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!
News from All Over
Summer is blockbuster movie season, and that certainly shows in the current news update. A particularly interesting set of reports came out on CCTV’s English language TV and internet networks over the last couple of weeks. They featured Daniel Wu who generated a lot of publicity for his portrayal of the complex hero Sunny on AMC’s Into the Badlands. Now he is back in the news, this time for his role as an Orc villain in the fantasy film Warcraft. CCTV has released a major profile on Wu commenting on his impact on American popular culture, as well as his quest to find the right balance of body and spirit through the martial arts. Also see here. Readers should also consider how these interviews function in the framing of the TCMA for the purposes of English language public diplomacy.
I am sure that by this point you are all aware of the passing of the boxing legend Muhammad Ali. I also suspect that a number of Kung Fu Tea’s readers also followed his career with interest. While looking through the South China Morning Post I came across an important news item relating to Ali’s role in restoring the popularity of western style boxing in China following the end of the Cultural Revolution and promoting its eventual re-legalization. Students of Chinese martial studies may find this corner of Ali’s history to be particularly fruitful.
Meanwhile, a very different sort of profile has been running on the other side of the Pacific. The Epoch Times (based in New York City) recently ran a piece on Li Youfu, who will be the head judge at this years International Chinese Traditional Martial Arts Competition. As you might expect the discussion quickly turns to spiritual matters and Li’s relationship with the Falun Gong movement (a valuable reminder that private groups can also harness the power of Kung Fu diplomacy, making this a contested space). But there is also an interesting historical dimension to this discussion, including the various ways in which the Cultural Revolution actually accelerated Li’s martial arts training. As such this article hits on a couple of the topics that we have been discussing at Kung Fu Tea over the last few months.
Switching to the West Coast, Hoodline had a very nice piece titled “Pushing Hands: Tai Chi in Chinatown Draws Old and Young.” More than just a profile of a single school, this article provided an overview of the San Francisco Taijiquan scene and even dipped into the area’s rich martial arts history. Overall a nice, if somewhat short, piece.
Multiple Chinese tabloid and news outlets have been promoting stories and video of Zhang Hexian, a 93 year old resident of Ninghai, Zhejiang Province, who has been practicing the martial arts for nine decades. Not much detail was provided about her specific style, other than the fact that its a family tradition, now open to anyone interested in Kung Fu. You can read more about her here. Or, if you would like to see her in action, click this link. Needless to say she appears to be the (eternally vital) archetype of the “little old Chinese martial artist” that has launched so many kung fu pilgrimages.
The last few weeks have also seen the public discussion of a number of new studies focusing on the various benefits of regular (low impact) Taijiquan practice for senor citizens. Perhaps the biggest news is one study purporting to demonstrate that the practice of this martial art can have the same impact on a patient’s blood pressure as a pharmaceutical regime. Another study looked at how the focus on balance and strengthening in Taiji helped some senior citizens lessen their fear of falling in daily life. Finally, one last article examined the health benefits of this practice for those with arthritic knees. So maybe there is something to that archetype after all….
“Why Bruce Lee is Still Relevant.” That was the title of a think piece published on the Esquire Middle East blog recently. The post focused on Lee’s role in the popularization and normalization as the Asian martial arts in the West and how great that has been as a corrective to the overly lax, self-esteem indulging, education that most kids are getting in school these days. The post quickly devolves into a rant in favor of increased discipline and hierarchy in education, leading me to suspect that the author lacks even a passing familiarity with the life or thought of the individual who wrote the manifesto-like essay “Liberate Yourself from Classical Karate.” So all things considered, this is a valuable reminder that “the author is dead” and none of us will get to define, let alone control, our intellectual legacies.
Bruce Lee fans who are a little more attentive to details and controversies surrounding his life may want to check out Charles Russo’s latest post over at the Fightland blog. It is titled “Was Bruce Lee of English Descent?” Then, after you are done with that, you will want to review this essay by Paul Bowman discussing the actual significance of questions like this. Russo is also a long-time friend of Kung Fu Tea and readers should definitely check out his recent book on the early history of the Chinese martial arts in the Bay Area.
The Telegraph recently ran an article on He discussed both his background in Wing Chun, business strategy, and how there is basically no conceptual space between the two. Vincent has even added elements of martial arts training to his workplace to increase efficiency and employee well being while reducing wastage. Its an interesting discussions which in some ways sees Wing Chun as shading into a “lifestyle brand.” This is certainly not the first time that I have run across this idea, but its something that I generally associate with other Chinese arts (especially Taijiquan)., the co-founder of the upscale fast food restaurant Leon (in the UK).
That was not Wing Chun’s only appearance in the news. The Examiner published an interview with Ken Chun. You can see Part I of the interview here.
Chinese Martial Arts in Film
Wing Chun will be making another appearance on the big screen, this time in the guise of Xu Haofeng’s latest film “The Final Master.” Xu was the co-writer of Wong Kar-wei’s Ip Man bio-pic “The Grand Master.” This film also features a complex and engaging story, but visually it is an entirely different movie. If nothing else blades, rather than fists, seem to be the true star. Rather than a return to the visual fantasy of Wuxia dramas, these swords remain elegant yet gritty, giving the entire project a feeling of “blade-fu.” While I don’t endorse the films love of the reverse grip (at least not with something the size of a butterfly sword), fans of the hudiedao now have a film to call their own. And both the Hollywood Reporter and LA Times seem to like it.
