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 (almost a month) since our last update so there is a lot to be covered in today’s post. Let’s get to the news!
Chinese Martial Arts in The News
Our first order of business is to wish everyone a Happy Lunar New Year! Over the last week I discussed the holiday from a historical and theoretical perspective here and here. Needless to say the Spring Festival celebrations have dominated recent news cycles. Lion Dances and martial arts demonstrations have traditionally been a part of these celebrations in both the East and West. The news has been full of accounts of these events as they have unfolded in practically every major city. There are have literally been too many articles to list here.
However, the following feature by CNN stood out to me while I was reviewing this coverage. Titled “Chinese Lion Dancing Meets Cirque du Soleil” it profiles a large Lion Dance company in Hong Kong that is renowned for its innovative, heart stopping performances which do not hesitate to make use of modern visual effects technology. The goal of the troupe is to reach a “more modern” audience. Not unexpectedly their approach has raised protests among more traditional Lion Dance practitioners. Yet as I was listening to the interview I was struck with how much this discussion reminded me of the technical innovation and “culture of the spectacular” that became part of Cantonese Opera performance in the Republic Period. Be sure to play the short video that goes along with the article as its well worth watching.
Two of the stories in today’s news round-up touch on the topic of “Kung Fu Diplomancy” and the various ways in both state and private actors have attempted to use the martial arts to shape the public’s perception of China’s “national brand.” The first of these follows a large Chinese Wushu Tournament in Nigeria. Over three hundred athletes (from the governmental, military, police and private sectors) participated in the “Chinese Ambassador’s Championship.” At stake were the requisite trophies and scholarships for the top performers to visit China for additional martial arts training.
The individuals who discussed the tournament did not shy away from acknowledging its roots in China’s public diplomacy strategy.
“Also speaking, the Culture Counsellor in the Embassy of China, Mr. Yan Xaingdong said the Wushu championship was set up to encourage a sustainable relationship between China and Nigeria through sports.”
One of the most interesting stories over the last few weeks appeared on the Vice blog. In “Wu Tang and the Three Levels of a Martial Artist” Nick Wong interviews and discusses the career of his uncle, Kurt Wong, a Wudang Master. This slightly longer piece speaks to a number of issues regarding the place of the Chinese martial arts in popular culture. Different mediums, including music and videogames are freely invoked by the author. But what I was most struck by was the complex role of history in his explanation of Wudang Kung Fu. Notice that he combines lineage, political and biographical history in his explanation of what the Chinese martial arts are, and how they are experienced by the individual practitioner. Also fascinating is how he turns to RZA of the Wu Tang clan to further translate and situate the Chinese martial arts for a young contemporary audience.
The Straits Times published a piece profiling the aspirations and tribulations of the One Championship fight promotion company as it attempts to expand the market for MMA in China. While the Cui outlined an ambitious agenda for the next twelve months, the article itself didn’t pull its punches in noting the difficulties that various MMA leagues have experienced in attempting to do business in China. One Championship in particular was only able to host about 20% of these events that they had originally announced for 2015 and their reputation suffered a further setback after a fighter died while cutting weight before a match. Still, Cui says that his company has learned from the setbacks and is ready to move on in both China and the rest of the Asian market.
“Cui will not rest until more households are hooked on MMA. He said: “This is the only sport that can say it is truly Asian. Why obsess over sports in other continents? Let’s show the world how much talent we have in Asia.”
The South China Morning Post ran an article profiling a new social media platform (Martial Tribes) designed and launched by a Hong Kong Entrepreneur in 2015. The platform seeks to become an alternative to Facebook for martial artists. It has already attracted 100,000 members and is shooting for up to a million by the end of the year. In addition to allowing users to build profiles, send messages and post content, it specializes in tools that allow teachers to share and monetize their knowledge. There cannot be any doubt that social media has disrupted the ways in which martial arts knowledge is shared, taught and discussed. This platform seems determined to harness these innovations in the creation of a new sort of marketplace matching students and potential instructors. It will be interesting to watch this story and see what impact, if any, platforms like this have on the business of teaching the martial arts.
