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!
A trip Down Memory Lane
One of the pleasant surprises to emerge while gathering the stories for this news update has been the appearance of some old friends. The first of these is Bey Logan, whom the South China Morning Post profiled in an article titled “How a British man broke into Hong Kong’s martial arts film industry.” Students of Martial Arts Studies may recall that Logan was a keynote presenter at the April 2016 “Kung Fury: Contemporary Debates in Martial Arts Cinema” conference held at Birmingham City University.
This article emphasized his desire, as both a film producer and martial arts student, to promote and raise the profile of the Southern Chinese martial arts around the globe.
“In addition to running his own film company and operating a kung fu school, he’s now shifting his focus towards promoting southern Chinese martial arts culture and giving back to the community that nurtured his passion….”
According to Logan, there is still a lot more work that needs to be done on fostering local appreciation of martial arts culture. Kung fu has lifelong benefits and may help individuals balance the demands of body, mind and spirit, as well as foster mental strength. Unlike most physical disciplines, practitioners may continue to practise and benefit from martial arts in their more mature years, he said.
As a body, mind and spirit practice, it hasn’t been sold to the public in the right way. The problem is not the quality of the art, or the need people have [for it]. As a community we haven’t reached out in the appropriate way. You can apply [kung fu] principles in business or in daily life. I think that spiritual aspect is very useful.”
Our second major story this week also focuses on the world that cultivated and supported the golden age of Hong Kong cinema. It comes in the form of a long NY Times article titled “Searching for Lady Kung Fu.” This piece profiles and interviews Angela Mao, one of the more important female martial arts leads during the 1970s who somewhat mysteriously vanished from public view upon retirement. Even if you have never seen her films you will want to read this article for its rich description of a classic period in martial arts cinema.
“Ms. Mao’s career was brief but bright, taking place in Hong Kong and Taiwan and including roles in more than 30 films over a decade. Studios promoted her as a female Bruce Lee. When she appeared as Mr. Lee’s doomed sister in the 1973 martial arts classic “Enter the Dragon,” her place in the kung fu canon was secured. Quentin Tarantino has cited her as an influence, and a violent fight scene in his 2003 film “Kill Bill” involving a swinging ball and chain is strikingly similar to one of Ms. Mao’s duels in “Broken Oath.”
She fought with ferocity and grace, mowing through armies of opponents with jaw-breaking high kicks, interrupting the carnage only to flip her pigtails to the side. A common climax in her films was her combating a villain twice her size.”
Speaking of nostalgia, did you hear that Jackie Chan was awarded an Oscar in recognition of his many achievements and lifetime of hard work (and countless broken bones)? I will admit to be a fan of his films, and have always thought that Kung Fu comedies are an under appreciated genre. Really, how many times do I need to watch someone avenge their Master? Congratulations Jackie!
“On Saturday at the annual Governors Awards, the Chinese actor and martial arts star finally received his little gold statuette, an honorary Oscar for his decades of work in film. “After 56 years in the film industry, making more than 200 films, after so many bones, finally,” Chan, 62, quipped at the star-studded gala dinner while holding his Oscar.”
Still, nothing stirs up nostalgia for the original Kung Fu Fever quite like the cult classic, “The 36th Chamber of Shaolin.” It turns out that this film has inspired more than its fare share of artists including, most famously, RZA. And that is a good thing as it has just been announced that he will be accompanying a newly released edition of the film. Once again, the NY Times has your back. There is some nice life/career history in this piece as well.
Did I just say that nothing could evoke more nostalgia for Kung Fu students than the 36th Chamber? Well, I might have been wrong. Not to be outdone, the South China Morning Post ran a fun retrospective examination of the press coverage that accompanied the release of Bruce Lee’s film, The Big Boss, 45 years ago this month.
Lines like: “this is probably the biggest thing to hit the Mandarin film business since the invention of fake blood” are sure to have you running for your DVD collection.
