Happy New Year!
New Years is always a good time to sit back and reflect on recent events. Of course it is hard not to note that public opinion on 2016 (at least here in the United States) has been decidedly mixed. Still, it has been an interesting year for the Chinese martial arts and a great one for Martial Arts Studies. We have seen quite a bit of reporting on Kung Fu in the popular press and even the emergence of some important trends.
Below is my personal countdown of the 12 news stories that had the greatest impact on the Western Chinese martial arts community in 2016. While some of these stories made a big splash during the year, others were less well reported. A few are general patterns that appeared over the course of many months and one or two are just for fun. Collectively they remind us of where we have been and point to a few places that we might be headed towards in the coming year.
12. Passing of Sifu Allen Lee
Our first Wing Chun related story is a sad one. As is customary with our New Year’s posts here at Kung Fu Tea, we begin by taking a moment to remember the Masters, instructors and friends that we have lost over the course of the last year. As always there are too many individual passings to note them all. Yet the loss of Sifu Allan Lee, of Wing Chun NYC, may serve to inspire us to look back with gratitude for those who came before. Lee was a personal student of both Ip Man and Lok Yiu and his contributions to the Wing Chun community in North America will be sorely missed. You can read more about his various contributions here.
11. Costco was selling Wooden Dummies in Japan
Most of the stories that get included in these yearly round-ups fall into one of two categories. Either they are shocking events (gratefully we had relatively few of those this year), or long term trends. But to be totally honest, I selected this story as it was one of the most amusing things that I came across in 2016. Following the successful release of Ip Man 3 (discussed below), a couple of Costco locations in Japan began to carry Wing Chun style wooden dummies in their fitness section.
How do you know when a martial art has gone mainstream? When you can purchase your training equipment directly from the Walton family. Needless to say I called my local Costco to see if they would be stocking dummies any time soon but, alas, this seems to have been limited to Japan. Still, it is a pretty graphic illustration of the impact that the recent Ip Man films have had on the global spread of Wing Chun.
Of course there were many other Wing Chun related news stories in 2016. Most of them were in the form of instructor and school profiles. But if your are looking for something a little more substantive, why don’t you check out this news update from March of 2016?
10. Increased public discussion of “Kung Fu Diplomacy”
In the 2015 countdown of top news stories we noted the spike in news coverage of events related to the use of the traditional Chinese martial arts in efforts related to “public” and “cultural diplomacy.” Simply put, public diplomacy is any attempt by members of a foreign state (including, but not limited to, government officers) to change the way that their policies, people or culture is viewed by foreign populations. Some experts have likened this to the building and maintenance of a “national brand,” though members of the diplomatic corp often bristle at the suggestion that they are involved in a simple branding exercise. Even a brief review of the public news sources coming out of China quickly reveals that the Chinese martial arts are increasingly viewed as an excellent tool to build links with citizens in other countries and to spread the message of China’s “peaceful rise.”
What was a steady stream of stories last year became a torrent in 2016 (see here, here and here for a few of the many examples we discussed). What was particularly interesting to me about the number of these was how transparent various foreign service officers were when discussing what they were attempting to accomplish with the global promotion of the Chinese martial arts. In an article on a major event in Nigeria we find quotes such as this.
“Also speaking, the Culture Counsellor in the Embassy of China, Mr. Yan Xaingdong said the Wushu championship was set up to encourage a sustainable relationship between China and Nigeria through sports.”
9. Science says Taijiquan is good for you.
Taijiquan practice is good for your health, in a surprising number of ways. Whether it was balance in senior citizens, arthritis, chronic neck pain, depression, or cardio-vascular health, the last 12 months have seen a barrage of articles in the popular press as to how the practice of Taijiquan (almost always in its guise as a low impact exercise routine, rather than as a combative martial art) is good for your health. It should be noted that many of these articles are presenting the findings of preliminary studies on small groups of subjects. Others rely on self-reported (and hence subjective) data. But there does seem to be growing enthusiasm for the use of Taijiquan (in any of its many forms) as a treatment for a number of chronic conditions. Of course nothing about these findings would come as a surprise to the reformers who sought to promote the health benefits of Taijiquan in early 20th century China!
8. International Guoshu Association Uses Motion Capture Technology to Preserve and Document Southern Chinese Kung Fu
While not technically a new project, 2016 saw a number of stories reporting on the continuing efforts of the International Guoshu Association’s efforts to preserve southern Chinese Kung Fu through the use of advanced motion sensor technologies. These efforts are the brain child of Hing Chao, who was also the creator of the short lived (but excellent) Journal of Chinese Martial Studies. (Personally I am still hoping that this publication will be resurrected at some point in the future). Much of the work in the last year seems to have focused on the region’s rich Hakka fighting traditions. You can read more about these efforts here and here.