Are you looking to add a little balance to your workout? How about an effective exercise for improving your balance, flexibility and state of mental serenity? If so the following article in the LA Times suggests that you take a second look at that local Taijiquan class. In addition to the widely discussed physical health benefits of Taiji as a low impact work out, there may also be psychological factors to consider.
“This practice is good for the mind as well, notes Dr. Michael Irwin, professor at UCLA’s department of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences. In reference to a 2011 study in which tai chi was credited for helping to reverse depression in elderly patients, he says that “Tai chi, as a mind-body intervention, targeted stress response pathways as well as inflammation which can contribute to depression.”
Of course the article concludes with a reminder to consult your physician before starting a new exercise regime. And if I had to guess your doctor would probably also appreciate if you practiced your forms while firmly planted on the ground. That would also decrease the risk of falling for senior citizens.
A paper in Australia recently ran a short profile of a Sifu Henry Sue, a Mantis Kung Fu instructor, in Brisbane. It is brief and does not really delve all that much into the connections between Kung Fu and philosophy as promised by the title. But Sue’s personal story of turning to the martial arts after a history of racial abuse and bullying is an interesting one. Sue is said to currently own and run the oldest Kung Fu academy in Australia and now has students around the world. You can read more here.
Chinese Martial Arts in the Entertainment Industry
During the last few weeks two major stories have dominated the discussion of the Chinese martial arts in the movies. The first of these focuses on the progress of the eagerly awaited sequel to Couching Tiger Hidden Dragon titled The Sword of Destiny. This much anticipated film features a new director and will be released 15 years to the day after its formidable predecessor. The cast will feature both new and returning faces, but in interviews with the press it is clear that everyone feels a high degree of pressure to live up to the artistic excellence of their predecessor.
The article in the SCMP discussing the project plays up the significance of the wuxia elements of the story (both in its literary roots and as a genera of movie making) and asks what impact a repeat success of this type of film might have on Hollywood. Might it open a wider space for Chinese films in Western theaters beyond the Hong Kong style Kung Fu genera? The article also questions whether Harvey Weinstein’s decision to release the film on Netflix at the same time as theaters (which has resulted in multiple chains refusing to show the film) might hurt its economic prospects and diminish its viability in the marketplace. After all, there has been a stigma that follows “direct to DVD” films. Still, the ways in which audiences consume media are rapidly changing, so we will have to wait to see how this plays out.
The reviews are in, and pretty much everyone loves Kung Fu Panda 3. My three year old nephew gave it an especially strong review, though like many of the toddlers in the audience he was confused as to why the theater decided to lead with the Pride and Prejudice and Zombies trailer. Letters were written to the theater management and I hear that they expressed just the proper amount of abject begging for forgiveness.
Pretty much every major paper and television station has now run something on this movie, suggesting the degree of market saturation it is likely to enjoy. I thought that this review in the Canyon News nicely summed up the juxtaposition of Eastern and Western family values that the film played on. Meanwhile the South China Morning Post took a closer look at the business side of the project and what it portends for future trans-pacific partnerships.
Lately the Chinese martial arts, often in conjunction with music and dance, have been making an increased number of appearances on the theatrical stage. I just ran across an article profiling a Shen Yun dance performance which spoke to this, as well as the ways in which private actors in civil society (in this case religious ones) can also draw on the cultural capital of the traditional martial arts to present their own image of China and Chinese values on the global stage. Kung Fu diplomacy, it seems, is not a game played only by the state. It is an area contested by a wide variety of private and civil actors.
In the case of the current article, all of this came to a head when Tsveta Manilova, a Bulgarian model and photographer, was interviewed about her reaction to a recent performance of Shen Yun. Here are the money quotes:
Of all the story-based dances in the program, one taught Ms. Manilova something about China that she didn’t know: that the spiritual discipline Falun Gong, whose adherents practice peaceful meditation, is persecuted in China today.