Regular readers of these news updates will know that Donnie Yen has been on an extended media tour for a couple of months now. All of this has been sparked by the success of Ip Man 3 (which he says will be his last kung fu film) and the building anticipation over his appearance later this year in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. In this interview Yen talks about both of those projects, his future plans, and the under-representation of Asians in Hollywood (based on China buying power in today’s global media market). But the most interesting thing about this interview was that he reflected on his mom, who is a very accomplished TCMA master living and teaching in Boston. I have been kicking around the idea of doing a profile on her for a while now, so I was fascinated to see her being discussed in the media. If you are Donnie Yen fan this interview is worth checking out.
A number of reviews of Barry Strugatz’s documentary, The Professor: Tai Chi’s Journey West (2016), examining the NY phase of Zheng Manqing’s career have come out in the last couple of weeks. For two examples see the pieces in the Hollywood Reporter and the LA Weekly. You can see my own review of it here. Readers should also note that the upcoming edition of Martial Arts Studies will carry a review by Douglas Wile who has previously studied and written on the life of Zheng. The Professor will premier in NYC on June 9th.
Martial Arts Studies
There has been a lot of activity in the martial arts studies community over the last few weeks. To begin with, we are currently putting the finishing touches on the second issue of the interdisciplinary journal Martial Arts Studies. This will be a thematic issue examining a variety of topics surrounding the “invention of the martial arts.” I will post an announcement on this blog as soon as the issue is ready to go public, and I am sure that some of the articles and reviews will inspire discussion.
Rowman & Littlefield Press has just announced the release of the first book in their new martial arts studies book series. The Virtual Ninja Manifesto: Gamic Orientalism and the Digital Dojo, by Chris Goto-Jones, is poised to expand the borders of martial arts studies.
Navigating between society’s moral panics about the influence of violent videogames and philosophical texts about self-cultivation in the martial arts, The Virtual Ninja Manifesto asks whether the figure of the ‘virtual ninja’ can emerge as an aspirational figure in the twenty-first century. Engaging with the literature around embodied cognition, Zen philosophy and techno-Orientalism it argues that virtual martial arts can be reconstructed as vehicles for moral cultivation and self-transformation. It argues that the kind of training required to master videogames approximates the kind of training described in Zen literature on the martial arts. Arguing that shift from the actual dōjō to a digital dōjō represents only a change in the technological means of practice, it offers a new manifesto for gamers to signify their gaming practice. Moving beyond perennial debates about the role of violence in videogames and the manipulation of moral choices in gamic environments it explores the possibility that games promote and assess spiritual development.
I had a chance to look at an early version of this manuscript and its a fascinating project. Given the importance of video-gaming in shaping current popular discourses about the martial arts, it will be nice to have some theorizing in this area. Chris Goto-Jones is Professor of Comparative Philosophy & Political Thought at Leiden University, where he was previously Professor of Modern Japan Studies. He is also a Professorial Research Fellow of SOAS, University of London.
Paul Bowman has just announced a new forthcoming volume titled Mythologies of Martial Arts (also published by Roman & Littlefield). This short volume, modeled in many ways as a response to Barthes’ 1957 classic Mythologies, is Bowman’s most accessible work yet. I also had a chance to take a look at some early chapters of this project. While his 2015 volume, Martial Arts Studies, has already had an impact on scholarly discussions, I think that this book is poised to reach a much larger audience. You can see a more detailed description of the project here. Expect a release date sometime in November.
There are also a number of conferences coming up this year that will be of interest to students of martial arts studies. Building on the success of last years effort, the Second Annual Martial Arts Studies conference will be held at Cardiff University from July 19th-21st. If you are going to be in the UK there is still time to register, but please hurry as arrangements are currently being made for the dinners. This is looking like it will be a great conference with an impressive group of speakers and presenters.
On October 6th-8th the German Sports University in Cologne will be hosting a conference titled “Martial Arts and Society – On the Societal Relevance of Martial Arts, Combat Sports and Self-Defense.” This years conference will also feature English language sessions so please check out their call for papers. I will be attending this conference to deliver one of the keynotes and look forward to meeting a broader slice of the martial arts studies community.
Are you thinking of teaching an undergraduate martial arts studies class? What happens in the classroom is, in many ways, just as vital to the growth of our field as the progress on the research front. As such I am always on the lookout for new syllabi. Recently Jeffrey T Martin of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (Anthropology) posted his syllabus for Asian Martial Arts Anthro 399 to Academia.edu. Take a look at what his students will be discussing.
Kung Fu Tea on Facebook
A lot has happened on the Kung Fu Tea Facebook group over the last few weeks. We discussed snake kung fu, vintage taijiquan pictures, and the Hakka martial arts in Hong Kong. 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.