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!
Chinese Martial Arts, Within China
By their nature, news roundups tend to be somewhat random. Yet every once in a while a discernible pattern seems to emerge. This last month has been one of those rare times. In his excellent (and still underappreciated) study,Taijiquan and the Search for the Little Old Chinese Man, anthropologist Adam Frank noted (with reference to the increasingly globalized TCMA) that “identity moves.” This statement is true on many levels. But the news reports that have emerged over the last month seem intent on demonstrating both geographic shifts and chronological fading within these practices. As such, these “movements” will organize the first section of our news update.
We begin with discussions of the TCMA within China. Interestingly, stories in this category are vastly outnumbered by the plethora of pieces that focus instead on martial identities either entering, or being exported from, China. Two of the three stories that we do have in this category seem to be concerned with issues of marginality (in this case the de-centering of the martial arts from mundane Chinese life), understood both ethnically and temporally.
Our first article (which includes a short video clip) reports on the ongoing efforts of Hing Chao and the Intentional Guoshu Association to document the Southern Chinese martial arts through advanced 3-D motion capture technology before they finally (inevitably?) vanish from social neglect. The entire project seems to be pitched as a continuation of the early 20th century project of “salvage anthropology” (which should probably inspire a degree of self-reflection).
The next article asks what happens when Muslims and Chinese martial artists come together? Apparently you get some really great hand combat practices. This piece also looks at the martial arts in China, but once again de-centers them in a slightly different way. And in the process it comes up with a short introduction to a couple of the major personalities within China’s rich Muslim martial arts traditions.
Of course no round-up of Chinese martial arts stories would be complete without an obligatory massive public performance being staged at the Shaolin Temple. In this case the martial arts are once again reworked as a vehicle for nostalgia, this time more directly inspired by film. The occasion for the public performance was 11th International Shaolin Wushu Festival.
Martial Identity Moving Out of China
It is not hard to spot an interesting dichotomy in the way that the TCMA are discussed in these articles. When examined in their home environment the focus is often on their struggle to survive, or to remain relevant, within the modern life of the nation. Yet when discussed in a global context these same arts are often held up as vital ambassadors of Chinese identity and culture, and are seen as essential to the Chinese nation. Note for instance the following article titled “Martial arts school in L.A. teaches traditional Chinese sports, delights students. It recounts a visit by a group of coaches from China who introduced some young American students to a number of “traditional” Chinese sports….like Taiji Softball.
“The team including five coaches came from the Chinese Leisure Sports Administrative Center. It’s the first time they came to the United States to teach traditional Chinese sports. The two-day program mainly focused on three sports: dragon and lion dance, Chinese folk dance (Yangge) and Taiji softball (Rouliqiu).”
Another article in the Times of India recounted a somewhat similar story in which three Chinese Taijiquan instructors were invited to visit Kolkata. While various Shaolin and “external” Chinese martial arts are already quite popular in India, the feeling seems to be that the internal arts have been under represented. And so these instructors came with a mission to introduce local residents to the culture and practice of Taijiquan. In both of these stories the TCMA are not only a central element of Chinese culture, but they are viewed as something that should be passed on to the global community as well.
The Global Times ran another story with this same theme. This time rather than sending teachers abroad, a group of African students (already discussed in a previous news update) were brought to the Shaolin Temple in Henan Province. After three months of training they staged a graduation performance. In a separate story CCTV noted that many such student take it upon themselves to spread Chinese martial culture once they return to the West. The following report profiles an individual (first introduced to Kung Fu while living in Macao) who now operates a successful school in Portugal. The short video that accompanies the story is worth watching.
Bruce Lee is the most recognizable of all of China’s many martial ambassadors. The San Francisco Examiner recently ran a short interview with Charlie Russo in which they discussed his new book, Striking Distance: Bruce Lee & the Dawn of Martial Arts in America. The interview and the book are both worth checking out, especially if you are looking for a non-fictional discussion of Lee’s now legendary fight with Wong Jack Man. Given George Nolfi’s imaginative treatment of this episode, it is sure to reemerge as a topic of conversation in the next few months. You can see my review of Russo’s book here.
