Welcome to “Chinese Martial Arts in the News!” Its great to be back at the blog. I am happy to report that the conference in Utah went very well and I had a chance to talk with a number of political scientists about the work that we are doing in Martial Arts Studies and the contribution that we can make to other areas of the social sciences. I now have about two months to prepare for my next trip, but right now its time to get caught up on current events.
As regular readers know, 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
It was the pummeling seen around the world. Unless you have been living under a rock you will already know how the fight between MMA trainer Xu Xiaodong and “thunder-style” taiji master Wei Lei ended, about 10 seconds after it began. Yet, as is so often the case, the event itself proved to be just the starting point of a debate on the reality, nature and viability of the traditional Chinese martial arts that has raged for weeks. The fact that I was contacted by a number of reporters asking me about the match in the last week suggests that the conversation is far from over.
As I mentioned in a brief post outlining my initial thoughts on the event, the fight itself does not seem all that unique or interesting. Youtube is full of videos of traditional stylists getting overwhelmed by more “modern fighters.” This is one of the stock tropes of Chinese martial arts culture going back to the days of Bruce Lee and others. What seems to be unique about this case is the public attention that the fight has inspired, both in China and around the world. Suddenly everyone has an opinion on the traditional Chinese martial arts.
For instance, no less an outlet than the NY Times ran an article titled “MMA Fighter’s Pummeling of Tai Chi Master Rattles China” discussing both the fight and its aftermath. It notes that the state run Chinese Martial Arts Association posted a statement on its website saying that the fight “violates the morals of martial arts” and the Chinese boxing association followed suit. These official denunciations seem to indicate the government’s position on the controversy.
The reporting in Forbes offers a little more detail on the pressure (both official and otherwise) that is being brought to bear on Xu in the wake of his efforts to capitalize on the initial victory. And the BBC has covered the story as well.
In the wake of this event a number of similar videos have started to appear on-line, such as this match between another Chinese stylist and a Taekwondo student. Given the importance of the traditional martial arts to China’s national image, and the fact that places like Chen Village and the Shaolin Temple are important sources of revenue for local governments and industries, its not a huge surprise that the Chinese government might want to put its thumb on the scales of this debate. But one also wonders to what degree they will decide that they must crack down on these unsanctioned fights precisely because, from a law-enforcement standpoint, you don’t want a wave of street fights that could spin out of control.
The Chinese press is also reporting that other figures in the fledgling Chinese MMA scene have started to publicly criticize Xu. Apparently a segment of the population has taken his attack on fraud in the martial arts as an attack on traditional Chinese culture itself. Other competitors have denounced him for both disrespecting the traditional martial arts and, through his actions, provoking a widespread backlash that could damage the reputation of MMA at a time when it is still still attempting to find its footing in China’s crowded martial arts marketplace.
The much debated fight seems to have brought other insecurities about the Chinese martial arts to the fore. I particularly liked this article which seemed to argue that the real problem plaguing traditional Kung Fu was the lack to a profitable business model. I am not sure that having a better business plan would have helped Wei in this case, but it is true that many traditional school in China are struggling. This piece, titled “Why China still lags behind its martial arts industry ambitions” picks up on similar themes.
The South China Morning Post, which generally does a good job covering the martial arts, has had a lot to say on this fight. One of their think pieces even argued that “a kick in the teeth is good for Chinese Kung Fu.” These events also seem to have inspired some articles not directly related to the fight, such as this one attempting to get readers up to speed on the evolution of the Chinese martial arts. In another article the the Xu vs Wei fight is used to frame reporting on a experiment conducted by the Hong Kong Police that pitted Japanese bayonet fighting against Chinese Dadao techniques.
The legend continues to this day. Today, in Chinese war dramas, you often see Chinese soldiers charging towards Japanese invaders with their broadswords raised, killing enemies with ease.
But is the Chinese dadao really effective against Japanese jukendo?
The fact that this unrelated story could so easily be equated to the recent MMA vs. Taijiquan fight illustrates the degree to which the public has come to see the event not as a contest between two equally Chinese, but differently trained, martial artists. Rather it has become a forum on Chinese versus foreign martial culture, and the anxieties that these debates have exacerbated within Chinese social history.
