This is the time of year when it is only natural to pause and reflect on where we have been and what may be coming next. 2017 has been a busy year in the Chinese martial arts. Progress has been in made in certain areas, while suggestions of trouble have arisen in others. Lets explore all of this together as we count down the top ten news stories of the last year. As always, if you spotted a trend or article that you think should have made this list, please feel free to leave a link in the comments below!
10. Lets start things off with one of the more interesting trends that has been evident in the TCMA community for the last few years. While we normally focus on the “transmission” of living traditions, projects that focus on the reconstruction of obsolete, ancient or lost military technologies are steadily gaining popularity. Careful observers might discern this trend in a number of places, from the notable interest in Ming and Qing era archery to the renewed attention that the late imperial military manuals are receiving.
From the perspective of martial arts studies, this is an important trend as it signals a subtle but important shift in the epistomology. Rather than relying exclusively on concepts like “transmission” and “discipleship”, these projects move “textual traditions” and “experimentation” to center stage. All of that suggests new ways of thinking about the role of legitimacy and authority in some areas of the Chinese martial arts.
Such considerations broke into the open when the Torontoist published an article titled “A Made-in-Canada Martial Art” which profiled the creation (or re-creation) of a military Da qiang (long spear fencing) system by a local TCMA instructor named Guo. The article is well worth the read, and some of the training equipment that Guo has created is very interesting as well. At some point I hope to get up to Toronto and see this for myself. But these sorts of projects have become increasingly popular in the last few years.
9. 2017 was a good year for Jet Li. He increased his public profile within the martial arts community through a number of announcements that had nothing to do with his acting career. The first of these was the launch of his new martial arts web-portal, Jetli.com. But that is not all.
Li’s has also partnered with Jack Ma (the Chinese billionaire and martial arts enthusiast) on a number of projects. The two attempted to use Single’s Day as an opportunity to promote their newly launched style of Taijiquan. Other reports suggest that they are promoting this, rather than Wushu, as China’s signature Olympic Sport.
8. A number of news articles in 2017 foretold, warned against or attempted to explain the imminent demise of the traditional martial arts. I would not be overly alarmed. The same trend was evident last year, and the one before that. In fact, some of the very earliest English language discussion of the Chinese martial arts that I found in the year 1900 began by waxing nostalgic for the “good old days” before hinting that Chinese boxing had no future. It would seem that nostalgia for the past, and anxiety about the future, are two of the main social forces that have actually helped to define and create the Chinese martial arts as they exist today.
This is not to say that the conversation never changes. In recent years the topic of real estate pricing has become a central issue. The question of how to best digitally archive the performances of aging martial arts masters has also become a focus. This article examined recent efforts to do just that in Taiwan. Yet in the last year all of these anxieties also helped to unleash a loud and long running debate as to whether Taijiquan should be granted UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH) protected status, and if the Chinese government (which must choose between conflicting priorities) has been doing enough to promote that. This was a fascinating debate, and more links to articles can be found in the March news roundup.
7. The popularity of the mixed martial arts (MMA) made big strides in China in 2017, but has the sport really “arrived?” And what of the UFC? Will this globally successful brand ever find the right formula to crack open China’s media markets?
These and related questions showed up in every single news roundup that I conducted during 2017. It is clear that a number of local fight promotion companies are growing quite quickly, and that they are attracting talent from China’s sanda and Olympic judo training programs. There are even some indications that the UFC’s flagging fortunes may be starting to turn around. In fact, the social visibility of MMA is growing so fast that some wonder about the possibility of a backlash, possibly in the form of administrative rules seeking to regulate and clamp down on the spread of “foreign” martial arts. But that is a topic we will be exploring in greater detail further down the list….
6. One of the biggest news stories in 2017 was the eruption of the #metoo movement in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein sexual assault scandal. It seems that the Chinese martial arts (or more precisely, individuals in the Hong Kong film industry) have also played a part in this unfolding saga. In the middle of December multiple news outlets began to report that Bey Logan, best known to readers of Kung Fu Tea for his work on several martial arts films, had been accused of sexual misconduct by a number of women who he had worked with. In other instances he seems to have facilitated Weinstein’s now notorious behavior during his visits to China. You can find a quick run down of the story on CNN.
For his part Logan either denies the accusations or claims that his actions were “taken out of context,” while at the same time admitting that “I have made inappropriate comments lightheartedly or after a few drinks. I now see I was wrong and I have made mistakes for which I can’t forgive myself, and must live with them.” This story was extensively reported in both the entertainment and mainstream press in Hong Kong and the West. It also seems that the scandal may now have cost Logan his marriage.
5. We are now set to move on to our top 5 news stories. 2017 was the year that we got a Bruce Lee movie that no one seemed to want in the form of George Nolfi’s (supposed) biopic, Birth of the Dragon. Despite being hyped throughout the production process, the fan response to the film was basically hostile. While casual viewers enjoyed the ambiance and fights sequences, many Bruce Lee fans were incensed that film’s protagonist seemed to be sidelined in favor of a thinly disguised Steve McQueen clone. All of this sparked an uproar that touched on everything from accusations of “white-washing” to criticisms of the bizarre “historical” choices that the director made in portraying what is in all actuality a fairly recent set of events. (Pro tip: the real Shaolin monks had better things to do than spy on Bruce Lee. They were caught up in this event called the “Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution.”) In this case the movie critics came down rather firmly on the side of the fans and panned the film. Some even stopped to wonder at how it was possible to make Bruce Lee so boring.