Martial Identity Moves Into China
Needless to say, identities rarely flow in only one direction, or along a single axis. This is especially true within the global martial arts community. Every month there is a fairly steady drumbeat of stories discussing the importation (or popularization) of new martial practices within China. When looking at the stories, two such items stood out. The Global Times ran a decent piece titled “Brazil’s Martial Arts Popular in Chinese Cities.” In discussing the growing popularity of BJJ within China’s first tier cities, the author noted the importance of fashion and mediatized images. Unlike many traditional form of Kung Fu, BJJ is widely perceived as being perfectly compatible with modern life.
“The influence of celebrities is one of the reasons jiu-jitsu has become so popular in China,” Ma said. Many models and actors play jiu-jitsu to keep fit, and this has introduced the sport to more people. “Another reason is that many office workers in big cities, especially males, are under huge living pressure,” Ma said. “Martial arts is an effective way for them to relax.”
The mixed martial arts (MMA) are also attempting to enter the mainstream of Chinese public life. CCTV ran a story discussing a recent event sponsored by the Dragon Fighting Championship in Shanghai. While the article is ostensibly about fighters and combat sports from other nations coming into China, Bruce Lee is discussed at length as the spiritual father of MMA. The end result seems to be the domestication of the event. Both Western and Chinese discussions of MMA ask the memory of Bruce Lee to carry a lot of water. At some point it might be useful to do a comparative study of how his image is being used in these emerging discourses.
Chinese Martial Arts In the Media
George Nolfi’s recent Bruce Lee bio-pic has not yet hit most theaters, but it has already generated a notable degree of controversy regarding the “whitewashing” of Asian characters within their own stories. After viewing the initial trailers for this film many fans were incensed by the idea that Bruce Lee was being relegated to a supporting role within his own life story. With no apparent sense of irony, the movie appears to cast him as the exotic sidekick to someone who looks and sounds a lot like Steve McQueen. Fan reaction has been swift and vocal. And it just keeps on coming.
Given the quickly souring public narrative on this project its director has decided to respond to, and directly contest, the various complaints that are being launched. The Guardian ran a surprisingly detailed article covering both sides of this story which is well worth checking out. It also brought Dr. Felicia Chan (a films studies scholar at the University of Manchester) into the discussion to comment on Nolfi’s defenses of his work and creative choices. She seems to have been unimpressed.
Do you remember Donnie Yen’s recent proclamations that he was done playing Ip Man, and might even take a step back from martial arts films? Well, we can now collectively forget any such idea. A large number of sources are reporting that Yen has just signed onto Wilson Ip’s 4th installment in the Ip Man franchise. It look’s like the Master has at least one more epic battle to go!
Kung Fu film buffs will also want to check out this article. Titled “Dying art challenges the masters: As Hong Kong’s kung fu movie legends fade from limelight, they fear there is no one able or willing to carry on the tradition” it profiles Kara Wai Ying-hung as she retires from the genre. Aspects of her interview read a bit like a diatribe about “the kids these days” (by which she means other actors and directors in the business). Yet underneath it all is a discussion of the various ways in which the production of martial arts films have changed. What I found particularly interesting is that she articulates a debate as to what “realism” in a Kung Fu film actually is. Is it showing the audience authentic techniques actually done by a trained practitioner in a single take? Or is it instead invoking the feeling of “real” violence through the use of close shots and fast cuts that are emotionally intense yet visually obscure? Achieving a sense of realism has always been central to the genre, but this article nicely illustrates the ways in which that concept has evolved.
