***Luke White has generously offered Kung Fu Tea the following report on this year’s fourth annual Martial Arts Studies Conference at Cardiff University. Sadly I was not able to attend, but reading Luke’s report makes me feel as though I was there. That illusion will be further sustained by the fact that most of the papers were filmed and I expect that they will be showing up on-line soon. And I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see a number of these papers in the pages of various journal during the upcoming year. But you can read about them first right here. Thanks Luke!***
Conference Report – 4thAnnual Martial Arts Studies Conference, Cardiff University, 11-12thJuly 2018. By Luke White
The enthusiasm, energy and excitement of the fourth annual Martial Arts Studies conference – and the sheer variety of inquiry – would have been familiar to anyone who’s attended any of the first three of these. Whilst these first three, however, had been open in their call for papers, this year’s conference was different in having a particular theme. Marking the 45thanniversary of his death, it took up the question of “Bruce Lee’s Cultural Legacies.” This meant the conference was somewhat smaller than in recent years, with around 45 attendees. However, not only did the standard of papers remain incredibly high, but the range of approaches to thinking about Lee remained dazzling. It quickly became clear that the focus on Lee was hardly a contraction of the scope of Martial Arts Studies, so wide is his influence in the historical rise of interest in martial arts during the late twentieth century. To think about what the martial arts are or mean today is probably, one way or another, to already be juggling with “Bruce Lee’s legacies.” The complex, multidimensional image of Lee and his legacy, as it was teased out over the conference, seemed a testament to the rich interdisciplinarity and the lively and open exchange of approaches that have characterized “Martial Arts Studies” so far in its still fairly short institutional life.
Film, media and cultural theory, of course, were prominent. Eric Pellerin examined the varying extent of authorship that Lee commanded over his films, as star, director and producer, in a paper that teased out the battles Lee fought to control the meaning of his image. Lindsay Steenberg located Lee’s performances within the longer tradition of “gladiator” movies and the versions of martial and Stoic masculinity that these entailed. Lee’s version of the gladiator, she suggested, marks a subtle shift in ideals of masculinity from that which could be embodied in the sheer bulk of Steve Reeves and other stars of the “Sword and Sandal” genre. Lee enacted a change from a “sculptural” and immobile ideal of Stoic manliness to a kinetic – and actively intellectual – one.
My own paper also sought (if rather differently) to explore the ripples in Western ideals of masculinity produced by its encounter with Bruce Lee and the “kung fu” craze. I examined the figure of the ninja, as depicted in the recent Netflix/Marvel/ABC serial Daredevil, as a case of the ongoing fascination in American popular culture with Asia and the Asian martial arts. I argued that the imitation of these by a hero such as Daredevil (and by extension more broadly by Euro-American martial artists) marks a somewhat complicated and ambivalent phenomenon, somewhere between appropriation and identification, Asiaphilia and Asiaphobia, mimesis and alterity, racism and anti-racism, where the imaginary Orient becomes a way to renegotiate fragile and crisis-prone Occidental male identities.
I was not alone in bringing up questions of ethnic identity and its transcultural representation. Glen Mimura explored Lee as a figure whose legacy has a certain drift towards the conservative masculinity most obviously embodied in Chuck Norris as right-wing cult icon. However, for Mimura, this is countered by a “discrepant cosmopolitanism” in Lee’s martial and cinematic legacy – the latter drawing more heavily, for example, from Sergio Leone’s Italian Spaghetti Westerns than it does on “classic” Hollywood style. Mimura also presented a striking image of the everyday racial tensions that would have surrounded Lee in his American life – the Black Panther Party headquarters, for example, were founded only four blocks from Lee’s home in Oakland, and just weeks after he moved from the area, in response to the systematic brutality of the local police. We can only speculate on the ways that this might have touched Lee’s life.
Aaron Magnan-Park traced the effects of the pervasive racism of the era into the soundtracks of Lee’s films. Lee was uniquely placed as an actor amongst his Hong Kong peers to cross over into Hollywood, due to his fluency in English. However, his accented speech nonetheless made him vulnerable to “othering.” After tensions arose during the shooting of Enter the Dragon, the director and screenwriter (allegedly) packed the script deliberately with words featuring the hard-to-pronounce letter “R,” as a means to humiliate the film’s star. For my money, the trick backfired, and Lee’s ravishingly suave, fluent-yet-accented speech is a key ingredient of his appeal. Dubbed into more standard English and stripped entirely of his linguistic otherness, Lee would only have been a less exciting figure – as was evidenced in the number of times in the conference that we found ourselves brought back to Lee’s famous phrases and the ways that he spoke these. If we are still haunted by the absent presence of Lee, this seems to be as much through the medium of his voice as through his fists.
