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
Regular readers will already be well aware of my interest in the material culture that surrounds the traditional Asian martial arts. Blades are a particularly fascinating subject. Beyond their central role in the practice of many of these combat systems, details surrounding the design and manufacture reveal a wealth of cultural, social and economic data about the groups that used them. As such I was happy to run across the following post on the Nerdist. It chronicles the efforts of Baltimore Knife and Sword to recreate (using a mix of modern, traditional and 19th century methods) a 400 year Chinese Dadao (essentially a very long two handed saber).
The short article describing the effort is fine. The project was inspired as the 400th anniversary of Cheng Zongyou’s groundbreaking illustrated manual for the weapon. He is a central figure in our knowledge of Ming era martial arts and anyone interested in learning more about his life should check out Meir Shahar’s discussion of his work in The Shaolin Temple.
But don’t just read the article. Be sure to click the video link at the top of the page for an 18 minute overview of the production process. Scott Rodell also makes a guest appearances in the program and even put the sword through its paces once it was completed. This program does not attempt to be entirely historical in nature, but its still quite interesting. For some additional production details be sure to check out Scott’s Tumblr page.
When I opened the CNN homepage this morning I found a long article titled “Enter the Mind of Bruce Lee.” The work discussed Lee’s philosophical interests and the effects that they may have had on both his martial arts practice and life. The article was heavily informed by popular publications by authors including John Little and Bruce Thomas. Unfortunately the piece was basically uncritical in its admiration of Lee. It dealt with neither the more serious academic work on Lee’s ongoing cultural significance, nor did it discuss the many instances of plagiarism and questionable borrowings in Lee’s various philosophical writings and college papers (see James Bishop for the gory details). The end result was a detailed discussion outlining the sort views that Lee’s many fans hold today.
When I went back to find the link to include it in this post the original article was gone and this short photo essay was in its place. I poked around on line and found a copy of the original story reposted here. I don’t think that dedicated Bruce Lee scholars will find anything ground breaking in these pieces, but they are a timely reminder of Lee’s ongoing cultural significance and the way that he is discussed by his fans.
This was not the only Bruce Lee story to circulate in recent weeks. NBC News recently ran a piece on Lee’s family (particularly his daughter Shannon) and their efforts to continue to carry on his legacy. Of particular interest was Shannon’s discussion of a long-term project to produce a serious bio-pic of her father’s life and where previous efforts may have fallen short.
Unfortunately not all of the news on the Bruce Lee front is positive. I recently ran across a short article discussing the closure of his fan club (as well as the auctioning of a sizable body of memorabilia) in Hong Kong. Apparently this small organization has fallen victim to the ever increasing rents which have already pushed a great many traditional Kung Fu schools out of their buildings and neighborhoods. This story is mostly interesting for what it suggests about what the changing economic and social landscape that the traditional martial arts in Hong Kong are currently facing.
The Epoch Times, which publishes quite a few articles related to the traditional martial arts and qigong, has some good news for parents. According to a recent study conducted in Hong Kong the practice of the traditional Chinese Martial Arts can reduce aggression in children. The effect is strongest when students are introduced to both discussions on martial morality and physical training. If you are forced to choose between the two the stats say you should opt for the latter. Interestingly the study implied that movies (such as Ip Man) are being shown to children as part of their training in “martial morality.” I am sure our readers in media studies will have something to say about that.
It seems that quite a few of our stories this week revolve around the topic of books. In all of the discussions of “embodied practice” and “secret oral teachings” its easy to forget that Chinese publishers have been producing manuscripts of and about the martial arts for centuries. The current Hong Kong book fair aims to revive some of this interest, particularly as it relates to Wuxia novels. These adventure stories often follow the exploits of a lone swordsman or group of heroes as they travel the countryside, right wrongs, and model their unique variant of Confucian ethics. For a quick look at the book fair and its relationship with this genera see here.