A recent study in the Journal of Pain may be of interest to Taijiquan students. A peer reviewed paper found that a sample of individuals with chronic, non-specific, neck pain who practiced Taijiquan for 12 weeks showed statistically significant levels of improvement. They fared notably better than a control group which was prescribed no form of physical therapy. However, a third group who practiced specifically formulated neck exercises showed results that were identical to those experienced by the Taijiquan students. Still, if my choice was between learning a new martial art or practicing a set of neck exercises, I know which treatment I would choose!
Martial Arts Studies
There has been a lot of news within the field of Martial Arts Studies. First, The Martial Arts Commission of the German Society of Sport Science just wrapped up their 5th annual meeting which was held this year at the German Sport University of Cologne. The title of the conference was “Martial Arts and Society: On the Societal Relevance of Martial Arts, Combat Sports and Self-Defense.” It was a great event which you can read more about in my conference report. Also, two of the keynotes are already available on-line, here and here.
The dates for the 3rd Annual Martial Arts Studies Conference have also been announced. These meetings will be taking place from July 11th to July 13th at Cardiff University. Professor Peter Lorge (Vanderbilt University), the author of Chinese Martial Arts: From Antiquity to the Twenty-First Century (Cambridge University Press, 2012) has already been confirmed as the the first keynote speaker. Check out this post for more details and to review the Call for Papers (the deadline for submissions is the 31st of December, 2016).
I recently noticed two articles that may be of interest to the Martial Arts Studies community. The first is “An Oral History of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, Ben Penglase interviews Rolker Gracie” In The Rio de Janeiro Reader: History, Politics and Culture, Duke University Press, 2016, which can be found here.
Second, Jonathan Tuckett has just published a piece titled “Kendo: Between Religion and Nationalism” in the Journal for the Study of Religions and Ideologies (15: 44). Unfortunately you will need to head to jstor or your local university library to get a copy of this paper. But the abstract seems promising.
To date, the study of “religion” and “martial arts” is a lacuna of the field in Religious Studies in which the depth of association has long gone unrecognised. What little study there is, however, suffers from a practitioner’s bias in that those writing on martial arts are also attempting to promote the agenda of their own discipline. This paper attempts a more critical approach to show the study of martial arts can contribute to the ongoing problematisation of “religion” as an analytic category, particularly in its relation to “the secular” and “nationalism”. To do this I will draw on the philosophical phenomenology of Husserl, Sartre and Schutz to argue that “religions”, “nationalisms” and “martial arts” are all names given to modes of naturalisation. By this I mean they are means by which a person “fits” within their life-world and deals with the problems of surviving and thriving.
There have been a number of recent announcements for upcoming books. While a few of these will not be out for some months, it is interesting to get a quick look at what we will be reading and discussing next year. The first is Wendy Rouse’s Her Own Hero: Origins of the Women’s Self Defense Movement, due out in August 2017. Hopefully this book will provide new perspectives on the role of gender in the global spread of the Asian martial arts.
The surprising roots of the self-defense movement and the history of women’s empowerment.
At the turn of the twentieth century, women famously organized to demand greater social and political freedoms like gaining the right to vote. However, few realize that the Progressive Era also witnessed the birth of the women’s self-defense movement.
It is nearly impossible in today’s day and age to imagine a world without the concept of women’s self defense. Some women were inspired to take up boxing and jiu-jitsu for very personal reasons that ranged from protecting themselves from attacks by strangers on the street to rejecting gendered notions about feminine weakness and empowering themselves as their own protectors. Women’s training in self defense was both a reflection of and a response to the broader cultural issues of the time, including the women’s rights movement and the campaign for the vote.
Perhaps more importantly, the discussion surrounding women’s self-defense revealed powerful myths about the source of violence against women and opened up conversations about the less visible violence that many women faced in their own homes. Through self-defense training, women debunked patriarchal myths about inherent feminine weakness, creating a new image of women as powerful and self-reliant. Whether or not women consciously pursued self-defense for these reasons, their actions embodied feminist politics. Although their individual motivations may have varied, their collective action echoed through the twentieth century, demanding emancipation from the constrictions that prevented women from exercising their full rights as citizens and human beings. This book is a fascinating and comprehensive introduction to one of the most important women’s issues of all time.