Though the importance of cultural theory is unsurprising in a conference about a film star, Lee was also approached from very different disciplinary angles. Lyn Jehu offered a fascinating paper moving our focus on Lee’s legacy from the silver screen to the training mat. He asked what legacy Lee’s provocative essay “Liberate Yourself from Classical Karate” has today. To answer this, Jehu interviewed and observed contemporary practitioners who identified as exponents of both “traditional” and “modern” martial arts. Although Jehu’s findings, overall, were much more sympathetic to the open and non-hierarchical pedagogies of the non-traditional arts, he nonetheless teased out some fascinating contradictions in the beliefs of both groups, which raised questions on the one hand about the claims of modernizers to have liberated themselves from the “classical mess” Lee critiqued, and on the other for the traditionalists to be immune to the changes that Lee brought with him. “Tradition” and “modernization” seem, in fact, to be intensely problematic categories.
Like Jehu, Colin McGuire pursued his interest in martial arts theory into the training hall. Bringing an ethnomusicological perspective on Lee, McGuire examined his theoretical writings for their terminology of rhythm, tempo and cadence. As is particularly evidenced in martial arts practice, musical understanding, he proposed, allows us to master the temporal dimension of our existence. It also means that practice is inescapably permeated by culture. With a perspective also emerging from the social sciences, George Jennings set about understanding Lee not so much as a film star but as a “founder” and innovator, looking to understand constants that lead people to found new martial arts. David Brown drew on Max Weber’s account of charisma to understand the magnetic appeal Lee had over others, making a fascinating attempt to reground such appeal (which remains somewhat abstract in Weber) in the body.
Perspectives were also offered from the perspectives of a range of cultural practices beyond film and television. Vera Kérchy explored the fascination of avant-garde French playwright Bernard-Marie Koltès with martial arts cinema, which, she argued, provided a blueprint for the repeated scenes of existential confrontation and the constant threat of violence in his theatre. Caterina McEvoy discussed the inspiration she drew as a sound and installation artist from Lee’s philosophical ideas. Animator John Twycross’s project started from the desire to fight Bruce Lee (virtually) and the disappointment in simulations such as Electronic Arts’ MMA fighting gameUFC(2014), which includes Lee as a character but actually only offers him the same generic martial arts movements as other characters. Twycross has been working on the challenges of transforming Lee’s filmic appearances into a digital avatar that more fully captures his idiosyncratic style of movement. Sally Chan came at Lee with an insider’s perspective on the advertising industry’s struggles to produce more ethnically diverse (and, let’s face it, less racist) images for its audiences’ identification. Her paper traced the changing nature of adverts that have sought to capitalize on images of Bruce Lee from the 1980s to the present.
We also met a philosophical Lee – or actually a series of philosophical Lees. Kyle Barrowman, in a provocative paper that steers the study of Lee away from the concerns of the left-liberal scholarship that dominates the British humanities, read his ideas in terms of a tradition of American individualism that can be traced through the “perfectionism” of Emerson, Cavell and Rand. Barrowman’s paper was striking in the way that it problematizes the “countercultural” Bruce Lee in whom many of us are invested, and points to the ideological complexity that would have surrounded the West-coast American context in which he developed his ideas.
If Barrowman’s paper, however, places Lee’s thought within a Western context, two papers squarely relocated him within Chinese philosophical history. Wayne Wong proposed the concept of yi(“ideation”), central to Chinese aesthetics since the sixth century, as a key to understanding Lee’s work. Lee offered us this ideation, he argued, not only through cinema but also through a theory of fighting. Wong’s paper – like his recent essay in Martial Arts Studies Journal – was enormously useful in extending and challenging attempts in Anglophone film studies to account for martial arts cinema aesthetics in purely Western terms.
Siu Leung Li – just one of the eminent keynote speakers at the conference – read Bruce Lee in terms of Mencius’s traditional opposition between those who labor with their body and those who exercise their minds, and of the subsequent division in Chinese culture between the “martial” and the “scholarly.” Doing so, he foregrounded the unusual extent to which Lee managed to forge a star image not only as a fighter, but also a philosopher. Li’s paper also brought us to consider Bruce Lee’s use of his sources, and his use of unattributed paraphrase. This has drawn criticism from some as “plagiarism,” but might alternatively be fitted into the procedures of the traditional genre of “poetry talk.” As a thinker, Lee proceeded primarily by quoting others, adding little of his own. However, as Li emphasized, in doing so he creatively put their words to work in new ways. The paper also brought us back once more to Bruce Lee’s haunting voice, and the paradox that Lee’s trademark rhythmical intonation of his famous sayings (loaded as this seems with “Chineseness”) actually really only works effectively in English, not in his native Cantonese.