Even more interesting, in my opinion, has been the series of talks, seminars and short conferences that the IGA has helped to host and promote at various Universities around Hong Kong over the last year. Generally speaking these events do not generate as much press coverage, so they might fly under the radar. But a number of them have looked very interesting.
7. The Death of Kung Fu!
Still, these efforts do not appear to have convinced everyone of the traditional Chinese Martial Art’s long term viability. Many news stories came out in the last year predicting their imminent demise (including this one in the NY Times).
Its worth pointing out that this refrain has a long history in Chinese martial culture. As early as the Ming Dynasty writers like General Yu Dayou were lamenting the commercialization and loss of Shaolin Kung Fu. Texts from the early 20th century also decried the decline of the Chinese martial arts…which is rather ironic as these practices, as we know them today, are very much a product of the early 20th century (and to a lesser extent the late Ming). All of which is to say, worries about the imminent death of Kung Fu seems to have been one of the main social forces that actually drove their creation in the first place.
Those interested in the more modern forms of this argument might want to start by checking out this this article here. It also appears that not even Kung Fu in Chinese cinema is safe from the threat of extinction.
6. The Year that the Chinese Martial Arts Officially Took Over Star Wars
Regular readers of Kung Fu Tea have no doubt noticed my recent interest in Lightsaber Combat. It seems an increasing number of martial artists feel the same way. And why not? 2016 was the year that the Chinese martial arts officially invaded the Star War’s universe.
The presence of some degree of martial arts in these stories is nothing new. Lucas has been quite open about the fact that he was greatly influenced (via the Japanese film movement) by the allure of the samurai. Fight choreographers on the original films included Olympic fencers. Nor can we forget that Wushu champion Ray Park set an incredibly high bar for all future lightsaber choreography when he was tapped to play Darth Maul. While originally intended to fill a limited role in the Star War’s universe, Maul has since become a fan favorite through his appearances in various novels and animated series.
As I have argued in other places, the Star Wars films have always had a lot in common with martial arts stories, and this affinity has become steadily more pronounced in each new iteration of the franchise. But 2016 was the year that it all broke into the open. While “The Force Awakens” was released in the final weeks of 2015, it was during early months of 2016 that the tonfa wielding storm trooper FN-2199 became a viral sensation. It was later revealed that this trooper was played by Liang Yang, another very accomplished practitioner of the Chinese arts.
Things were really shaken up by Donnie Yen’s performance as Chirrut Imwe, a blind monk (apparently sensitive to the Force but apparently not able to manipulate it like a Jedi) in “Rogue One.” This was an important performance from the perspective of the evolving Star Wars canon as Yen introduced an entirely new group to the story line with a different (and more relatable) relationship with the Force than the wizardry exhibited by the likes of Yoda or Darth Vader. From a professional perspective Yen has noted that he was given great latitude in crafting Chirrut’s screen presence and sought to bring identifiable Chinese values to the role. He even got to arrange his own fight choreography. It is thus fitting that of the various martial artists who have contributed to the Star War’s project over the decades, Yen’s character was the first to make a substantive contribution to the dialog and philosophy of the films. And he managed to do all of this without a lightsaber. Apparently they were not a favored weapon of the “Guardians of the Whills.”
5. Bruce Lee Bio-Pic Crashes and Burns Amid Fan Accusations of “White-Washing”
The latest installment in the Star Wars series was not the only film making waves among martial arts fans. George Nolfi’s Bruce Lee bio-pic also generated a lot of talk. Unfortunately very little of it was positive. After seeing early trailers for the film fans accused the director of essentially writing Lee out of his own life story so that the camera could focus more fully on its white narrator (who bears an uncanny resemblance to Steve McQueen). That fact that this was done with no apparent sense of irony led many viewers to surmise that in fact Nolfi was not all that familiar with Lee’s actual career or the problems that he faced in Hollywood. Wong Jack Man was also re-imagined as a full-on Shaolin Monk because…why not. In the end accusations of “white-washing” and cultural appropriation overshadowed any other discussion of the film. Some of the more in-depth reporting on this film seems to suggest that martial arts audiences are increasingly demanding different sorts of stories from the studios.
4. The Rise of Shannon Lee
It is never surprising when Bruce Lee makes a list of “top Chinese martial arts related stories.” He is still featured on the cover of Black Belt Magazine so frequently that it is difficult to tell when there is a new issue. But lately it is his daughter Shannon who has been making waves. Through the Bruce Lee Foundation Shannon has launched a number of programs to sustain and spread her father’s legacy. These include efforts as diverse as a podcast dedicated to his philosophical views, scholarship programs and plans to create a permanent Bruce Lee museum. But in the last year an increasing number of profiles have focused on Shannon herself as a savvy promoter of her father’s memory and brand. Apparently we should be looking for some new releases from the Bruce Lee Foundation early in 2017.