This book will provoke good debate and offer distinct responses and solutions.
Film studies scholars should look for Man-Fung Yip’s new work Martial Arts Cinema and Hong Kong Modernity: Aesthetics, Representation, Circulation from Hong Kong University Press, expected in July of 2017.
At the core of Martial Arts Cinema and Hong Kong Modernity: Aesthetics, Representation, Circulation is a fascinating paradox: the martial arts film, long regarded as a vehicle of Chinese cultural nationalism, can also be understood as a mass cultural expression of Hong Kong’s modern urban-industrial society. This important and popular genre, Man-Fung Yip argues, articulates the experiential qualities, the competing social subjectivities and gender discourses, as well as the heightened circulation of capital, people, goods, information, and technologies in Hong Kong of the 1960s and 1970s. In addition to providing a novel conceptual framework for the study of Hong Kong martial arts cinema and shedding light on the nexus between social change and cultural/aesthetic form, this book offers perceptive analyses of individual films, including not only the canonical works of King Hu, Chang Cheh, and Bruce Lee, but also many lesser-known ones by Lau Kar-leung and Chor Yuen, among others, that have not been adequately discussed before. Thoroughly researched and lucidly written, Yip’s stimulating study will ignite debates in new directions for both scholars and fans of Chinese-language martial arts cinema.
Sara Delamont, Neil Stephens, and Claudio Campos are expected release a somewhat pricey volume form Routledge just after New Years. Their study is titled Embodying Brazil: An Ethnography of Diasporic Capoeria. This sounds as though it will be worth a trip to the library.
The practice of capoeira, the Brazilian dance-fight-game, has grown rapidly in recent years. It has become a popular leisure activity in many cultures, as well as a career for Brazilians in countries across the world including the US, the UK, Canada and Australia. This original ethnographic study draws on the latest research conducted on capoeira in the UK to understand this global phenomenon. It not only presents an in-depth investigation of the martial art, but also provides a wealth of data on masculinities, performativity, embodiment, globalisation and rites of passage.Centred in cultural sociology, while drawing on anthropology and the sociology of sport and dance, the book explores the experiences of those learning and teaching capoeira at a variety of levels. From beginners’ first encounters with this martial art to the perspectives of more advanced students, it also sheds light on how teachers experience their own re-enculturation as they embody the exotic ‘other’. Embodying Brazil: An ethnography of diasporic capoeira is fascinating reading for all capoeira enthusiasts, as well as for anyone interested in the sociology of sport, sport and social theory, sport, race and ethnicity, or Latin American Studies.
Paul Bowman’s Mythologies of Martial Arts will be released by Rowman & Littlefield very soon. This one should certainly be on your Christmas list, and given the publisher it will be reasonably priced.
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 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.
For readers who cannot wait, there are also two books to be aware of that have just been released. The first makes a contribution to the growing literature on New World martial arts. Michael J. Ryan has just released Venezuelan Stick Fighting: The Civilizing Process in Martial Arts (Lexington Books). Readers should note that this volume includes a forward by Prof. Thomas Green.
Ryan examines the modern and historical role of the secretive tradition of stick fighting within rural Venezuela. Despite profound political and economic changes from the early twentieth century to the modern day, traditional values, practices, and imaginaries associated with older forms of masculinity and sociality are still valued. Stick, knife, and machete fighting are understood as key means of instilling the values of fortitude and cunning in younger generations. Recommended for scholars of anthropology, social science, gender studies, and Latin American studies.
Lastly, Chris Goto-Jones promises to stretch the boundaries of what we consider to be martial arts in The Virtual Ninja Manifesto: Fighting Games, Martial Arts and Gamic Orientalism.
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.
Chris Goto-Jones is Professor of Philosophy and Dean of Humanities at the University of Victoria. He is also a Professorial Research Fellow of SOAS, University of London.