A final Lee we met was the biographical Lee. There was, of course, an interest in the facts of Lee’s life throughout the conference. However, we were lucky to have as another keynote Matthew Polly, whose new biography of Lee has just been published. This is the product of some seven years of research during which Polly conducted over a hundred interviews. Produced somewhat beyond the auspices of Lee’s estate, which is famously protective of the star’s image, it promises to offer the first really definitive account of his life, escaping both hagiography and sensationalism. Polly’s presentation – which concentrated on Lee’s childhood and family background – was fascinating, uncovering material that had escaped previous researchers. From the evidence of his presentation I can’t recommend the book enough to anyone with an interest in Lee – my copy is already on order!
The Bruce Lees we met during the conference, then, were multiple and in many ways contradictory. Lee remains an enigma. Was he a plagiarist or a genius? Does he belong to Chinese or Western culture? Does he offer us emancipatory or conservative images of masculinity or ethnicity? Did his films change or reinforce the ways East Asia had been imagined in America and Europe? Does he exemplify cosmopolitan mixture or ethnic specificity? Was he an entrepreneurial individualist fighting his way to the top of a competitive marketplace for celebrity, or is he a countercultural “Third World Warrior”? Was he the martial artist who did away with “classical mess,” or an expert whose brilliance was built on thousands of hours of traditional form practice during his early studies? Perhaps many of the seeming contradictions that we found ourselves repeatedly juggling over the two days of the conference are just more sophisticated versions of the phenomenon, which Paul Bowman pointed us towards in his keynote (ironically titled “Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Bruce Lee”). A plethora of questions circulate on the internet: “Could Bruce Lee have beaten Mohammed Ali?” “Really,how good were Lee’s martial arts?” (etc., etc.) Bowman picked just five of these questions, which he, as a “Bruce Lee expert” gets repeatedly asked. Rather than answering them, Bowman took apart their presumptions and highlighted their absurdity – Lee’s image in all its enigma, as a kind of undecidable “quantum event” – seems to act, he suggested, as something of a “lure” for our projections. The demand for “Reality” addresses us emotively and affectively, rather than just rationally. In this regard, Lee has taken on for fans and interpreters alike something of the quality of scripture, which is always, of course, selectively read.
What should we make of Bruce Lee’s legacy, now, 45 years after his death? Certainly, Lee seems to have been profoundly implicated in a series of socio-cultural changes which are perhaps still ongoing today: seismic shifts in the fault-lines between “The West” and its “others,” and even between masculinity and femininity. Analysis of Lee, as an icon around whom much of this was articulated, remains important. The shiftingnature of this legacy was indicated by the sense – repeated at a number of moments in the conference – that his image is still changing. The earliest Lee-themed adverts that Chan showed imagined him in decidedly lowbrow, “chopsocky” terms; increasingly, he is figured in advertising as spiritual, calm and philosophical. This finding was echoed in Steenberg’s breakdown of language in recent “#BruceLee” Twitter posts. Perhaps even the interest during the conference itself in claiming Lee not just as an excellent actor or fighter but as a thinker constitutes part of this changing image. This might, again, suggest ongoing shifts in wider ideas about the martial arts, and about gender and race – shifts which seem broadly positive.
Lee’s influence in the martial arts themselves, of course, is ubiquitous. As one attendee noted in one of the discussion sessions, it is probably even visible in the rise of interest in Historical European Martial Arts. But Lee’s fame beyond this context is paradoxical: as was also noted more than once during the conference, he’s one of the few people across history whose face is recognisable by almost everyone, globally. However, relatively few people have actually watched a Bruce Lee movie from start to finish. So, is Lee a genuinely significant cultural figure or just a matter of intense interest to a fringe minority?
Similar questions, of course, dog the wider question of the “relevance” of Martial Arts Studies. Perhaps at the heart of this paradox there lies another of the false binaries Bowman’s paper warned us about. Nonetheless, the very existence of our keynote speaker Matthew Polly’s lively, accessible biography seems to hinge on the belief – not only of Polly but also his publishers – that Lee is a figure with a mainstream interest beyond a small group of obsessives or academics. Certainly, the response that Polly’s work has garnered in the mainstream media suggests that this appeal may exist. I for one will be crossing my fingers (along, I am sure, with Polly!) that sales bear this out. That this is only happening now suggests that something is in the wind, and Lee’s hour is finally at hand.
About the Author: Luke White is Senior Lecturer in Visual Culture and Fine Art at Middlesex University, London. He is currently working on a book about kung fu comedy films.
If you enjoyed this report you might also want to read: Violence and the Martial Arts: Contagion or Cure?