The Global Times also used the the fight as an opportunity to ask some “deeper” questions. First, why will the “traditional Chinese Martial Arts always lose to brutal MMA?” Second (and more interestingly), “what do foreigners who study Chinese martial arts think of the recent viral combat video?” Again, these discussions are interesting as they suggest that the fight is not being viewed within a strictly domestic context, but is impinging on question of how China is viewed on the international stage.
This is just a small sampling of the many articles that have come out on this fight. And the fact that multiple journalists are still working on it leads me to suspect that the conversation is far from over. I am starting to wonder whether we have witnessed a critical moment in the history of the modern Chinese martial arts, similar to the 1954 “Battle in Macau,” which pitted Wu Gongyi against Chen Kefu, or Bruce Lee’s now mythic fight with Wong Jack Man.
The social significance of these fights was immense. In many respects it far outstripped the technical virtues of the contests. As in the current case, those fights became famous because they were seen as critical discussions that transcended narrow questions of school or training regime. Or maybe it would be more accurate to say that questions of style and practice became closely aligned with larger social questions that remained fundamentally contested. It is well worth noting that most of these people discussing the Xu/Wei encounter at this point have never trained in MMA or stepped foot in a Taijiquan class. Indeed, the martial arts are a fascinating subject of study precisely because of their ability to throw light on these broader social anxieties and conflicts.
Kung Fu Diplomacy
There were also a couple of news stories in the last month that focused directly on China’s efforts to use the traditional martial arts to establish their global brand. The first of these, titled “Traditional medicine, martial arts – two giants of Chinese culture” is unique in focusing on South America (even though the article starts off with a discussion of China’s efforts to build a global trade empire that runs through central Asia). While we hear a lot about wushu in Africa, cultural diplomacy efforts in South America, while important, get less discussion.
Peru has embraced Chinese culture ever more as the two countries have developed their economic, trade and social ties in the last decade. Chinese traditions such as martial arts and acupuncture are popular with Peruvians and act as windows to a distant culture.
Master Juan Vasquez, 63, has traveled to China over 20 times, with each trip furthering his study of Tai Chi.
Vasquez has been training in diverse martial arts since he was 17 but Tai Chi has been his favorite, because he thinks it has “more complete and deeper” cultural and philosophical connotations than other kinds of martial arts.
For the more academically inclined, be sure to check out “China’s Big Bet on Soft Power” on the Council of Foreign Relations blog (full disclosure, I was an associate member of the CFR while finishing my doctorate at Columbia.) This article doesn’t go into the details of the use the martial arts as a tool of soft power (though it mentions the efforts). Anyone interested in that subject can read about it here on Kung Fu Tea. But it does provide a great overview of China’s soft power strategy, and some initial conclusions as to why these efforts do not always succeed (despite the popularity of Chinese culture on the global market.)
China is believed to spend billions of dollars to boost its international image, but it has yet to see a marked return on its investment in soft power…..
What are the limitations of China’s soft power?
China’s soaring economy has elevated the country as a model to be emulated, but there are multiple strains that threaten to undermine its image. Environmental pollution and degradation, food safety issues, overcapacity of state-owned enterprises, and Xi’s exhaustive anticorruption campaign are likely to dissuade others from following China’s example.
Moreover, experts say, China’s soft power campaign is limited by the dissonance between the image that China aspires to project and the country’s actions. Rising nationalism, assertiveness vis-à-vis territorial disputes, crackdowns on nongovernmental organizations, censorship of domestic and international media, limits to the entry of foreign ideals, and political repression constrain China’s soft power. “If China’s narratives don’t address the country’s shortcomings, it becomes very hard to sell the idea of China as a purveyor of attractive values,” says CFR Senior Fellow Elizabeth C. Economy. Chinese culture and ideas have the potential to appeal worldwide, but only when there is “honesty in the depiction,” Economy adds.
No where is the success of soft power more evident than in the accelerating flow of students headed to China to study various elements of the country’s traditional culture. CCTV (a public television network) often highlights these stories and publicizes them through their various English language media outlets, creating a multiplier effect. This month they released a photo essay looking at two Norwegian twins who are currently studying taijiquan on Wudang Mountain.
