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!
A Busy Month for Wing Chun in the News
Given my personal interest and research focus, I always start these posts by looking for stories relating to Wing Chun. Most months offer few substantive stories to choose from. But the last three weeks have proved to be an exception to that trend.
That said, our first Wing Chun related story is a sad one. Sifu Allan Lee of Wing Chun NYC has passed away. Lee was a personal student of both Ip Man and Lok Yiu and his contributions to the Wing Chun community in North America will be sorely missed. Those interested in learning more about his life may want to start here. His students are currently raising a fund to honor the life and legacy of Sifu Lee.
In happier news, Time Out Hong Kong recently ran a profile of Master Sam Lau, another of Ip Man’s original students who is still actively teaching and promoting the art of Wing Chun. I have never had a chance to visit his school but he is one of the people in the Wing Chun community whom I would most like to meet if given the opportunity.
The short article in Time Out covered a lot of ground. It discussed Ip Man’s early days in Hong Kong and the initially hostile reception that Wing Chun received. Master Lau then went on to discuss some of the misconceptions about Ip Man promoted by the recent films. Lastly the question of government support for the preservation of Wing Chun (a topic which he has addressed a number of times) was discussed:
“The situation is not helped by the lack of governmental support, both in Hong Kong and mainland China. “Unlike taekwondo in South Korea or karate in Japan, which are endorsed by their governments or large institutions, we can only rely on ourselves. The kind of kung fu supported by the Chinese government relates more to acrobatics, which has lost the original intentions of kung fu,” states Lau.”
After articles detailing events in North America and Asia, we next turn our attention to the Middle East. The Shanghai Daily ran a short piece on the opening of a new school in Cairo, Egypt, to meet the region’s growing demand for Wing Chun instruction.
Located on the first floor of a building in a quiet street, Egypt Wing Tsun Academy, the only officially certified Chinese academy for Wing Tsun in the Middle East, consists of a medium-sized parquet-floor hall with a wall-size mirror on top of which there is a portrait of Grandmaster Ip Man, Chinese Kung Fu legend Bruce Lee’s teacher.
“The popularity of Wing Tsun martial art increased in Egypt due to the recent movies about Ip Man, Bruce Lee’s teacher, and the circulated online videos on it,” Sifu Noah told Xinhua at the academy.
Of course the recent release of Ip Man 3 is the looming issue in the background of many of these stories. On the one hand the historical myth-making promoted by these films tends to irritate Ip Man’s still living students and family members. Yet it cannot be denied that these films have been a boon for the popularity of the style that he devoted the final decades of his life to promoting. As a community, what should our feelings be towards these films?
Master William Kwok, who teaches Wing Chun at Gotham Martial Arts, takes up this question in our next article. He argues that it is basically OK to like (or even love) the Ip Man films despite the fact that they have a wildly creative relationship with history. After all, we expect a lot of things from a good Kung Fu film, but accurate biographical discussion is one of the few things that audiences rarely clamor for. In my view the most interesting aspect of this piece wasn’t actually the discussion of the films themselves, but the insights that the exercise offered on the state of Wing Chun in the US today and the sorts of students that the art is attracting.
Marie-Alice McLean-Dreyfus, writing for The Interpreter, had a different take on the film. Drawing on the work on Dr Merriden Varrall she argued that Ip Man 3 closely reflected the world view and foreign policy positions of the Chinese government. Specifically, she argued that audiences in China are likely to view the film as a metaphor for the current conflict between China and other states for influence and access to disputed regions of the South China Sea. Her discussions included a few obvious misreadings of the film (e.g., Ip Man lives in Hong Kong during the 1950s, not Foshan). It also wasn’t clear to me that audiences in Hong Kong would approach what to them would be a distinctly local story through the same set of interpretive lens as viewers in Beijing or Shanghai. Still, its interesting to see the sorts of discussions that Martial Arts Studies promotes appearing in a wider variety of publications.
