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!
Stories From all Over
The traditional Chinese martial arts are dying! At least in China. Regular readers will have heard the claim before. And over the last couple of weeks some articles in high profile outlets have once again taken up the call. The first of these is a Reuters piece that was picked up by a number of sources. I encountered it in the Japanese Times. It is titled “Master of obscure ‘body-shrinking’ form of kung fu looks to bend the trend on martial art,” but overall the piece does not strike a hopeful tone. It does, however, offer up some memorable quotes.
“As soon as I’m gone, this thing will be gone completely. There won’t be anyone else practicing it. This is a really, really great regret, it’s really a loss,” Li said.
“We’ve carried it on, we’ve promoted it abroad, but while the flowers have blossomed within the wall, the fragrance is only smelt outside,” he said, using an expression to mean it is only appreciated abroad.”…….
Xing Xi, a Shaolin kung fu master who spent 10 years studying before opening his own martial arts academy on the outskirts of Beijing, felt young people lack the commitment of previous generations.
“There are many, many young people who have potential with kung fu,” he said. “But what we need more are those who can settle in, so it goes from a hobby to being so deeply into it that kung fu becomes a part of our body and part of our life.”
As usual the prime offenders seem to be China’s young people. It is also interesting to compare this story with the recent (August 22nd) NY Times Article titled “Exit the Dragon: Kung Fu, Once Central to Hong Kong Life, is Waning.” It dealt specifically with the situation in Southern China. Finally, those who would like to see Master Li in action should be sure to check out his interview on Quartz.
ABC’s Nightline painted a more positive vision of the traditional Chinese combat methods in a recently aired segment. The shows producers visited a village in Guizho where the martial arts continue to be quite popular with local residents and young people. This segment is definitely worth watching. It is well shot and the landscape is beautiful. On a more critical level it is a fantastic example of the sorts of Orientalizing and self-Orientalizing discourses that seem to dominate our discussions of the Chinese martial arts. But overall there is nice material here. I was particularly interested in the account of the last tiger killed in the region during the 1940s. Apparently he attacked a villager who was walking along the road with a pole. Sadly both combatants died of their wounds, but the memory of the event lives on.
A number of the preceding articles noted continued Western interest as a potential bright spot in the preservation of the Chinese martial arts. That same theme was taken up in a recent article in the Global Times.
“Classes for traditional Chinese martial arts have mushroomed in Shanghai in recent years. What is eye-catching is the number of Westerners studying in these classes and some of them have traveled from far across the globe to learn the genuine Chinese forms of kung fu and tai chi. The Global Times talked to six expats in Shanghai about their enthusiasm and drive to study here.”
The piece profiles six different students who have taken up the practice of various arts. As such it brings a greater depth of perspective to these questions than you generally find in a piece like this.
For those interested in events closer to home, the LA Weekly recently published a long-form article titled “How Bruce Lee’s Daughter is sharing his philosophies with the Digital Generation.” This one will take a little bit longer to work through, but it will be worth it for Bruce Lee fans, or scholars interested in multimedia discussions of the Chinese martial arts. I learned a couple of new things as I read this piece. One of them was that Shannon now has a podcast dedicated to her father’s philosophical side.
“BLE’s latest venture is the Bruce Lee podcast, which in each episode uses Bruce’s sayings as a jumping-off point for conversation between Shannon and Sharon. Shannon’s favorite: “The medicine for my suffering I had within me from the beginning.” For 50 minutes, they dig deep, espousing anti-guru, self-help techniques for a better mind. Just five weeks into production, and with little promotion, the show’s already been downloaded more than 224,000 times.
“In today’s Kardashian and Trump moment, to go, ‘I think the global millennials will appreciate a long-form conversation about philosophy’ was counterintuitive,” Sharon says.”
Indeed, with a new crop of Bruce Lee related projects on the horizon I think we can expect to see another uptick of interest in his ideas among young people.
Next, we have two items that fall under the general heading of “Kung Fu Diplomacy.” The first is another reminder of the role that the martial arts play in China’s cultural diplomacy strategy in Africa. Five Wushu Athletes, after winning a competition, are headed to China for a month and a half. There they will be concentrating on Lion Dancing.
Secondly, the Boreno Post ran a short piece on the sociological and political value of the martial arts in Malaysia. While ostensibly about a recent three day event that had brought martial artists from a number of countries to the region, the article itself focused on the role of the martial arts in creating cross-cutting bonds of identity that helped to knit together what is an otherwise very diverse country. The piece could be read as a statement on the role of the traditional fighting arts in civil society and social capital creation.
Nepal’s famous “Kung Fu Nuns” are once again on the move, distributing aid and promoting gender equality in the Himalayan region. This time they rode mountain bikes 2,485 miles from Katmandu (the capital of Nepal) to Leh (in India) in an effort to draw public attention to the problem of human trafficking in this remote region. Apparently this situation has worsened following the devastating earthquake that affected much of Nepal and created large numbers of orphans.
The Chinese Martial Arts on the Big and Small Screen
The last few weeks have seen some good news for fans of the Kung Fu film genre. Perhaps the biggest story has been the release of the first trailer for “Birth of the Dragon,” director George Nolfi’s upcoming Bruce Lee biopic. A quick viewing of the trailer suggests one or two minor historical liberties may have been taken with Lee’s life. As expected the film will focus on the famous, but not well understood, fight in Oakland between Wong Jack Man and Bruce Lee. Only in this version of events Wong Jack Man appears to be a full on monk sent directly from the Shaolin temple to check up on what Bruce was teaching in his classes. Luckily, if the clips are to be believed, he was mostly teaching a lot of Chi Sao. As an Wing Chun guy, those scenes warmed my heart.