3. The Year Chinese Martial Arts History Went Mainstream
The Chinese martial arts have always inspired a prodigious amount of folklore and mythology. Carefully researched history, on the other hand, has been more difficult to find. And the audience for such works have largely been academic rather than popular. But over the last few years there have been hopeful signs that a new trend is a foot.
All of that culminated in 2016 with the release of a couple of high quality, well researched, projects that aimed to spread the actual history of the Chinese martial arts to the masses. Perhaps the most important of these were Charlie Russo’s Striking Distance: Bruce Lee & the Dawn of Martial Arts in America, and Jared Miracle’s Now with Kung Fu Grip! How Bodybuilders, Soldiers and a Hairdresser Reinvented Martial Arts for America. Both works were published by solid academic presses. Yet it is also clear that they aspire to bring a more accurate (and in many ways more interesting) vision of the history of these fighting systems to the general public. Readers wanting a more detailed discussion of these efforts can find my reviews of them here and here.
This trend towards the popularization of serious research was not confined to the world of publishing. A major documentary titled The Professor: Tai Chi’s Journey West, examined the legendary New York City period of Cheng Man-Ching career. Readers can find reviews of this work here and here.
Or if you are more interested in the early history of Taijiquan in the West why not check out this post profiling the contributions of Gerda Geddes and Sophia Delza? And did I mention that there is a new book on Wing Chun and the Southern Chinese Martial Arts that released a paperback edition earlier this year? Or maybe you need free translations of important primary sources? All in all, this is a great time to research the actual history of the Chinese martial arts.
2. Ip Man 3 Packs a Punch
If you find yourself wondering whether we are living in Donnie Yen’s decade, just take a look at some of the press coverage surrounding Ip Man 3. While this film was released in Hong Kong in the final weeks of December, 2015, it had a huge impact on the public discussion of the Chinese martial arts in the early months of 2016. In addition to the normal reviews this film inspired more substantive discussions in the popular press. See for instance Master William Kwok’s thought on whether its OK for Wing Chun students to love these films despite their wildly creative relationship with the very recent past.
More interesting was an article by Marie-Alice McLean-Dreyfus, who advanced a geopolitical take on the film. Drawing on the work on Dr Merriden Varrall she argued that Ip Man 3 closely reflected the world view and foreign policy positions of the Chinese government. Specifically, she argued that audiences in China are likely to view the film as a metaphor for the current conflict between China and other states for influence and access to disputed regions of the South China Sea. Her discussions included a few obvious misreadings of the film (e.g., Ip Man lives in Hong Kong during the 1950s, not Foshan). It also wasn’t clear to me that audiences in Hong Kong would approach what to them would be a distinctly local story through the same set of interpretive lens as viewers in Beijing or Shanghai. Still, its interesting to see the sorts of discussions that Martial Arts Studies promotes appearing in a wider variety of publications.
Unfortunately the film’s release in China was marred with financial improprieties that may lead to new industry wide regulations regarding the reporting of ticket sales. Nevertheless, between his recent successes in the Star Wars and Ip Man franchises, it looks like Donnie Yen is well positioned to make the leap towards more dramatic roles.
1. Kung Fu’s African Moment
We have now reached our top news story of 2016. After carefully reviewing the international coverage of the Chinese martial arts, it is evident that Kung Fu is enjoying a moment of marked popularity across Africa.
In a sense this is not surprising. Prof. Stephen Chan, among others, has noted that the Asian martial arts have been an important symbol within the region’s popular culture since the 1970s. But increased economic growth and deepening ties with China has allowed an unprecedented number of local students to take up the study of various types of Chinese martial arts.
Careful readers will have already noted that the Chinese government has enthusiastically deployed “Kung Fu diplomacy” across the region. This often takes the form of hosting tournaments, setting up local classes, and even instituting exchange programs where aspiring African martial artists can travel to China for additional training. Still, not all of this interest can be explained through external subsidies and “supply side” push. The Chinese government has produced quite a bit of media and cultural material for the African market. Much of it generates relatively little popular interest. Yet Kung Fu films from the 1970s (not produced or distributed by the government) remain incredibly popular.
This raises a critical question. Is the Chinese government leading, or following, the martial arts trend? One thing, however, is clear. The influence of the Chinese martial arts is set to expand throughout the region for years to come.