News From All Over
Not all of the important stories over the last month emerged from the world of cinema. Fans and students of Baijiaquan were greeted with the following article that ran in multiple English language news outlets. It profiled a recent event celebrating the art, and emphasizing its status as an important aspect of China’s “Intangible Cultural Heritage.” Readers may recall that this sort of ICH language is becoming an increasingly important part of the strategy to both preserve and promote the traditional fighting systems.
“The two-day exhibition of Baijiaquan, or “eight extremes fist”, opened in Mengcun Hui Autonomous County in Hebei Province, drawing over 1,000 practitioners from China and other countries such as France, Denmark and Russia. Baijiquan is known for explosive, short-range power and elbow and shoulder strikes. With a history of nearly 300 years, the martial art was listed as a national intangible cultural heritage in 2008. Mengcun, the birthplace of Bajiquan, built an international training center in 2006. Over 2,000 practitioners from over 30 countries and regions have come to the village to watch and learn.
Bajiquan is an important part of Chinese martial arts,” said Wu Lianzhi, deputy chairman of Hebei Wushu Association, also the seventh lineage holder of Mengcun Bajiquan.
“The training center helps foreign visitors better understand Bajiquan and it serves as a platform to spread Chinese culture to the rest of the world.”
Many of these same themes were picked up and expanded in our next article. Titled “China Pushes Kung Fu Fighting to Boost Soft Power” this English language article ran in multiple South East Asian news outlets. Those interested in the role of the martial arts in current Chinese public and cultural diplomacy efforts will want to read this piece carefully. It explicitly adopts political scientist Joseph Nye’s “soft power” framework. This is then used to present one of the more explicit discussion of China’s current “Kung Fu diplomacy” efforts that I have seen in a popular discussion.
Readers should also note that another one of our old friends, Prof. Gong Maofu of Chengdu Sports University, is quoted at the very end of this article. Check it out!
– ‘Soft power’ –
Wushu’s global sporting popularity pales before karate, judo and taekwondo, but state media reported this month that a “Wushu Cultural Industry Investment Fund” worth $7 billion has been set up to run tournaments and promote it at home and abroad.
Shaanxi province sports official Dong Li was cited as saying it was created “as a channel for China to increase its soft power”. The Chinese government’s development plan for the sport from 2016-2020 says that its aims include “increasing national confidence and boosting national cultural soft power”. The document, which is replete with political slogans such as “Implement the spirit of General Secretary Xi Jinping’s series of important talks,” also vows to secure the sport’s entry into the Olympics.
The Zhengzhou city sports administration’s deputy director Zhang Jiafu told AFP: “The party and government pays great attention to promoting our Shaolin to the world.”
The Nairobi news is reporting “Three lucky Kenyans picked to learn Kung-Fu in China.” More specifically, the winners of a local tournament received an all expenses paid, week long, trip to the Beijing International Arts School. On the surface this seems very similar to a number of the Kung Fu Diplomacy articles that we have covered in the past. And its important to note how much of this is press coverage is coming out of Africa. But if you read a little more closely this one is interesting because of the role of private entities (including a local TV station) in organizing and funding this event. That points to the importance of civil society groups in making “exchange diplomacy” strategies successful. Readers should also note that CCTV has been promoting reports of the same event in their English language news outlets.
While not directly related to the Chinese hand combat systems, I think that students of Martial Arts Studies will find the following items worthwhile. First, the Daily Mail ran a longer piece on Karate’s upcoming debut in the 2020 Olympics. This article is important for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the rhetorical tension between “Hollywood and history” that gets played up from literally the opening lines of the article.
“The martial art was only brought to Tokyo in the early 20th century when Gichin Funakoshi, regarded as the father of modern karate, moved from Naha. Okinawa was the place where karate’s spirituality developed,” explains Kurihara.
