Welcome to “Chinese Martial Arts in the News!” Lots has been happening in the Chinese martial arts community, so its time to see what people have been saying.
For new readers, 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 let’s get to the news!
News From All Over
“The First Rule of Chinese Fight Club: No Karaoke.” So proclaims the opening paragraph of a rather long and detailed article in the New York Times. This piece provides a nice profile of a local “fight club,” inspired both by the founder’s love of the movie, and the growing popularity of Western combat sports in China. It discusses the legal and administrative hurdles that such a business faces, and in so doing gives a nice glimpse into the social anxieties that still surround the martial arts. Anyone interested in China’s evolving martial culture will want to check this piece out. Here is a quote to whet your appetite:
“…boxing, mixed martial arts and other high-energy fighting forms have been enjoying a minor boom in China in recent years. Gyms and audiences have multiplied across the country. Precise numbers are hard to come by, but one fan group estimates that the number of clubs had reached 8,300 in 2016, up from 2,700 in 2008.
Even so, commercial fight venues that draw a broader audience are rare. And Chengdu, with its zestful night life and hipster scene, seemed as good a place as any to try opening one. Yet even here the club has struggled to balance between being cool enough to draw customers and respectable enough to keep the inspectors at bay.
In a former venue, the fight club had to fend off complaints from the police, who deemed the weekly bouts undesirable, if not illegal. The authorities cut off their power and water late last year, Mr. Shi and Mr. Wang said. Tensions had also grown when a national controversy erupted last April after Xu Xiaodong, a mixed martial arts fighter, challenged masters of China’s gentler traditional martial arts to fight and flattened one of them in about 10 seconds.
Mr. Xu may have won that fight hands down, but the episode brought bad publicity for new martial arts in China.”
The recent English language release of Jin Yong’s Chinese martial arts novel, the Legend of Condor Heroes, was the big story that dominated the news over the last few weeks. It seems that every major news outlet ran an article on it. If you are wondering what the fuss is about, start by checking out this piece by National Public Radio, or the following article in the Straits Times.
Condor Heroes tells the story of Guo Jing, born in medieval China. Northern invaders have defeated the Chinese Empire, and some of them killed Guo’s father. His mother flees to the north, where Guo grows up with Genghis Khan’s Mongols and learns martial arts from several masters to avenge his father’s death. The series mixes prose and poetry, fantasy, history, and martial arts. It features a wide cast of characters, some of whom can do things like pierce skulls with their fingers and paralyze opponents by touching precise acupressure points.
While descriptive, these accounts still don’t manage to capture the sociological importance of Jing Yong’s stories or the ways in which they shaped popular perceptions of “martial culture” within China. For a more detailed discussion of his work, geared towards Martial Arts Studies scholars, check out Hamm’s Paper Swordsmen.
One of the interesting patterns to emerge in all of this reporting is that much of the discussion came to focus on the volume’s European translator, Anna Hollywood. Apparently this choice generated some controversy in China so this editorial in the Global Times decided to smack down some of her critics. Fun stuff.
The next article will be of special interest to wrestling fans and students of Shuai Jiao. If you have been following martial arts discussions for any length of time you may have run into books or articles by Antonio Graceffo. Apparently he just completed a PhD in the Wushu Department of the Shanghai University of Sports. For his dissertation he undertook a broad comparative study of various wrestling styles through time, with a special comparative focus on the Chinese disciplines. You can see an overview of his findings in this newspaper article. Or if you wish to dig a little deeper, he has published his dissertation. Once again, this is an interesting example of martial arts studies research entering popular discussions.
Everyone remembers this famous image used on the cover of Matthew Polly’s book’s American Shaolin. It has always stood out to me as a fantastic example of the globalization driven anxieties that surround the disappearance of “traditional culture.” Martial artists have proved more adept at exploiting these fears than most.
The following article from the South China Morning Post is a nice reminder that the currents of globalization flow in both directions. Increasingly individuals in the West are becoming familiar with Chinese words and concepts. So what is the most recognized Chinese word abroad? It turns out that “Shaolin” tops the list. Not only that, the top ten list includes lots of martial arts terminology. This survey serves as a nice reminder as to 1) how important the traditional martial arts have been in shaping China’s global image and 2) why the government has suddenly become so protective of this source of “soft power.”