Of course there are more Bruce Lee projects in the pipeline. Maybe 2018 will be a better year for the Little Dragon.
4. Our next story focused not so much on the martial arts as their place in Chinese society. During the late imperial period the traditional martial arts often functioned as one of the few mechanisms by which bright youngsters from impoverished rural backgrounds could gain social (and geographic) mobility. In some respects that basic pattern still holds. China’s many wushu vocational middle and high schools continue to fill their ranks by recruiting children from marginal backgrounds who endure brutal training regimes in hopes of earning a degree that will get them a job as a police officer, soldier, body guard or even professional martial artists.
However, in recent years a number of scandals have broken out regarding the mistreatment of these children. Nor have all of the graduates been successful in finding gainful (legal) means of employment. These educational programs have even become a matter of public debate. That debate heated up in September when video went viral showing young children in Chengdu engaged in a serious MMA fight club run out of a residential martial arts school, complete with illegal gambling.
The difference between a “martial arts match” and a violent assault often comes down to informed consent. Needless to say children, many of whom fear being returned to a rural life of actual hunger, are incapable of giving this. While local officials quickly moved to put an end to the international embarrassment that the school had brought, the emergence of these images has shed an important light on the moral complexities that are often glossed over in discussions of pedagogy and the place of marginal children in the Chinese “martial industrial complex.”
3. The next item on our list is less of an individual story and more of a trend. Rereading all of the monthly news updates for 2017 was an interesting exercise. One of the things that quickly became evident was the importance of official and quasi-official efforts by the Chinese government to promote a certain type of news coverage in global media markets. I have pointed out, and commented on, some of these stories in my ongoing discussion of the place of the martial arts in China’s larger public diplomacy strategy. Nor is this activity totally unique. Many states turn to aspects of their “traditional culture” in an effort to craft a favorable image on the global stage.
What was really interesting about this review was the sheer volume of stories that are now being produced in this way. A decade ago most discussions of the TCMA in the western press would have been inspired by the local clubs, private teachers or trends in the entertainment industry. In 2017 those sorts of sources were increasingly crowded-out by curated discussions of foreign students coming to China to be initiated into the intricacies of both Wushu and “real” Chinese culture. There can be no doubt that these narratives present a more unified and positive view of traditional Chinese culture than what one might glean from the average Kung Fu film. Still, when it comes to the martial arts, questions remain as to whether anyone is really interested in buying the social vision that official sources are working so hard to sell. 2017 might be remembered as the year in which the government went all in on a strategy of global “Kung Fu diplomacy.” That may be an important detail to bear in mind as we move on to our top two stories of the year.
2. If certain elements of the Chinese government have their way, the South China Morning Posts suggests that 2018 might be remembered as the year in which no one 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 forbidden 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. Our 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 these bans might be very difficult to enforce as no new legal codes appear to have been created and the discussion remains at the level of administrative guidance. Still, it remains to be seen what sort of impact this “guidance” may have on the folk martial arts sector.
As we just saw, 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 within the martial arts that question central tenants of Chinese identity and nationalism. And if there is one thing the government really dislikes, it is 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.
1.This brings us to the top news story of 2017. It was the pummeling seen around the world. This spring’s fight between journeyman MMA trainer Xu Xiaodong and “thunder-style” taijiquan “master” Wei Lei ended, about 10 seconds after it began. Yet 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. I actually spent the better part of a month fielding calls and emails from reporters asking about the match.
As I mentioned in a post outlining my initial thoughts on the event, the fight itself does not seem all that unique or interesting. Youtube is full of similar videos of traditional stylists getting overwhelmed by more “modern fighters.” This was a well known social media genre long before Xu and Wei ever met. Before that it was 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 inspired, both in China and around the world. Immediately everyone had an opinion on the traditional Chinese martial arts.
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. It is almost certain that this fight (and its aftermath) inspired the new government regulation on the traditional martial arts sector.
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. Later the police would break up subsequent efforts to host a do-over and briefly detain Xu. Each twist and turn of the story was followed by the global press for the better part of a year. There is no doubt that this event will go down as the single defining story of 2017.
It may even be more than that. There are certain moments that seem to mark major epochs in the development of the Chinese martial arts. Whether they create them is doubtful. Rather they capture and amplify the emerging zeitgeist. The first national martial arts examination in 1928 was one such event. The 1954 “Battle in Macau” was another. I suspect that later historians will look back on the viral video of Xu humiliating the fallen “Taijiquan master” in similar terms. This event encouraged months of open public debate, solidified opinions and inspired changes in public policy. It would be wise for students of martial arts studies to take stock of what happened, and then take steps to collect and preserve both physical and electronic ephemera relating to this match and its social and cultural impact. While 2017 is quickly drawing to a close, I doubt that we have heard the last of this story.
Those are my picks for the top 10 trends and stories of 2017. What is on your list? Feel free to leave your countdowns or links in the comments below.