Issues of historical accuracy aside, the trailer looked pretty good. It will be interesting to see how Hollywood approaches something more like a traditional Kung Fu film. And they do seem to have created a very “cool” vision of Lee. I do not believe that this film has a US launch date yet, but I may have to put it on my list. Readers who want to dig a little deeper should see the interview with George Nolfi on deadline.com.
There has also been some Bruce Lee related news on the small screen. Justin Lin has been working to bring a series called “Warrior” to life. Following the story of a Chinese martial artist in the old West, the show was inspired by hand written notes found in the Lee archive. It was stated that these were likely part of the material that helped to inspire the original (and highly influential) Kung Fu tv series. We have just learned that Cinemax has ordered a pilot for the series.
Our final news item will be of interest to Wing Chun students. Lee Moy Shan (Douglas Lee), has recently released a set of 22 short lectures (ranging in length from 5 minutes to half an hour) developing his “Wing Chun Journey to the Heart” project. Based on the fighting and tactical idioms of the art, this is an ethical theory of Wing Chun meant to illustrate how the principles of the art can be applied in a variety of life situations. Its totally free to watch on Youtube and the discussion itself is in no way limited to a single lineage. Pull up a chair and get ready to stay a while.
I was looking at my list of recent posts and realized that it has been a while since I wrote anything about my lightsaber combat research. I have one or two ideas on the back burner, but in the mean time, here are a few news items. First off, I was recently interviewed by a reporter from Inverse who wanted to know whether lightsaber combat could be a martial art. Check out my response here.
Next up is an article from The Coast News titled “The Force is Strong With Lightsaber Groups Around the Country.” Despite the title it focuses on only a couple of more local groups. Still its nice as it illustrates some of the diversity of interests and activities that can be found in the broader Lightsaber combat community.
Finally, Ludosport, a major Lightsaber combat franchise that has proved popular across Europe, is getting ready to open their first US school in San Francisco. Classes will start on October 15. Check out their Facebook page to learn more.
Martial Arts Studies
As usual, there is a lot going on in the world of Martial Arts Studies. First off, the 5th Annual Meeting of the German Society of Sport Science’s Martial Arts Commission will meet October 6th to 8th 2016 at the German Sport University in Cologne. The title of this years conference is “Martial Arts and Society – On the Societal Relevance of Martial Arts, Combat Sports and Self-Defense. ” This gathering will feature an English language day and two English language Keynotes. One will be delivered by Paul Bowman, and the other by myself. I am not sure what Paul will be speaking on, but my paper is titled “Creating Wing Chun: Towards a Social History of the Southern Chinese Martial Arts.” In it I discuss some of the challenges that arise from engaging in martial arts studies from the perspective of social history, as well as the approach that Jon Nielson and I employed in our recent study of the development of the fighting systems of the Pearl River Delta region.
There is exciting news from the Martial Arts Studies book series, edited by Paul Bowman and published by Rowman & Littlefield. The first work in the series, by Chris Goto-Jones, is now shipping. It is The Virtual Ninja Manifesto: Fighting Games, Martial Arts and Gamic Orientalism (2016). Here is the publisher’s statement on the project:
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.
Also, Paul Bowman’s Mythologies of Martial Arts (2016) is now available for pre-order and should be shipping at the start of December.
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 Jiujitsu 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 focuses 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 have already read chapters from both books (by way of full disclosure, I am on the editorial board of this book series) and am certain they will make a smash. The Virtual Ninja Manifesto is unlike anything I have read before. Anyone interested in either video-games or multimedia engagement with the martial arts will want to pick it up. Paul’s book, probably his most accessible for non-theorists, offers short essays that speak to a number of important issues in the practice and discussion of the martial arts.
My friend Scott Phillips has just released the paperback edition of his recent study Possible Origins: A Cultural History of Chinese Martial Arts, Theater and Religion. I just got my copy of this work and have started to work my way through it. Given the frequent association of Wing Chun with the Cantonese Opera I am interested in a more broadly based discussion of the intersection of the martial arts, ritual and performing arts. Scott is primarily interested in events in Northern China and frames the discussion with his own study of Daoist and martial practice, as well as dance.
I just ran across Michael Wert’s recent review of Kendo: Culture of the Sword. This discussion might be of interest to a wide group of scholars, even those not working on Kendo or the Japanese martial arts. In it Wert raises important questions about why discussions of the Asian martial arts (even academic ones) often stumble when attempting to explore the question of origins. Wert sums up the situation by arguing that you can have an academic history, or you can have a story about origins, but you cannot have both. The forces that motivate the quest for the latter are generally anathema to the former. Further, students of martial arts studies who are also practitioners seem to have trouble escaping the tendency to fall back on “object language” and emic accounts. It would be interesting to see some discussion of the points that he suggests from a variety of perspectives.
Kung Fu Tea on Facebook
A lot has happened on the Kung Fu Tea Facebook group over the last month. We discussed Ming vs Qing era armor, how to make martial arts history matter , and Wing Chun’s upcoming appearance on “Blind Spot.” 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.