Other recent discussions of Ip Man 3 have focused on problematic aspects of the films marketing and business model. Or, as the LA Times put it, “Chinese regulators smell a rat over ‘Ip Man 3’ ticket sales.” There is no doubt that the film has been quite popular with audiences. But the volume of reported ticket sales are so high that it strongly suggests that the film’s production company has spent millions of dollars buying up tickets for performances of the film on screens that may or may not even exist. Obviously such a promotion strategy would provide a nice windfall for certain theater chains, but it would also overstates the popularity of Ip Man 3 and by extension the financial health of its parent company.
It turns out that this sort of manipulation is not unheard of in the Chinese film industry. When domestic productions employed similar strategies to boost their numbers against foreign films government regulators had been content to turn a blind eye to the practice. It is also thought that theaters have also systematically unreported the ticket sales of foreign films and then pocketed the difference. But similar tactics aimed at domestic competitors can seriously disrupt markets and undercut our understanding of both the actual character of Chinese movie-goers (e.g., what sorts of films would they actually want to see in the future) and successful advertising strategies (how can we reach these consumers). Apparently the abuses surrounding the release of Ip Man 3 have inspired government regulators to publicly put their foot down. Interestingly this story is starting to make the rounds and I have seen it reported in a couple of other places, including the Wall Street Journal.
Nevertheless, there is one marketing strategy that always succeeds. Make a viral video. One is currently circulating in which Ip Man himself offers viewers a “lesson” in Wing Chun. The discussion in question mostly focuses on the question of what happens when Ip Man decides to “bring the pain.” I thought it was interesting that this montage of epic beat-downs began with some footage of dummy work in an effort to establish the “theory” behind the silver screen magic to come.
The reviews for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny are in, and it would be overstating things to say they are mixed. Variety sums up what the critics have been feeling when it says:
“What a lousy year for long-delayed sequels: It may not be a stink bomb of “Zoolander 2” proportions, but in many ways “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny” feels like an even more cynical cash grab. Trading on the pedigree of Ang Lee’s 2000 Oscar winner but capturing none of its soulful poetry, this martial-arts mediocrity has airborne warriors aplenty but remains a dispiritingly leaden affair with its mechanical storytelling, purely functional action sequences and clunky English-language performances. The result has grossed a healthy $32 million in China so far and began its Stateside streaming release on Friday (while opening on about a dozen Imax screens), but regardless of how it fares, exec producer Harvey Weinstein’s latest dubious non-contribution to Asian cinema will add some quick coin but no luster to Netflix’s library.”
If anything the discussion in the Atlantic, which featured an extended piece on the film, was even more negative. They introduce the project to the readers with the following line. “Sword of Destiny, Netflix’s new sequel to Ang Lee’s 2000 Oscar-winner, feels like little more than a desperate knockoff.” Nor do things improve as the author delves into the details. The upshot of all of this is that the big miss with Crouching Tiger is calling Netflix’s strategy for distributing new and innovative original films into question.
One piece of positive press I found emerging from this project was the following story in the South China Morning Post. They ran a couple of linked articles on the growing popularity of Muay Thai kickboxing with women in Hong Kong. The first of these profiled Ju Ju Chan who starred in the Hidden Dragon sequel. When not working as an actress she is a Muay Thai coach at the Fight Factory Gym (FFG) in Central where she teaches both kickboxing and functional fitness classes for women three times a week. About 40% of the kickboxing students at this gym are currently women.
The SCMP also ran a longer and more detailed article titled “Young and dangerous: Hong Kong’s women muay Thai boxing champions.” This piece profiles four young female fighters who compete and work as coaches in an up and coming gym that caters to female students. I thought that the following quote opened an interesting window onto the motivations and background of one of these women.
“Muay Thai has boomed in popularity as a fitness regimen globally in recent years, but so has the number of tournaments for serious practitioners looking for a fight. And despite the risk of injury, a small number of Hong Kong women have broken the sex barrier by competing in the traditionally male combat sport.
“I’ve liked men’s sports since I was very small,” says Tsang, who previously practised wing chun. “I got into muay Thai because I found it more exciting. The punches come lightning fast so you have to know quickly whether to fight back, block or move away. I find that fun.”
Ever wonder what Kung Fu films looked like before Bruce Lee put the genera on the map in the west? If so the AV Club has a suggestion for you. Check out the 1970 Shaw Brothers production Chinese Boxer. I will admit to never having seen this film, but after this discussion I am inclined to make time to do so.
