Happy New Year! And welcome to Kung Fu Tea‘s annual “awards show.” The New Year post is a great time to take a look back and celebrate some of the achievements of the last year. It is also a good opportunity to get some recommendations on long-reads for the year ahead. In years past I have selected the “best” blog or webpage devoted to the Traditional Chinese Martial Arts. We will be doing that again this year, but I will also be expanding our categories to include the “best” new article and book in martial arts studies, and a single selection representing the “best” of Kung Fu Tea in 2017.
Attentive readers will have noticed a lot of scare quotes in the preceding paragraph, so lets talk about the selection process. A webpage or blog can only win this category once as the purpose of this exercise is to continually introduce and explore the work of new authors and researchers. Further, I am most interested in the actual essays or posts that a blog creates rather than its social media presence. And given the focus of KFT, priority is given to those blogs that explore the cultural, social or historical aspects of martial arts studies, as well as their practice. That sounds like a healthy checklist, but one would be surprised how little these guidelines help to narrow things down. There is just too much good stuff out there. As such, each of these selections should be understood as a gesture of appreciation rather than a hard and fast selection of “winners and losers.” If you would like to recognize a blog that has done fantastic work in the last year, be sure to tell us in the comments below.
The Best Blog of 2017
All of this brings us to our selection of Best TCMA blog for 2017. I have been following William Acevedo and Mei Cheung’s work for years now. They have always impressed me with the depth of their original research and insightful commentary on Chinese martial arts history. Their articles can be found in a number of print publications, but those seeking to get a fuller picture of their research would be well advised to check out their excellent blog, Zhongguo Wu Xe: Chinese Martial Arts Research.
Their historical research and discussion, especially as they related to the events of the Republic period, should never be skipped. But this blog covers a range of other topics as well. Over the last year they published interviews with important Chinese scholars and practitioners, done comparative studies, and even tackled some “lighter” subjects. Their recent article on the Republic dadao would be a good place to start if you are unfamiliar with their work.
Congratulations on a job well done, and thanks for your many contributions to the study of Chinese martial arts history! Best of luck on your upcoming research in 2018. I am always excited to see what topics Zhongguo Wu Xe will be posting on next!
This brings us to the next item on our agenda. Its getting hard to pick the best new book in martial arts studies as so many of them have come out in the last year. As scholars and students we are faced with an embarrassment of riches and no one should be asked to compare the quality of so many fascinating studies coming out in a variety of fields.
Still, in terms of sheer social impact, I think it is clear that Wendy Rouse’s Her Own Hero (New York University Press), a study of the origins of the women’s self defense movement in North America, has done something quite special. While other scholars have previously addressed questions of gender and the early spread of the martial arts, the timing of her book (coinciding as it did with the #metoo movement and the exploding national conversation surrounding sexual harassment and assault) has been impeccable. Extensively researched and documented, her vivid prose and clear arguments make this work accessible to a wide range of readers both within the academy and without.
This ability to speak to multiple audiences is something that many scholars of martial arts studies strive for. Rouse made it look effortless. This book has generated more organic discussion and media attention than any other martial arts studies volume that I am aware of. Her efforts have helped to bring both the struggles of female fighters and martial artists into the spotlight, while at the same time highlighting the substantive contributions that martial arts studies can make to critical contemporary discussions. For its contributions both to its own literature, as well as raising our field’s profile, Her Own Hero is my pick for top martial arts studies volume of 2017.
Our next category is “Best Martial Arts Studies” article. Given the sheer number of papers that have come out in the last twelve months we can afford to be somewhat picky in this category. As such, I would like to highlight a paper that made a critical contribution to the discussion of one of my favorite subjects, Chinese martial arts history. Douglas Wile’s “Fighting Words: Four New Document Finds Reignite Old Debates in Taijiquan Historiography” (Martial Arts Studies, Issue 4) is important in a number of respects. At the most basic level it reviews a number of documents which have reopened (and reordered) the academic debate surrounding the creation of Taijiquan in the Chinese language historical literature. He does Western readers an important service by bringing these documents and scholarly debates to our attention. Yet rather than simply throwing his weight behind one historical theory or another (an impossibility as most of these documents have not been, or cannot be, scientifically dated) he instead asks what the changing nature of these discussions suggests about the role of ideology, traditional culture, the state and the limits of academic freedom within the Chinese university system. Even if the origins of these documents cannot be proved (though many scholars have their guesses), Wile demonstrates that martial arts studies, as a discipline, has the power to speak to fundamental issues in modern Chinese society. Ironically, at the same time that many lament the decline of the traditional martial arts, their potency as cultural/political symbols is as great as it has ever been.
Last but not least, 2017 has been a big year here at Kung Fu Tea. The blog has featured close to a hundred new essays, book chapters, news updates, reviews, conference papers and guest posts on a wide variety of subjects. While reviewing this material I kept coming across things which I had forgotten that I wrote. I guess that is the value of taking some time for reflection.
In the end I decided to let the readers decide which post would be named the “best” essays of 2017. “Chi Sao, Ip Man and the Problem of “Dispersed Training” in Wing Chun” was (by a healthy margin) the year’s most popular post. I think it would probably make my personal top 10 list as well. In many ways it highlights the possibilities of a blog like this. The essay begins by exploring often overlooked social and historical trends within the Chinese martial arts. It then uses these insights to discuss and contextualize a problem that many students of these fighting systems currently face. It further reminds us that discussions of the so called death or decline of the TCMA are often premised on a fundamental misunderstanding of how these practices actually functioned in the past, or what a realistic baseline for their social presence should be. Those insights may even effect our personal training strategies. For all those reasons, “Chi Sao, Ip Man and the Problem of “Dispersed Training” in Wing Chun” is the 2017 KFT “post of the year.”
Looking for something else to read? How about my personal favorite essay of 2017: Facing Down a Wooden Dummy, and the Myth of “Perfect Practice”