She took the dance “Hope for the Future,” personally. In the dance, people of faith are attacked by Chinese Communist Party police.
“It was quite upsetting,” Ms. Manilova said. “I am from a communist country, too,” she said.
Ms. Manilova is originally from Bulgaria where communists reigned 50 years and also forbade spirituality.
She knew that China was originally a deeply spiritual place, with Buddhism in their ancient past. Even martial arts has a spiritual basis, she says.
It’s not just about “warfare, it’s something spiritual. It’s something that connects them to their religion and nature—all the living creatures in our world,” she said.
“People should have the right, if not to everything else, they should have the right to have their religion,” she said.
Readers interested in a quick rundown on the relationship between the Falon Gong movement and the Shen Yun performance troupe may want to check out this wikipedia article. Of course the Epoch Times, based out of New York City, was also founded by a group of Falon Gong practitioners. Or, if your prefer a more secular approach to martial arts and dance, you might want to check out this article on the Jackie Chan’s Longyou Kung Fu Company’s recent trip to Chicago.
Martial Arts Studies
The last month has seen a number of developments in the growing interdisciplinary field of martial arts studies.
On February 5th the Martial Arts Studies Research Network presented the first in a series of smaller, issue specific, conferences. This gathering was titled “Martial Arts Studies: Gender Issues in Theory and Practice.” Hosted at Brighton University it brought together about 30 scholars who shared their research on a wide range of issues relating to gender in various aspects of the martial arts and the possibility that these fighting systems might become vehicles for social transformation. Apparently a number of the presentations generated very lively discussions by the participants. Hopefully we will be seeing some of these papers in print soon.
In the mean time we are fortunate that a number of attendees have written up their own reports on the conference. Perhaps the most comprehensive of these was recorded by Paul Bowman, and I would encourage you check it out. It gives a great overview of how this part of the conversation is currently evolving. Also very helpful is the report at the Budo-Inochi blog which provides a lot of detail and its own perspective on the event.
While shorter readers will also want to take a look at Luke White’s discussion of the event. Of particular importance is his concluding discussion where he asks why academically focused martial arts studies events can be uncomfortable spaces and whether the casual sexism of the martial arts training hall is being allowed to infiltrate academic gatherings on the subject. Of particular importance is what role an author’s personal experience in the martial arts should play in their academic discussion of the subject. Both Paul Bowman and Alex Channon have discussed (and responded to) these concerns in a blog post titled “The Gender of Martial Arts Studies.”
On February 4th Brock University (Ontario, Canada) treated their faculty and students of Medieval and Renaissance Studies to an evening of 15th century Italian martial arts.
Brennan Faucher and Alex Unruh from the Niagara School of Arms presented some of the techniques and styles that they practice, which are based on the teachings of the Medieval Italian knight and fencing master, Fiore dei Liberi.
“Fiore’s system allows for an easy transition from one system to another,” said Faucher. “If you study how the human body works, you will be better able to use all the weapons.”
Fiore’s treatise on martial arts, The Flower of Battle, was written in 1410 and includes pictorial demonstrations of different moves for a variety of combat styles. Fiore starts with a basic grappling system, and then moves on to duels with a dagger, long-sword, spear and pole-axe. He also includes instructions for fighting with or without armour and fighting on horseback or on foot. Fiore’s system is called “Armizare”.
This sounds like a fantastic event. The one thing that really caught my attention though was the way it was discussed by the organizer of the lecture series. He went to lengths to explain that normally they discussed “academic” topics, but for a change of pace they had decided to look at something “outside of the box.” This raises some interesting questions about the place of this sort of historical exploration and reconstruction in our understanding of Renaissance Studies. Can the martial arts contribute to an academic discussion in this area, or do they sit entirely outside of the realm of “serious” conversation?