Speaking of Bruce Lee, a museum exhibit dedicated to the late star’s life is set to open in Beijing. The items are on loan from the Lee estate, and the discussion in the article suggests that this is at least part of the exhibit that was recently showing at the Wing Luke Museum.
Medical studies extolling the virtues of Taijiquan practice continue to roll in. The most recent findings, published in the Journal of the American Heart Association, found a small but statistically significant improvements in practitioners blood pressure and cholesterol levels for those doing a gentle style of Taiji or Qigong. The South China Morning Post also ran an article on these findings titled “Why Chinese exercises such as tai chi are good for patients’ all-round health.”
Taijiquan was also in the news for other reasons. The Shanghai Daily ran a feature that focused on the variety of students coming to Chanjiagou to learn Chen style Taijiquan. The article touched on both the motivations and personal stories of some of these students, as well as the business of martial arts tourism. Click here to check it out.
Martial Arts Studies
As always, martial arts studies has been a busy place. But that does not mean we can’t have fun. After all, who doesn’t like a good martial arts joke?
Paul Bowman has recently been at a conference help at Waseda University (report to follow) in which he presented a working paper titled “The Marginal Movement of Martial Arts: From the Kung Fu Craze to Master Ken.” Be sure to check this out if you want to deepen your appreciation of martial arts humor.
Also, the Martial Arts Studies Research Network has released a list of confirmed speakers for their one day conference (held at Birmingham City University on April 1) titled “Kung Fury: Contemporary Debates in Martial Arts Cinema.” Click the link to register for this free event. Its an impressive list of speakers for a one day gathering. There are too many names to list them all, but here are some of the topics that the papers will cover:
• Martial arts cinema and digital culture
• Funding and distribution
• Film festivals, marketing and promotion
• Martial arts cinema heritage, nostalgia and memory
• Mashups and genre busting intertextuality
• The place of period cinema
• Martial arts stardom and transnationality
• Martial arts audiences and fandom
While not directly addressing the martial arts, I am sure that this next book will find its way onto all of our bibliographic lists and works cited pages. Cambridge University Press is about to release a volume by Louise Edwards titled Women Warriors and Wartime Spies of China. In it Edwards discusses some of the most famous female spies and warriors in Chinese history (including devoting an entire chapter to Qiu Jin) and then goes on to address the importance of this archetypal image in Chinese society. Given the centrality of female warriors to the Wing Chun creation myth (which I have always suspected dates to the Republic period) I look forward to seeing her discussion. Here is the publisher’s summary:
In this compelling new study, Louise Edwards explores the lives of some of China’s most famous women warriors and wartime spies through history. Focusing on key figures including Hua Mulan, Zheng Pingru and Liu Hulan, this book examines the ways in which these extraordinary women have been commemorated through a range of cultural mediums including film, theatre, museums and textbooks. Whether perceived as heroes or anti-heroes, Edwards shows that both the popular and official presentation of these women and their accomplishments has evolved in line with China’s shifting political values and circumstances over the past one hundred years. Written in a lively and accessible style with illustrations throughout, this book sheds new light on the relationship between gender and militarisation and the ways that women have been exploited to glamorise war both historically in the past and in China today.
Louise Edwards is Professor of Chinese History and Asian Studies Convener at the University of New South Wales, Sydney. She publishes on women and gender in China and Asia.
Readers looking for English language translations of primary texts dealing with the Chinese martial arts should follow the always fantastic Brennan Translation blog. It recently released a new translation of TAIJI BOXING PHOTOGRAPHED by Chu Minyi (The Many Blessings Company of Shanghai, 1929). This is a fascinating text written by someone who was not only a martial arts enthusiast but an important figure in Republic era politics. He also had some ideas for innovative Taiji training dummies that are introduced in this manual. Be sure to check it out.
Kung Fu Tea on Facebook
A lot has happened on the Kung Fu Tea Facebook group. We discussed the definition of “martial arts,” getting the most out of your training while abroad, and rare footage of the Wing Chun master Pan Nam. 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.