Frustrations remain however, that Okinawa’s role in the development of karate has been airbrushed out of history. For Nakamoto, the Olympic Games in four years time, is a chance to redress that. “This is a great chance to show the world where karate has its roots. The world may be surprised to know that it was developed here,” he said, adding that it was inexorably linked to the island chain’s politics.”
Speaking of the martial arts and public diplomacy, there have also been quite a few discussions of Indian Kalarippayattu lately. It seems that this art is also being employed as a discursive tool to educate audiences about India today. Some of these articles are fairly straight forward, but I personally prefer the video and interview published at the Huffington Post following the career of a “Sword Fighting Granny.”
Martial Arts Studies
Our last update on Martial Arts Studies focused almost exclusively on upcoming scholarly books. To balance things out, this report will look at notes of interest in the journal literature.
First off, the International Journal of the History of Sport has just released a special issue focusing exclusively on the East Asian Martial Arts. The list of authors and topics covered is pretty impressive. In fact, I am currently trying to figure out if I can order a paper copy of the volume to add to my book shelf. This is well worth checking out even if it means a trip to JStor or your local university library.
“Why have Kung Fu movies endured in Africa?” This is actually a somewhat paradoxical question. Currently the Chinese government is spending lots of money to create news and other media content for the African media. This is another aspect of their larger public diplomacy strategy. And its not all clear that these efforts are paying off. It seems that making content is one thing, but creating an audience is an entirely different sort of challenge.
Yet classic Kung Fu films still have a huge following throughout Africa. So why do some images and figures find a more natural audience than others? This topic is addressed as a blog post, podcast and scholarly article.
“While China’s state-funded, Communist party-run media outlets may struggle to find a mass audience for their content in Africa and elsewhere around the world, a certain genre of Chinese-language movies, by contrast, has been popular for decades. Hong Kong-produced Kung Fu movies, most notably those featuring martial arts legend Bruce Lee, have been staples in Africa’s pirated video bazaars dating back to the 1960s and 70s. Even today, in the DVD markets of Cairo or the bars in Kinshasa or on cable TV channels in Johannesburg, Hong Kong’s martial arts films remain an extremely popular form of entertainment.”
Anyone interested in martial arts history must check out “Reconsidering Zen, Samurai, and the Martial Arts” by Oleg Benesch (University of York). This article is free to read on line. It would also work well on a syllabus for anyone teaching a martial arts history or martial arts studies course in the next semester or two.
“The notion that Zen had a powerful influence on bushido and the samurai is a construct of the Meiji period, but has shown remarkable resilience. Even after 1945, Zen figures such as Suzuki Daisetsu and Sugawara Gidō (1915-1978) continued to argue for the historicity of the Zen-bushido connection, and this interpretation has remained influential in popular literature and culture in both Japan and abroad up to the present day…..
These same dynamics also tied into the development of popular views of Zen’s relationship to the martial arts. The Zen-samurai relationship was the result of conscious efforts on the part of Zen promoters to gain patriotic legitimacy by engaging closely with the burgeoning bushido discourse. In contrast, the relationship between Zen and the martial arts was less straightforward, and developed from a confluence of several factors. One of these was that, aside from Shinto nationalists and state-sponsored proponents of the “imperial” bushido ideology, promoters of Zen and promoters of the martial arts were two of the most active and effective groups tying their interests to bushido. As a result, both Zen and the martial arts were widely seen as closely related to bushido, an impression that was strengthened when direct links between the two were drawn explicitly in popular works by promoters of both, such as Eugen Herrigel. This became especially important following the discrediting of “imperial” bushido in 1945, when the more fantastical elements were stripped from the ideology, leaving behind a vague association between Zen, the samurai, and the martial arts to help revive bushido in the postwar period and carry it on into the twenty-first century.”
Readers more interested in the modern martial arts and combat sports will also want to give this next article a look. Unfortunately it will require a trip to the library. Niel Gong. 2016. “How to Fight Without Rules: On Civilized Violence in ‘De-Civilized’ Spaces.” Social Problems. First published online by Oxford UP, First published online: 27 September 2015.
