Welcome to “Chinese Martial Arts in the News!” Things have been pretty busy around here for the last couple of months, and we haven’t had a news update since September. Yet lots has been happening in the world of the traditional Chinese martial arts, so its time to do something about that.
For those who may have forgotten, 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
Guess who was back in the news? Repercussions of the the viral challenge match between Xu Xiaodong and Wei Lei continue to reverberate throughout the world of the Chinese martial arts, and some of them are starting to look serious. The Chinese government has invested a lot of capital in its promotion of the traditional fighting system, both within and outside the country. Anything that disrupts these plans is sure to be frowned on, as are discourses that question tenants of Chinese identity and nationalism. And if there is one thing the government really dislikes its social disorder (particularly the types that can become violent and end up as viral videos on the internet). So perhaps it should not be a surprise that a new set of sweeping administrative guidelines has been issued to reign in the martial arts community and restore a measure of both social order and government oversight. Or, as the South China Morning Post memorably noted, from here on out “Nobody is kung fu fighting.”
“China’s top sporting authority has banned kung fu practitioners from organising unauthorised fights, calling themselves “grandmasters” and creating their own styles. The directive, issued by the General Administration of Sport on Thursday, bans a total of eight practices and follows an intense debate across the country prompted by the humiliating defeat of a tai chi master by a mixed martial artist in April.”
Other band activities include the creation of new styles, taking on apprentices (at least in exchange for money), slander of other martial artists, and offering certifications for judges, coaches and athletes. If aggressively implemented such rules could effectively place the entire “folk martial arts” sector (which has been largely ignored) under government control.
Such bans are not new. In my book I actually talk about some similar measures in the late 1920s that never really got implemented. Enforcement is always the sticking point. My friend Gong Maofu, an associate professor at Chengdu Sport Institute (and a former visiting scholar at Cornell, as well as an occasional guest author here on KFT) noted that this “directive was apparently motivated by a desire to create a better environment but whether it would be truly implemented remained a question as this was only an administrative order.”
“It’s very difficult to carry out [these bans]. There’s no legal clause for reference if there’s another fight like that. It’s still unclear who is to supervise this and impose the punishment.”
I guess we will need to see how all of this develops in the upcoming year, though I suspect that the local police already have all of the legal tools that they need to break up illegal fights. The other provisions of this law are probably more important in the long run. For instance, this article covering the same story adds the interesting twist of calling for increased government regulation of foreign martial arts organizations and individuals in China. Unfortunately no examples of problematic foreign groups were given so its hard to know whether this is aimed at something like the UFC or an eccentric kung fu club with its headquarters in Malaysia. Increasingly there are lots of both.
“Jack Ma is using Singles Day, a symbol of crass commercialism, to revitalize Tai Chi.” Or so claimed a number of similar articles that were floating around the web earlier this month. Consider the following example from Quartz:
“Alibaba always puts on a spectacle on Singles Day, its annual online shopping extravaganza—and this year founder Jack Ma’s martial arts obsession is a part of it.
Ma’s appearing in a 24-minute martial arts film, Gong Shou Dao, alongside Jet Li, Tony Jaa, and other movie stars, that’s premiering as part of the shopping festival countdown. The film stems from Jack Ma’s lifelong love of martial arts that has informed both his professional life and personal life. And it marks another step in his ongoing effort to revitalize the ancient practice and take it global.”
What I found most interesting about this piece was the discussion of Jin Yong’s martial arts novels, and how important they were in establishing Ma’s interests in the Chinese martial arts. I suspect that he is far from alone in this respect. (Incidentally, after decades of delay, Jin Yong appears to finally gotten an English language publisher, and is having a moment on the global stage.)
This was not the only time that the charismatic Chinese billionaire ended up in the news. In addition to his other projects he also announced the creation of a new Taijiquan style (in conjunction with Jet Li) which is aimed at becoming both a lifestyle brand as well as a future Olympic sport. The recent regulations against the creation of new styles (and everything that would be necessary to run them, like certifying and licensing coaches), doesn’t seem to worry Ma. For more on the duo’s Olympic aspirations check out this interview.
Some question whether the traditional Chinese martial arts have a future in the modern world. Not the young man profiled in this article in the Telegraph. While shorter than some of the preceding pieces it provides a nice discussion of the place of Kung Fu in one person’s fast paced life.
Next up is an article discussing the creation of a long term youth exchange program in which children from Ghana will be sent to China to learn ping pong and Wushu, while Chinese children will travel to Africa to study soccer. Though less spectacular than some of the other news, efforts like this are critically important to the growing long term relationships between African states and China (which are being all but ignored in the West). This type of activity is usually called “exchange diplomacy” by students of public and cultural diplomacy, and it is an important strategy for shaping communities of individuals who can function within, and vouch for the good intentions of, both societies. The global explosion of programs like this are precisely why the Chinese government is deciding to crack down on the “chaos” within the folk martial arts sector.
Nor is this sort of “Kung Fu diplomacy” restricted to Africa. We have also seen programs created in South America and Europe as well. This article has an overview of the situation in Bangladesh, were Wushu has proved to be extremely popular.
