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 may 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 way too long 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
You don’t have to be a student of Cultural Studies to notice that Bruce Lee’s films carry some very specific political subtexts. They became an inspiration for a number of communities that have struggled with the legacies of racial, ethnic and social marginalization. Lee’s memory has also been invoked directly within Hong Kong politics.
One recent incident, reported in the South China Morning Post, caught my attention. John Tsang, a candidate in the election for Hong Kong’s chief executive, recently promised that if elected he would move to name a street or public place after the Little Dragon.
It goes without saying that many of Hong Kong’s martial artists want to see one of the city’s most famous sons honored in some way. And given the number of tourists that Lee inspires on a yearly basis, its a bit odd that we have not already seen something like this. Yet in this case Tsang’s campaign promise seems to have been an opening gambit for him to address his youth growing up in the United States, the racism that he personally faced, and the many ways in which Lee (who he has discussed previously) influenced him. Given Lee’s growing importance as a unifying symbol of Hong Kong identity, it was probably only a matter of time until he was openly invoked in the area’s political campaigns. Still, Tsang’s discussion is worth checking out, regardless of whether you are political scientist (like me) or just a fellow Bruce Lee fan.
Our next article is also somewhat political in nature, but in a different way. The Financial Times recently ran a short story titled “China clears Shaolin temple’s ‘CEO monk’ of corruption.” Upon reading a little more closely the first thing that I noticed was that it was actually the local government that cleared Shi Yongxin in their investigation. Needless to say, as the single most valuable tourist attraction in the region the Shaolin Temple has always been somewhat entangled with the local administration. Still, this story appears to have been widely circulated in China and may be enough to quiet the concerns that erupted last year about the Abbot’s lavish lifestyle and growing commercial empire. From my perspective the most interesting aspect of this story is where it was reported. Once again, it is a fascinating moment in history when we find the Financial Times doing detailed reporting on events at the Shaolin Temple!
Pretty much every long-time kung fu practitioner whom I have met has an opinion on the iconic Feiyue sneakers, favored by Shaolin Monks and middle school students across China. These opinions seem to run both hot and cold. Some people love the simple, durable, canvas sneakers, and others have had bad experiences with them. A recent controversy involving a French firm and multiple Chinese manufacturers sheds some light on the wide variety of loosely associated companies that are responsible for making the shoes and why the the quality of batches may vary considerably.
From a business perspective, this is really a story about trademarks and international brand management. As the Chinese martial arts, and Chinese culture more generally, began to develop a certain amount of cultural appeal in Europe in the early 2000s, one French firm decided to import a large number of Feiyue sneakers, made to their own specification, by a manufacturer in China. At a later point the French firm then bought the trademark and set up their own domestic production lines. The problem, however, is that its not clear who really owns the Feiyue brand in China, and it now appears that the company which sold out to the French did not. The end result is a fascinating case study in the current challenges of establishing and managing an international brand.
Of course that is something that a great number of martial artists will already have first hand experience with, so perhaps its not surprising to see these same issues arising with their footwear. One wonders whether situations like this will become more common in the future as Chinese firms increasingly establish a base of Western fans.
The anthropologist Adam Frank wrote an ethnography of a martial arts group in Shanghai entitled “Taijiquan and the Search for the Little Old Chinese Man: Understanding Identity Through Martial Arts.” If you have never read his book, you really should. One of Frank’s more important points is that the manifestly Orientalist idea of the small, wizened, Yoda-like, martial arts teacher is not just an object of Western desire or misunderstanding. Such figures are also sought out by Chinese students and play an important role in their own understanding of the meaning and values that lay behind the martial arts.
Recently the press has been abuzz with the discovery of another such archetypal instructor. See, for instance, CNN’s story on the “93-year-old “Kung Fu Grandma” who says she has no plans to stop any time soon.” Zhang Hexian is a resident of Zhejiang province, an area with a rich martial arts culture. By her own account she started to practice the martial arts in 1928 (a good year in TCMA history) and still relishes pole fighting. Her story has been picked up by a number of outlets and was on heavy rotation at CCTV. While a fascinating figure in her own right, it seems that she has also come to signify a range of values that both Western and Chinese students hope to find within the traditional martial arts.
The Shanghai Daily recently posted a short series of informative (almost didactic) articles on the Chinese martial arts. Perhaps the most interesting of these was its entry on Wudang which begins as follows:
“WUDANG kung fu is one of the two most representative styles of traditional Chinese martial arts, the other being Shaolin. It’s a popular saying in China that “In the north, Shaolin kung fu is king; yet in the south, Wudang kung fu rules. Unlike its northern counterpart, which is known for its “external” form of martial arts and integration with Zen Buddhism, Wudang kung fu is an “internal” martial art based on the philosophy and canons of Taoism, an indigenous Chinese religion.”
Another entry looked at the ancient practice known as the Five Animal Frolics and their relationship with the martial arts. Like the Wudang article, this piece also noted the government’s efforts to preserve these practices through various types of cultural heritage mechanisms.
Finally, readers of the Shanghai Daily are informed that “Spring is the Season to Hone your Kung Fu Skills.” This last article goes on to review the various styles, curriculums and prices that are available at some of Shanghai’s major martial arts schools. Of course this discussion was specifically aimed at the paper’s English language readership, but it was still an interesting peak into what is available at the moment.
Chinese Kung Fu actor Jet Li has launched a webpage and martial arts video platform. This is a new venture so its still a bit hard to say how it will evolve. If I had to guess it will end up being something of an on-line magazine featuring a lot of content about Jet Li as well as more general short posts on various aspects of martial arts practice and history. This will certainly be a project to keep an eye on, particularly if you happen to be a Jet Li fan.