As authors like Hamm and Liu would be quick to remind us, Wuxia novels are rarely escapist fantasies. Instead the works of Jin Yong and others typically employed the world of martial artists and adventures to comment on the social and political situations of their day. Some of these works are quite political in nature. “The Politics of a Martial Arts Book Fair in Hong Kong” takes up some of these themes in a more modern context. Another article in the South China Morning Post is even more direct in drawing a line between the current political situation in the city and the resurgence of interest in the Wuxia genera. Political discord tends to renew the popularity of this genera.
Readers more interested in classic manuals or military encyclopedias may find the next group of stories to be more interesting. Earlier this month it was reported that UNESCO had added a particularly important manual held by the North Koreans to the World Regional Register for Asia-Pacific Heritage. Anyone interested in checking out the contents of this volume can see its Wikipedia article. Needless to say its interesting to compare a scholarly assessment of this material (which sees it as a Korean updating of older Chinese military sources) to the popular discussions related in some of the recent news accounts. They have simply characterized the discussions of spears, swords and fighting from horseback found in these manuals as examples of early taekwondo. And this is how myths get made.
Are you interested in taking a closer look at this text? It turns out that you can also find a scanned copy in the collections of the BNF in Paris. Enjoy! (Special thanks to Daniel Jacquet for bringing this copy to my attention).
Are you interested in a photo essay of Kung Fu practice in idyllic surroundings? If so the next post has you covered. The occasion is a short article on a program being run in Chongqing designed to expose school children to the traditional arts during their summer vacations.
Speaking of travel for martial arts instruction….the Chinese tabloids have circulated another round of stories on the ever popular topic of African students being trained at the Shaolin Temple. These stories are now appearing with enough regularity that they deserve some serious thought and reflection about the messages that they convey to both Chinese and global audiences. Luckily the photography in this latest example is decent.
Our next article is more interesting as it brings a new (or at least less frequently discussed) wrinkle to the “Kung Fu Diplomacy” story. One of the mechanisms by which China is attempting to expand its “soft power” abroad is through strengthening ties with its diaspora population. The following article on the Foreign Policy blog outlines how its “birthright tourism” program has been modified in recent years to help with this goal. Basically the Chinese government has agreed to subsidize, in whole or in part, the cost of ethnically Chinese children abroad flying to China to take part in various sorts of tours or programs designed to familiarize these youngsters with their “homeland.” And yes, the traditional martial arts are definitely on the agenda (particularly if you take one of the tours of Henan Province.) This article is worth checking out for anyone following the public diplomacy story.
We have one last story about Kung Fu tourism before moving on. Do you see those two gentlemen standing next to Dwyane Wade and his wife in the above picture? Do you know who they are? No? Well neither do the actual monks of the Shaolin temple…..It turns out you need to exercise caution when arranging your VIP tours and photo-ops.
Everything you know about the Ninja is probably wrong. Given our frequent discussions of popular culture and the invention of tradition, such a statement probably won’t come as a big surprise to regular readers. But as someone who spent much of the 1980s daydreaming about these figures, its always great to run across the occasional Ninja story.
Given that so much of my current fieldwork involves lightaber combat I thought I would I pass one one last article on this topic as well. The following piece discusses a group called the “Underground Lightsaber Fighters” in San Diego that I was previously unfamiliar with. Apparently they host big get-togethers in Balboa Park that sound quite fun. Two things stood out to me about this article.
First, its good to to see that a number of their members opt to use safety gear in the sparring. But this should be mandatory. If you are really going to square off with a stranger in park (at night) who is going to try and hit you in the head with a one inch heavy poly-carbonate blade you want a really solid mask. Your dentist will thank you.
Secondly, I thought that it was fascinating how the guy who ran this group described the relationship between LSC and the traditional martial arts. Check out the following quote:
“People with martial arts experience seem to have some advantage in the battles. But Murico said that even people who have trained in Kendo and Eskrima — both of which have inspired Star Wars’ combat styles — only have a limited advantage.
“I don’t care who you are,” Murico said. “How many lightsaber classes have you taken? … I’m a six-month veteran and that makes me a master. Nobody’s really that good because it’s so different, and it’s a toy, and it’s fun. It’s not what anyone is used to.””