“The Norwegian twins are among a growing number of foreigners from various counties who have dedicated themselves to the mastery of Tai Chi on Wudang Mountain.
The twins say there is a growing interest in learning Tai Chi in Norway, but say there are very few instructors in the country. They hope they’ll be able to pass on the skills they’ve learned on Wudang to others in their home country.”
There were a couple of big Wing Chun stories in the last month. I suspect that these would have attracted a lot more attention if not for the viral fight footage which seems to be sucking up all of the oxygen at the moment. These first of ran in the Straits Times. Its a profile and interview with Dennis Lee, who is the current Chairman of the Hong Kong VTAA titled “Spreading Wing Chun culture.” Anyone interested in the current state of Wing Chun will want to check this out. Here is a quick excerpt:
Mr Lee, who is married with no children, says his goal is to promote wing chun culture, which goes beyond the martial art’s technicalities.
“We hope that by teaching people wing chun, they can learn about the culture behind it too, so the passion will not be so easily extinguished, ” adds the Hong Konger, who spoke to The Straits Times last month when he was visiting the Singapore branch of his school, the Dennis Lee Ving Tsun Martial Arts Association.
The South China Morning Post also ran a major piece titled “How Ip Man helped turn a rebellious young Hongkonger into a wing chun master.” Sam Lau has always struck me as an interesting figure, and this article includes some great stories, including how he first met Ip Man:
“One day in the 1950s, as Sam Lau Kung-shing was getting a haircut at a barber shop in Mong Kok, a bald man wearing a traditional Chinese Tang suit and kung fu shoes showed up. Lau was told the man was Yip Man, the grandmaster of the Chinese martial art wing chun.”
The article offers a thumbnail biography of Ip Man and a number of accounts of the Wing Chun community in the 1950s-1960s. As such, its definitely worth checking out.
Speaking of the Wing Chun community, the VTAA will be celebrating its 50th anniversary this October! Festivities will include both a forms and sticky-hands competition, a gala dinner and a trip to Foshan (October 7th-10th). For More information click here: PDF.vtaa.50th.
No collection of Chinese martial arts stories would be complete without a nod to the ongoing legacy of Bruce Lee. Fans will be happy to hear that there is a new “authorized” biopic in the works. This film will apparently focus on Lee’s life in Hong Kong in the 1950s. As such we might get some on-screen glimpses into the period’s Wing Chun community.
“The latest biopic, Little Dragon, will have Shannon’s seal of approval, since her company Bruce Lee Entertainment along with Convergence Entertainment will produce it….According to reports, Little Dragon will be set in 1950s Hong Kong, where Bruce Lee grew up. The story will reportedly focus on the socio-political events as well as people that contributed to the transformation of Lee into the world’s most famous kung fu star.
Finally….Japan is facing a Ninja shortage. That is a group of words that one does not often see in the same sentence. A confluence of factors, including increased visibility in popular culture and the upcoming Olympic Games are putting the spotlight on everyone’s favorite black clad spies and assassins. Unfortunately, actually being a Ninja hasn’t been a viable career path for a while, so the numbers are lacking.
“As tourism to Japan has grown, there has been an increasing demand to see the iconic warriors perform “ninja shows” to crowds – but martial arts squads are struggling to find candidates who are up to scratch.
Takatsugu Aoki, the manager of a martial arts squad in the city of Nayoga in the south of the country, told the Asahi newspaper: “With the number of foreign tourists visiting Japan on the increase, the value of ninja as tourism content has increased.”
Luckily aspiring ninjas have some new study material. The Japan Times recently ran an article reporting on Edo period textbooks that reveal the tricks of the espionage trade.
Of course such works are difficult to interpret without the help of specialists in the reconstruction of martial culture. And given the nature of the work, one would probably need an interdisciplinary team to really grasp the world of the ninja….
Just such a project in now on the horizon. Call it “Ninja Studies.”
In a first of its kind endeavour, Mie University has decided to set up the world’s first research centre devoted to ninja. Ninjas, who have for decades ruled the imagination of people around the world, were black clad assassins known for secrecy and stealth. While mostly confined to history books and fiction, the ninjas have been enjoying renewed interest in the wake of the 2020 Olympic games slated to happen in Tokyo. Mie University is situated in a region which is considered the home of the ninja masters. The university said that the Ninja Research Centre would be set up in July.