The traditional arts were not the only ones to be making headlines over the last month. A recent UFC event in China has generated a lot of enthusiasm, and revealed yet another aspect of the complex relationship between the martial arts, identity and the shifting global balance of power.
SHANGHAI, Nov 25 (Reuters) – Fans flocked to the first event staged in mainland China by the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) as a new generation added their names to a proud martial arts history that stretches back thousands of years.
Every heavy blow landed by a Chinese fighter was greeted with roars of approval from the partisan crowd, with the biggest cheers reserved for Li’s knockout of Ottow.
“I want to send this victory to every supporter who supports me here in China, I love you! And for every one of you in the audience here that witnessed this victory, this is for you!” Li shouted into the microphone following his win.
“China is the birthplace of martial arts! China is getting brighter and stronger!” he told his supporters, who answered his subsequent chants of “China!” by bellowing “Power!”
There was also another interesting article on MMA in China that appeared in a couple of venues. Titled “Supermom and The Leech: Professional mixed martial arts grabs a foothold in China” it profiled up and coming female competitors and discussed both their lives and the ways in which fighters are starting to emerge from the state led martial arts sector (in this case the well established Judo training programs).
Last but not least, we have the “Muscles from Brussels.” I still have fond memories of watching Bloodsport as a kid. It turns out that Jean Claude van Damme has a new project in which he basically plays himself to great comedic effect. After reading this piece in the NY Times I am pretty sure that I will end up binge watching the entire thing.
Martial Arts Studies
All signs post to 2018 being another bumper year for martial arts studies books. There are some interesting projects on the far horizon, but this is what you need to be looking for now. First up, Prof. Sergio González Varela’s new book Power in Practice: The Pragmatic Anthropology of Afro-Brazilian Capoeira, has just been released by Berghahn Books. While another addition to the growing literature on Afro-Brazilian martial arts, I suspect that his underlying arguments might be of interest to students of a number of traditions. While pricey, this could be in your stocking in time for Christmas. Here is the publisher’s blurb:
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.
Routledge has announced that on Feb. 8th they will be releasing a book titled Martial Arts in Asia: History, Culture and Politics. (No cover design has been provided). This volume is edited by Gwank Ok and Fan Hong and appears to be a set of conference proceedings that were originally published in the International Journal of the History of Sport. The publisher’s description is as follows:
The reawakening of Asian martial arts is a distinct example of cultural hybridity in a global setting. This book deals with history of Asian martial arts in the contexts of tradition, religion, philosophy, politics and culture. It attempts to deepen the study of martial arts studies in their transformation from traditional to modern sports. It is also important that this volume explores how Asian martial arts, including Shaolin martial arts and Taekwondo, have worked as tools for national advocate of identities among Asians in order to overcome various national hardships and to promote nationalism in the modern eras. The Asian martial arts certainly have been transformed in both nature and content into unique modern sports and they have contributed to establishing cultural homogeneity in Asia. This phenomenon can be applied to the global community.
Lastly, on December 28th Lauren Miller Griffith and Jonathan S. Marion’s volume Apprenticeship Pilgrimage: Developing Expertise through Travel and Training (Lexington Books) will go on sale. I first became acquainted with the idea of “Apprenticeship Pilgrimage” while reading Griffith’s ethnographic account of foreign martial arts students in Brazil, and I am very interested to see the idea fleshed out in greater detail:
Lauren Miller Griffith and Jonathan S. Marion introduce the concept of apprenticeship pilgrimage to help explain why performers travel to places both near and far in an attempt to increase both their skill and their legitimacy within various genres of art and activity. What happens when your skill-level surpasses local training opportunities, whether in dance, martial arts, or other skills and practices? Apprenticeship Pilgrimage provides a new and exciting model of apprenticeship pilgrimages—including local, regional, opportunistic, and virtual—that practitioners undertake to develop embodied knowledge, skills, and legitimacy unavailable at home. For most people, there is a limit to how much training is available from the teachers and classes at home. As skill and know-how increase, the resources and training opportunities available become limits on one’s learning. Similarly, a practitioner’s legitimacy may be suspect without exposure to appropriate cultural context, such as ties with the homeland of certain dance forms or martial arts. Whether for skill alone, or activity-specific legitimacy, individuals may feel compelled to travel for training. Such travelers see themselves quite differently from other tourists, and the seriousness with which they pursue their journeys makes it appropriate to call them pilgrims. Given the goal of learning from and developing their own skills by training with experts at their destinations, apprenticeship pilgrims is even more appropriate. Rather than focus on specific geographic regions or genres of apprenticeship, this book builds a robust theoretical framework for understanding the role of travel for developing expertise in embodied genres. This book links and expands on the existing scholarship concerning anthropologies of education and tourism, but takes new strides in exploring the global circumstances wherein skill development requires travel. Throughout, the authors use apprenticeship pilgrimage as a robust new framework for considering the interrelated roles of going, learning, and doing for identity construction within contemporary globalization.
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 earliest English language kung fu manuals, reported on travel to exotic locations, and even hosted a symposium on the scholarly study of lightsaber combat! 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!