No news round-up would be complete without a colorful photo essay showing people doing great things in amazing locations. After all, the martial arts are nothing if not a form of virtual tourism. This week’s update features a couple examples of this genre. The first focuses on Jake Lee Pinnick, an American martial arts teacher who has studied at Wudang.
Jake Lee Pinnick, a 27-year-old from Illinois, U.S., is learning traditional Chinese martial arts at a Taoist martial art school in Wudang Mountain, home to the famous complex of Taoist temples and monasteries. He is not just a student, but also a coach, teaching essence of martial art to those interested from around the world.
“I really like Chinese martial arts. I’ve been studying martial arts in Wudang Mountain for five years now, and have taught Wudang kung fu to nearly 8,000 foreign students. I hope foreigners can live healthier lifestyles through studying Chinese kung fu, and acquire a deeper understanding on Chinese culture at the same time,” he said.
I have noticed that generally these sorts of photo-essays focus on the more photogenic Northern arts and locations. I guess the warehouse-bound styles of the South just don’t have the same sort of visual appeal. But luckily the Straits Times was here to grant us a view into a local Wing Chun school, which seeks to spread both Ip Man’s fighting style and a message of fitness.
Have you ever seen a Shaolin Monk throw a needle through glass? Neither had I until I clicked this link. This clip has been showing up everywhere in the tabloid press. Its a pretty cool demonstration, but it does make one wonder about the connection between public spectacle and the creation of desire within the martial arts. (Hint: one of the books in the next section will tackle that question).
Martial Arts Studies
There have also been some interesting developments in the realm of martial arts studies. First off, don’t forget to submit your proposals for the 2018 Martial Arts Studies conference. The theme of this years meeting will be “Bruce Lee’s Cultural Legacies.” And speaking of the Little Dragon, it looks like the documentary “I Am Bruce Lee” is now available on-line for free. Check it out, you will see some familiar faces! Maybe it will help you to brainstorm some paper ideas?
Students of the Southern Chinese martial arts are constantly talking about the importance of Cantonese Opera. But have you ever stopped to study this art form on its own terms? Do you want to know more about this important regional tradition? If so, be sure to check out this MOOC from the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts. It looks like a great introduction to the subject.
A couple of new publications are out that students of Martial Arts Studies will want to know about. The first is: Mark S. Williams. 2018. Mixed Martial Arts and the Quest for Legitimacy: The Sport vs. Spectacle Divide. McFarland. ($35 USD).
Mixed martial arts or MMA is widely regarded as the fastest growing sport. Events fill stadiums around the world and draw vast television audiences, earning strong revenue through pay-per-view at a time when other sports have abandoned it. In 2016, the Ultimate Fighting Championship was bought by the massive talent agency WME-IMG for $4 billion. Despite this success, much of the public remains uneasy with the sport, which critics have denounced as “human cockfighting.”
Through an exploration of violence, class, gender, race and nationalism, the author finds that MMA is both an expression of the positive values of martial arts and a spectacle defined by narcissism, hate and patriarchy. The long-term success of MMA will depend on the ability of promoters and athletes to resist indulging in spectacle at the expense of sport.
Mark S. Williams teaches Political Studies and Global Studies at Vancouver Island University in British Columbia.
I haven’t had a chance to take a look at William’s book yet, but I am reading something else that is very interesting. I like it as it helps to make sense of the various sorts of travel that martial artists often seem addicted to. This is done through the development of a new set of conceptual tools that move beyond traditional, somewhat tired, notions of “pilgrimage.” Hopefully I will be writing something about this book on the blog in the not too distant future. But in the mean time, check it out for yourself:
Lauren Miller Griffith and Jonathan S. Marion. 2017. Apprenticeship Pilgrimage: Developing Expertise through Travel and Training. Lexington Books. ($82 USD)
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 read a Ming era military classics, seen some drunken boxing and listened to Robert Chu discuss Wing Chun history! 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!