Yuji Yamada, a professor of Japanese history at the Mie University, said that the University plans to compile a database of ninja and encourage cooperation between scholars from different disciplines who study ninja. He said that the researchers at the centre would study ancient documents and collaborate with science researchers to develop ways to implement ninja wisdom to modern society.
Martial Arts Studies
It looks like its going to be a busy summer for students of Martial Arts Studies. The Martial Arts Studies Research Network just wrapped up a fascinating conference in Bath that focused on the Japanese arts. And there will be a number of additional meetings this summer and autumn as well. We will cover these as they happen, but I would like to remind readers that I am always looking for conference or event reports to share with the readers of Kung Fu Tea.
Michael J. Ryan, who just released an ethnography on stick and machete fighting in Venezuela, recently posted one of his articles to academia.edu which is now free to download. If you have been wondering whether to check out his book (see the photo above) this might be a good place to start.
This article looks at the way that bodily attributes are cultivated and disciplined in the process of being recognized as a member of a restricted social group. This study took place in northwestern Venezuela, and looks at the role of stick, machete, and knife fighting as it has been refined and transmitted by a group of men. Following a description of the different contexts where these local armed combative methods (known collectively as ‘‘Garrote de Lara’’) developed, this article suggests that stepping and seeing are not merely physical attributes, but ‘‘body techniques,’’ or technical and efficient ways of looking at, moving through and belonging to a world. Where contingent historical and ecological factors shape a community’s traditional habitual responses toward acts of interpersonal violence.
Also, anyone interested in the development of Martial Arts Studies may want to check out Paul Bowman’s working draft, the “Triviality of Martial Arts Studies.” I found myself dealing with many of the issues while attempting to explain our project to individuals involved in more traditional, and disciplinary bounded, areas of the social sciences.
Given the recent conference in Bath, the following new book caught my attention. It appears to be historically rather than theoretically oriented, but that just means that it might be a rich source of data for future studies.
The Oshu Kendo Renmei: A History of British and European Kendo (1885-1974) Paperback – April 21, 2017 by Paul Budden $28
The Ōshū Kendo Renmei documents kendo’s beginnings and establishment in the UK, its spread into Europe, and the formation of the Ōshū Kendo Renmei, forerunner to the European Kendo Federation. It explores the link with the UK’s judo clubs, namely the Budokwai and the Anglo Japanese Jujutsu and Martial Arts Association (later known as the Anglo Japanese Judo Club), that were instrumental in kendo’s introduction in the UK.
With extensive commentary by Roald Knutsen, one of the UK’s kendo pioneers, it also profiles the efforts of others such as Horie Etsuko, R.A. Lidstone, Ōsaki Shintarō and Okimitsu Fujii.
Outside of the UK, The Ōshū Kendo Renmei examines the contributions of such people as Hungarian Count Robert von Sandor, Jacques Dupont, Alain Floquet and Shiga Tadakatsu as they sought to establish kendo in Europe and aim for the foundation of a European governing body. The efforts of the All Japan Kendo Federation and prominent Japanese instructors in promoting kendo in the UK and Europe are also documented.
The already vibrant literature on Brazilian Capoeira appears to be exploding at the moment. In addition to the new ethnographies just released by Lauren Miller Griffith and Sara Delamont (both of which were fascinating), we can look forward to a new study by Sergio González Varela.
Power in Practice: The Pragmatic Anthropology of Afro-Brazilian Capoeira by Sergio González Varela (expected release on September 30, 2017).
Considering the concept of power in capoeira, an Afro-Brazilian ritual art form, Varela describes ethnographically the importance that capoeira leaders (mestres) have in the social configuration of a style called Angola in Bahia, Brazil. He analyzes how individual power is essential for an understanding of the modern history of capoeira, and for the themes of embodiment, play, cosmology, and ritual action. The book also emphasizes the great significance that creativity and aesthetic expression have for capoeira’s practice and performance.
Sergio González Varela is Professor of Anthropology at Universidad Autónoma de San Luis Potosí, Mexico. He is currently working on a book about the anthropologist Paul Stoller.
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 “YMCA Consensus” in the Republic era martial arts, double sword and tradition vs. modernity. 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.