On a technical level this seems like a series of dubious assumptions. Every week I watch individuals without prior training walk into a martial arts school and try to spar more experienced lightsaber students and martial artists. And I can tell you that in my experience formal training and years of practice make a big difference. And yet, on some level individuals want these lightsabers to remain toys. They want this to be about “having fun” rather than highly disciplined training. They seem to be looking for something similar to a martial art….without actually being a martial art. This way of talking about lightsaber combat it something that I have spent a lot of time thinking about. It was actually the subject of my recent keynote address at the Martial Arts Studies conference in Cardiff and we will be taking a closer look at this subject on Friday.
Martial Arts Studies
The last few weeks have been an exciting time for academic students of Martial Arts Studies. Having just returned from the UK I can attest that the 2016 MAS conference (held at Cardiff University) was a great success. More individuals attended the event than last year, the quality of the papers was excellent and there was even more energy and enthusiasm than in 2015. These meetings are quickly becoming the high point of my scholarly year. To read more about this event see my conference report here. Most of the keynote addresses were recorded and should be released on the Martial Arts Studies Research Network YouTube page in the coming weeks. We will also see copies of a number of these papers start to circulate. Stay tuned for additional details.
While on the subject of conferences, don’t forget to register for the 5th Annual Meeting of the German Society of Sport Science’s Martial Arts Commission, October 6th to 8th 2016, held at the German Sport University of Cologne. The theme of this year’s conference will be “Martial Arts and Society – On the Societal Relevance of Martial Arts, Combat Sports and Self-Defense.” The organizers have told me that a number of sessions will also be held in English. I will be discussing some of my Wing Chun research at this conference and the whole program looks excellent.
I am happy to announce that Paul Bowman’s new book, Mythologies of Martial Arts (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016), is now being printed and it available for preorder from Amazon.com. I was fortunate enough to see an advance copy of this manuscript and am quite excited about the project. Bowman’s text is both accessible and powerful, with every chapter offering a fresh take on topics as diverse as history, lineage, identity and even humor in the martial arts. Here is the blurb from the publisher:
What do martial arts signify today? What do they mean for East-West cross cultural exchanges? How does the representation of martial arts in popular culture impact on the wide world? What is authentic practice? What does it all mean?
From Kung Fu to Jiujitu and from Bruce Lee to The Karate Kid, Mythologies of Martial Arts explores the key myths and ideologies in martial arts in contemporary popular culture. The book combines the author’s practical, professional and academic experience of martial arts to offer new insights into this complex, contradictory world. Inspired by the work of Roland Barthes in Mythologies, the book focusses on the signs, signifiers and practices of martial arts globally. Bringing together cultural studies, film studies, media studies, postcolonial studies with the emerging field of martial arts studies the book explores the broader significance of martial arts in global culture. Using an accessible yet theoretically sophisticated style the book is ideal for students, scholars and anyone interested in any type of martial art.
I noticed that over the last week Andrea Molle (Director of the Budo-lab at Chapman University) was kind enough to post copies of his articles and book chapters to Academia.edu. I had not seen some of this material before and I thought that the following two examples may be of interest to readers.
Are you looking for some summer reading? If so SUNY Press has you covered. From now until August 31st you can get a 30% discount on everything in their catalog by using the code XSUM16 at checkout. Obviously this is a great way to get a deal on the new paperback edition of The Creation of Wing Chun: A Social History of the Southern Chinese Martial Arts (regularly $26.95).
But that is not all. SUNY has produced a number of books that are critical for students of martial arts studies. These include Martial Arts as Embodied Knowledge by D. S. Farrer and John Whalen-Bridge, Green Peony and the Rise of the Chinese Martial Arts Novel by Margaret B. Wan, From Kung Fu to Hip Hop by M. T. Kato (a classic) and Lost T’ai-chi Classics from the Late Ch’ing Dynasty by Douglas Wile (another classic). Browse their catalog and see what else you can find.
Kung Fu Tea on Facebook
A lot has happened on the Kung Fu Tea Facebook group over the last month. We discussed the benefits of Taijiquan, the upcoming Bruce Lee biopic, and the framing of female fighters on twitter. 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.