Students of martial arts studies have some upcoming books to look forward to. The first of these (California University Press) has an announced release date June 7th, 2016. Written by Jill D. Weinberg it is titled Consensual Violence: Sex, Sports, and the Politics of Injury. Interestingly it seems to speak directly to some of the issues raised by Alex Channon’s paper at the recent conference on gender and violence in martial arts studies. Here is the publishers statement on the text:
In this novel approach to understanding consent, Jill D. Weinberg features two case studies where groups engage in seemingly violent acts: competitive mixed martial arts and sexual sadomasochism. These activities are similar in that consenting to injury is central to the activity, and participants of both activities have to engage in a form of social decriminalization, leveraging the legal authority imbued in the language of consent as a way to render their activities legally and socially tolerable. Yet, these activities are treated differently under criminal battery law.
Using interviews with participants and ethnographic observation, Weinberg argues that where law authorizes a person’s consent to an activity, consent is not meaningfully regulated or constructed by the participants themselves. In contrast, where law prohibits a person’s consent to an activity, participants actively construct and regulate consent. This difference demonstrates that law can make consent less consensual.
Synthesizing criminal law and ethnography, Consensual Violence is a fascinating account of how consent gets created and carried out among participants and lays the groundwork for a sociology of consent and a more sociological understanding of processes of decriminalization.
Jill D. Weinberg is Visiting Assistant Professor of Sociology at DePaul University and a scholar at the American Bar Foundation.
Students of gender and martial arts studies will also want to check out the recently re-released volume Amazons: Lives and Legends of Warrior Women across the Ancient World by Adrienne Mayor (Princeton UP).
Amazons–fierce warrior women dwelling on the fringes of the known world–were the mythic archenemies of the ancient Greeks. Heracles and Achilles displayed their valor in duels with Amazon queens, and the Athenians reveled in their victory over a powerful Amazon army. In historical times, Cyrus of Persia, Alexander the Great, and the Roman general Pompey tangled with Amazons.
But just who were these bold barbarian archers on horseback who gloried in fighting, hunting, and sexual freedom? Were Amazons real? In this deeply researched, wide-ranging, and lavishly illustrated book, National Book Award finalist Adrienne Mayor presents the Amazons as they have never been seen before. This is the first comprehensive account of warrior women in myth and history across the ancient world, from the Mediterranean Sea to the Great Wall of China.
Mayor tells how amazing new archaeological discoveries of battle-scarred female skeletons buried with their weapons prove that women warriors were not merely figments of the Greek imagination. Combining classical myth and art, nomad traditions, and scientific archaeology, she reveals intimate, surprising details and original insights about the lives and legends of the women known as Amazons. Provocatively arguing that a timeless search for a balance between the sexes explains the allure of the Amazons, Mayor reminds us that there were as many Amazon love stories as there were war stories. The Greeks were not the only people enchanted by Amazons–Mayor shows that warlike women of nomadic cultures inspired exciting tales in ancient Egypt, Persia, India, Central Asia, and China.
Driven by a detective’s curiosity, Mayor unearths long-buried evidence and sifts fact from fiction to show how flesh-and-blood women of the Eurasian steppes were mythologized as Amazons, the equals of men. The result is likely to become a classic.
Adrienne Mayor is a research scholar in Classics and the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology Program at Stanford.
I should also note that this book has been a highly awarded.
Lastly there have been a couple of articles looking at the practice of the martial arts at various universities and colleges. Following our recent interview with Andrea Molle regarding the Budo-lab research center I was happy to find this piece profiling the Chapman University Martial Arts Club. The article discusses the innovative relationship between the particle and theoretical engagement with the martial arts at Chapman. Both the interview here at Kung Fu Tea and this follow-up article are well worth checking out for anyone interested in the place of the martial arts on the modern university campus.
This piece, titled “Achieve Balance with the Martial Arts,” outlines a more traditional presentation of the Chinese martial arts as part of the physical education curriculum at Wellesley College. Its a nice piece and it looks like the students have access to quality Hung Gar and Taijiquan training.
Kung Fu Tea on Facebook
As always there is a lot going on at the Kung Fu Tea Facebook group. We discussed the mythology of swords, what blogs your should be reading and the various martial aspects of the New Years celebration. 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.