“Sociologists have long been concerned with the extent to which “civilizing processes” lead to the increasing salience of rationalized behavioral guidelines and corresponding internal controls, especially in social situations characterized by violence. Following Norbert Elias’s identification of a civilizing process in combat sports, sociologists have debated, though not empirically established, whether emerging “no-holds-barred” fight practices indicate a rupture in the historical civilization of leisure time violence. Using a critical case study of a “no-rules” weapons fighting group, where participants espouse libertarian values and compete in preparation for hypothetical self-defense encounters, I ask how the boundary between violence and social regulation is negotiated in an arena that putatively aims to remove the latter. Drawing on more than three years of ethnographic fieldwork, I specify the mechanisms that moderate action: (1) the cultivation of a code of honor and linked dispositions to replace codified rules; (2) the interactional hesitance that arises when participants lack clear rules or norms to coordinate action; and (3) the importation of external rule sets, such as self-defense law, to simulate the “real” world. Contrary to surface readings of “no-rules” discourse, I conclude that the activity is deeply embedded in larger societal norms of order. Participants’ ethos of honorable self-governance, “thresholds of repugnance” when exposed to serious injury, and aim of transforming emotive, violent reaction into reflective, instrumental action all indicate that the ostensibly unrestrained violence is, in Elias’s technical sense, precisely civilized.”
Luckily everyone has access to academia.edu. There readers can find a recently posted paper on Hing Chao’s efforts to document Hong Kong’s martial arts through motion capture technology. See “Kapturing Kung Fu – Future proofing the Hong Kong Martial Arts Living Archive” by Hing Chao (International Guoshu Association), Matt Delbridge (City University Hong Kong/ University of Melbourne), Sarah Kenderdine (University of New South Wales), Jeffrey Shaw (City University Hong Kong), Lydia Nicholson (University of Tasmania)
“There are intangible cultural heritage benefits associated with the capture, documentation and preservation of Kung Fu practices in Hong Kong. An international collaborative project between the School of Creative Media, City University Hong Kong and the International Guoshu Association, the Hong Kong Martial Arts Living Archive (HKMALA), encompasses an analysis of a comprehensive digital strategy of archiving and annotating Hong Kong’s diverse and rich Kung Fu styles and traditions using state-of-the art motion capture data. By using high-definition and high-speed capture sequences, the activity of preservative annotation is transformed. The HKMALA challenges the established tradition of transference and record, to include motion data to visualize speed, torque, torsion and force (momentum and acceleration). Framing the HKMALA as a cultural heritage project also significantly shifts focus from annotation to preservation, enabling the provision of benchmarking in the use of extensive analytic tools for future generations. This approach enables a revitalized method of capture and subsequent transference never undertaken within this discipline. When traditional organisations like the International Guoshu Association embrace tools of Digital Humanities research, they become part of a broader community of intangible cultural heritage archival projects. This active association teaches us about the documentation and preservation of heritage internationally, enabling a richer strategy for future research and preservation projects.”
Lastly, it is time to start thinking about possible topics for the July 2017 Martial Arts Studies Conference to be held at the University of Cardiff. Click here to see the Call for Papers.
Confirmed speakers so far include Peter Lorge, the author of Chinese Martial Arts: From Antiquity to the 21st Century, Cambridge UP, Meaghan Morris, who has written profoundly important things on Hong Kong Cinema, and my friend Sixt Wetzler who (among other achievements) is a curator for the Deutsches Klingenmuseum (German Blade Museum).
The central theme of this gathering will be “how to further the academic study of martial arts in the new field of martial arts studies.”
Kung Fu Tea on Facebook
A lot has happened on the Kung Fu Tea Facebook group over the last month. And for some reason much of that discussion has focused on weapons. We have talked about all sorts of spears, poles and swords (and even the occasional lightsaber). 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.
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