over the last year seeking to engage a diverse body of scholars from around the world.  Discussions of the progress made in these meetings can be seen in the reports on the following events in Israel, Korea and at the First Annual Martial Arts Studies held in the UK.  Obviously a number of other events and conferences (some more theoretically specialized) are also scheduled, and we hope to hear more on them later.

At least two research institutes have been founded in the last year to advance the promoting of Martial Arts Studies.  The first of these in the Martial Arts Studies Research Network (headed by Paul Bowman) in the UK, and the other is the BUDO-Lab at Chapman University (under the guidance of Andrea Molle).  Rowman & Littlefield Press has also announced the creation of a new book series of Martial Arts Studies (edited by Paul Bowman) which will also be vital to supporting the ongoing growth of the research area.

Nor could we neglect to mention the release of the first issue of the new journal Martial Arts Studies (co-edited by Paul Bowman and myself).  While recent years have seen the publication of a number book length studies of the martial arts, there was no single journal dedicated to establishing and interdisciplinary conversation on this topic.  In fact, after conducting an extensive literature review for my own book on the history of Wing Chun, I decided that this was the probably the single greatest obstacle facing the development of the academic literature on the martial arts.  Now, in partnership with Cardiff University Press, there is a freely available, open source journal devoted to promoting this previously neglected area of the literature.

Nor should we neglect to mention the headway that martial arts studies has made in the classroom, especially at the undergraduate level.  This is a topic that we will be hearing more about in the coming year in a special series to be hosted here at Kung Fu Tea.  While 2015 has been a banner year for Martial Arts Studies perhaps its most impressive accomplishment has been the establishment of a firmer foundation for promoting future research.

 

Bruce_Lee_cover_News Week

2.  Bruce Lee at 75

As I mentioned at the top of this post, Lee is always a popular subject.  This last year saw an additional surge of interest in the the life of the Little Dragon, and its ongoing cultural relevance, as he reached what would have been his 75th birthday.  Signs of these festivities were hard to miss.  While it is no surprise to see Lee gracing the cover of Black Belt magazine, it was slightly more interesting to see him on the cover of his own special issue of Time.  South China Morning Post was not to be outdone.  They also ran a number of features on Hong Kong’s favorite son.  You can see a summary of much of this discussion (as well as links to specific pieces) here.

Of course birthdays are also a good time for introspection, meditation and long-form blog posts.  For instance, with all of the discussion of the “revolutionary” nature of Into the Badlands, does Western popular culture still need Bruce Lee?  And if so, why?  Will we still be talking about him at his 100th birthday?  You can find my own reflections on these questions here:  Bruce Lee: Memory, Philosophy and the Tao of Gung Fu.

 

A group of African disciples study the traditional arts at Shaolin.
A group of African disciples study the traditional arts at Shaolin.

 

The Top News Story of 2015: Kung Fu Diplomacy

This brings us to my pick for the top news story of 2015.  It is the ever growing importance in China’s public diplomacy (or possibly “national branding”) strategy within press and media discussions of the martial arts.

As one looks back over the history of the traditional Chinese martial arts you quickly get the sense that there are really two separate, yet interconnected, stories at play.  On the one hand there is the question of what actual martial artists do at any given point in time.  This is what a lot of academic and lineage history focuses on.  Then there is the question of what people (usually non-martial artists) are saying about these hand combat systems at that same moment in time.

How does this popular discourse impact the cultural meaning of martial arts practice within society?  Are these messages absorbed, resisted or co-opted by actual practitioners?  And who “controls the messaging?”

Is it martial arts teachers and reformers with their voluntary associations?  Novelist, reporters, TV actors and film producers who promote the martial arts for their cultural and economic value?  Or local and state governments that see in them either a source of tourist dollars or a means of strengthening nationalism and state penetration of society?  In actual fact all three of these actors tend to be active at the same time, and their vision of what the martial arts are, or should be, can harmonize or clash in fascinating and complicated ways.  Much of my writing here at Kung Fu Tea has been dedicated to teasing out these competing influences.

At various points in its modern history the enthusiasm of China’s government for the martial arts has waxed and waned.  The KMT sought to use the Central Guoshu Institute to strengthen its statist aims and better resist Japanese aggression in the 1930s.   After 1949 the Communist government saw Wushu as a way of implementing a vision of China’s martial and athletic culture firmly based in Maoist collectivist and non-competitive values.

A survey of press coverage over the last year indicates that the Chinese government is once again taking a renewed interest in the martial arts.  Yet this time their focus is different.  Rather than simply influencing their own society, they have realized that the positive association that foreign peoples already have with the Chinese martial arts make them a powerful tool of public diplomacy.  By promoting both the practice and discussion of the martial arts abroad, Chinese diplomats hope to educate the global community about their culture, values and to create a greater sense of “good will” and trust towards China.  This is all the more important in an era when China is actively beginning to flex its muscles as it tries to discover its proper place on a global stage.  A healthy store of political trust could be the key to weathering the sorts of mishaps, misunderstandings and conflicts that are sure to happen along the way.

Of course Kung Fu is not the only (or even the most important) tool in China’s public diplomacy arsenal.  Currently the Chinese state is expanding its network of Confucius Institutes at Universities around the globe where language training and other university level course work is provided.  Nor can we neglect the role of TV and radio stations owned by the Chinese government in crafting a certain image.  And Chinese cooking is even more popular globally than the martial arts.

Still, it is interesting to note how often efforts to promote the martial arts intersect with these other tools and strategies.  CCTV regularly runs stories on the growing popularity of Wushu, while Confucians Institutes have often taken the lead in providing Taijiquan classes for local communities.  The government has gone to some lengths to promote the teaching of the martial arts in areas like Africa and Nepal where Chinese financial interests are becoming ever more pronounced.  Often the source of these stories is fairly transparent, such as when they are directed by a government agency or CCTV.  In other cases it is less clear when a press office simply puts out a news release that is picked up by one of the many tabloid news services or webpages.

A lot of positive good will and social capital was created around the Chinese martial arts in the West between the 1970s and the 1990s.  During these decades it was overwhelmingly private actors, both martial artists and media figures, who controlled the narrative that determined how the public would view the martial arts.  Yet in almost every news update that I reviewed over the course of the last year there was at least one story that focused on “Kung Fu diplomacy.

Public diplomacy is not necessarily a bad thing.  Indeed, America, and pretty much every other country in the world, has its own public diplomacy strategy.  The world is always a better place when states can peacefully discuss their values and competing visions of the future.  That is the very essence of diplomacy.

As a political scientist with a background in International Relations, public diplomacy is one of the topics that I have a professional interest in.  The important development in the current case is that we are seeing number of governmental and NGO (but politically active) actors stepping up their discussion of, and engagement with, the martial arts precisely because they think that it might help with these “national branding” efforts.  While interesting on a number of counts, one must also wonder how it will change the existing narrative around these traditional fighting systems.

On one level none of this is new.  Actors in the Nationalist Chinese government sent a martial arts demonstration team to the 1936 Olympics for a reason. And who could forget a young Jet Li performing a Wushu routine for President Nixon on the White House lawn in the middle of the Cold War?  Yet the sheer volume of Kung Fu diplomacy stories that we have seen reported in 2015 indicate that there may be some trends here that deserve further considerations in 2016.

 

 

 

 

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