This next story is also making the rounds in various news outlets.
Master Wei Yaobin is known in China as the ‘Iron Crotch Kung Fu’ master. He trains students in how to take blows to the crotch. In the video, he and his students subject themselves to kicks, battering rams, and bricks to their most sensitive area. Master Wei says he wants to make his martial arts style more “popular and accepted by the public”.
If you head over to read more, be sure to check out the video that goes along with this. After the demonstration of a crotch destroying “battering ram” dummy, I am going to go out on a limb and say that this probably isn’t a winning strategy for mainstreaming the Chinese martial arts!
If you are looking for a different sort of TCMA experience, try checking out the Reuter’s video essay “Girls in Afghanistan Fight Prejudice with Martial Arts.” This story is also getting a lot of airplay, and has also generated a number of articles.
MMA fans will probably want to read this piece on the UFC’s upcoming efforts to move into the Chinese market. This has proved to be a challenge, but this article outlines the organizations next steps in opening this new market. Here is the critical quote:
While UFC has previously hosted two events in the southern Chinese semi-autonomous city of Macau, UFC Head of International and Content Joe Carr said its sights were now firmly fixed on the lucrative Chinese mainland.
“We’re definitely working on our first event in mainland China,” he said at a press conference in Singapore. “We’ve had a couple of events in Macau but it’s completely different going to a Beijing or a Shanghai. I have nothing to announce but it’s definitely a priority and a focus for the organisation. We were successful in Macau and that’s fine but our ambitions are mainland China.”
Forget the Mario Brothers and Sushi. In an effort to boost tourism and build its international brand the Japanese are turning to ninjas. So proclaims a fascinating, if slightly surreal, article in the South China Morning Post. This is one of those pieces that you really need to read, but the following quote should give you a sense of what the government is about to embark on:
The Japan Ninja Council, a government-backed organisation of scholars, tourism groups and businesses, said on Wednesday that it’s starting a Ninja Academy to train people in the art of ninja, and building a new museum in Tokyo devoted to ninja, set to open in 2018.
“The art of ninja is made up of various elements, such as combat, survival techniques and astronomy,” Jinichi Kawakami, known as “the last ninja” and a master of the Koga ninja school, told reporters at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan. “We hope this will appeal to people all over the world.”
The council, set up in 2015, has created an official logo for certified products and movies to nurture what it called the “ninja business,” and it hopes to educate “ninja ambassadors” to promote the culture globally.
I simply cannot wait to see how “scholars” are about to be recruited into all of this. It should be stated that these efforts to promote Ninjitsu are only one aspect of a broader public diplomacy/national branding campaign to promote the Japanese image abroad titled “Cool Japan.” I find this name to be both unfortunate and ominous as the UK’s “Cool Britannia” campaign is widely cited as a spectacular failure of the national branding strategy. But maybe that campaign crashed and burned because the UK just didn’t have enough Ninjas in their promotional material?
Martial Arts Studies
In the last month there has been some exciting developments on the conference front. First, it was announced that the 3rd annual Martial Arts Studies conference at Cardiff University will feature a workshop and roundtable debate exploring key problematics pertinent to anyone researching, writing about or teaching martial arts. Be sure to read more about this upcoming discussion. To see the Call for Papers or to register, click here.
Also, for students of Japanese martial studies, there will be a more intimate gathering dedicated to “New research on the Japanese martial arts“. Space will be limited at this venue, so be sure to prepare your proposal soon.
This years Annual Conference of the Martial Arts Committee of the German Sports Commission will be titled “Martial Arts as a Challenge for Inter- and Transdiciplinary Research”. It will take place from September 28-30, 2017 at the Leuphana University Lüneburg.
I had an opportunity to attend this conference last year and highly recommend it. The conference organizers are once again looking for submissions from the international community, and there will be a number of papers and sessions in English. This would be a great event to attend if you can make it to Germany this September!
The German Blade Museum in Solingen will be hosting a conference this November titled “Fight Books in a Comparative Perspective.” This might be a great opportunity to present that paper you have been contemplating comparing your favorite Chinese and European manual! See the Call for Papers for more information about this upcoming event: cfp-fight-book-conference-1-0-1-copy
Embodying Brazil: An ethnography of diasporic capoeira (Routledge 2017) by Sara Delamont, Neil Stephens, Claudio Campos
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.
Now In Paperback
Taekwondo: From a Martial Art to a Martial Sport (Routledge) by Udo Moenig
This book provides a comprehensive overview of the historical, political, and technical evolution of taekwondo. Many of the supposedly ‘traditional’ and ‘ancient’ Korean cultural elements attached to taekwondo are, in fact, remnants of East Asia’s modernization drive, and largely inherited from the Japanese martial arts. The current historical portrayal has created an obstacle to a clear understanding of the history of taekwondo, and presents problems and contradictions in philosophy and training methodology. Using rich empirical data, including interviews with leading figures in the field, this book brings together martial arts philosophy with an analysis of the technical aspects and the development of taekwondo, and provides a detailed comparison of karate and taekwondo techniques. It debunks nationalistic mythology surrounding taekwondo to provide a reinterpretation of taekwondo’s evolution.
Kung Fu Tea on Facebook
A lot has happened on the Kung Fu Tea Facebook group over the last month. We have talked about the survival of Lam Gar, Kung Fu documentaries, and the evolution of Chinese swords. 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.