Its been over a month since our last news update, which means that there is no better time to get caught up on recent events! 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!
Kung Fu in the News
Judging the most important article of a news cycle is a tricky proposition. One must take the venue into account as some publications reach larger audiences. Hence I typically lead off with articles from major publications like the New York Times, the South China Morning Post, or popular news-stand magazines. But sometimes a more niche outlet puts out a story that captures current sentiments in an important way. That is why this news update leads off with a two-part essay published at the Bloody Elbow. It is titled “Shuai Jiao: Finding China’s martial arts renaissance in a 4,000-year-old wrestling system,” but I don’t think that really does the essay justice. I am pretty sure I would have gone with “Kung Fu and its Discontents.”
The first half of the essay does offer an exploration of Shuaijiao (a practice that the author has apparently recently discovered) from within the conceptual landscape of the modern MMA and its dominance of global media markets. That framing is critical as it leads the author to focus a lot of energy on exploring and explaining the seeming irrelevance of the Chinese martial arts and their disappearance from “serious” martial arts discussions. Or rather, serious discussions of MMA and a handful of other combat sports. As someone who spends a lot of time thinking about all sorts of global martial practices that don’t get a lot of discussion in the sporting press, the conversation strikes me as narrow and tending towards hyperbole. But it is genuinely refreshing to see someone giving traditional Chinese wrestling its due.
Nevertheless, the entire series is worth reading and carefully considering. On a purely empirical level it is an important example of how the traditional Chinese martial arts are currently being discussed by a large segment of the American public. We should note that this is happening at exactly the same moment that the Chinese government is attempting to use them as a tool of public diplomacy. Long story short, conversations like this one do not bode well for such efforts. Successful appeals to “soft power” can generally only be made after a new set of cultural norms and desires have been implanted within the global system. This entire discussion suggests just how far away we are from that happening. As the conversation currently stands, there is a small chance that some Chinese practices (such as Shuaijiao) might gain a portion of respect, but only if they play by Western rules, reinforcing a vision of competitive combat sport that strongly reflects western tastes and preoccupations.
There is also something else to consider. The second part of the essay is interesting to me as it makes a good faith effort to explain the current crisis within the Chinese martial arts through a good faith engagement with many of the leading authors in the current Martial Arts Studies literature. [In the interest of full disclosure, this blog is one of the sources that is cited]. Needless to say, it is great to see authors and books that we are all familiar with begin to make appearances in popular martial arts discussions. One wonders where all this will go in the future.
Our second article returns to the afore mentioned cultural diplomacy strategies being promoted by the Chinese government. A group of Shaolin Warrior Monks recently performed for audiences at Egypt’s Aswan Arts Festival. The show seems to have been well received, but the article discussing it is important as it lays out some of the links between diplomatic offices in China and Egypt that make these sorts of tours possible. And it discusses, in fairly open terms, what both sides are hoping to get out of events such as this.
“Held by the Egyptian Culture Ministry from Feb. 17 to 22, the event gathers more than 20 folklore bands and traditional groups from at least 13 countries from Africa, Asia and Europe, performing songs, dances and shows reflecting their unique cultures and traditional arts.
Egypt’s Minister of Culture Inas Abdel-Dayem said during the opening ceremony that Egyptian-Chinese ties are old and deep-rooted with long-time exchange in the fields of arts and culture.
“China always presents with us in many cultural activities in most Egyptian provinces, including Luxor, Aswan and the capital Cairo. In fact, there is a massive cultural exchange between Egypt and China,” the minister told Xinhua at the entrance of the 1,200-seat theater with colored lights surrounding its gate and fence.”
The previous story was published in the English language edition of a Chinese tabloid. The same news outlet followed that sort up with a short photo essay looking at the the government backed promotion of the martial arts in schools in Xingtai. Again, these sorts of government backed stories (whether domestic or international in focus) are interesting as they so often explicitly discuss the norms or values that the Chinese martial arts are supposed to promote, and that the intended target audience is expected to identify with.
Some of these same themes are also echoed in our next story, though it tends to be a bit less didactic in character. In this case the title, “Chinese wushu catches on in Belgium,” pretty much gives the story away. Again, its important to note how much of the on-line English language news coverage of the Chinese martial arts is being explicitly driven by stories first published in Chinese tabloids most of which share a specific narrative slant.
The Shanghai Daily recently ran an article titled “MMA star Xiong ‘100 percent ready’ for title defense.” It profiles the 31 year old Xiong Jingnan who has a fight coming up (postponed once before) against challenger Angela Lee at the end of March. Xiong’s success in the ring and direct personality are earning her fans around China, and the fight will likely get a decent amount of press coverage.
Chinese Martial Arts in the Media
There has been a fair amount of news on the media front. First off, Bruce Lee’s passion project, a Kung Fu adventure set in the old west, is coming to life, thanks in part to his daughter.
“…it is a historical drama about the politics of immigration, xenophobia and culture clashes. And that is exactly as Bruce Lee intended.
“My father was very good at tapping into the Chinese experience, so he wanted this character to be an immigrant, to be arriving in the United States in this specific time period, which was post-Civil War, pre-Chinese Exclusion Act and right at this time when the railways were finished, the gold rush was ending, and Chinese people are now in the US and there’s a lot of tension around that,” Lee explains.”
Next up, we have some good news for fans of the Ip Man franchise. The first trailer for the fourth installment in the long running is now out! You can watch it here. If the trailer is to be believed, our titular character is going to continue his pattern of standing up to global imperialism, this time by taking on the US Marine Corp (who have, for some reason, taken to burning wooden dummies). Funny, I somehow missed that incident while writing a multi-chapter biography of Ip Man as part of my study of development of Southern Chinese martial arts….
I was also encouraged to see that Sammo Hung is having a bit of a moment. There were a couple of retrospective articles about his career in various outlets. I have to admit that his films have always been some of my favorites. But then again, I have a weak spot for the Kung Fu comedies that used to be common in Hong Kong cinema. The Hollywood reporter has two pieces that are worth checking out.
Last but not least, I am happy to announce that Lightsaber Combat has finally gone legit! After a national tournament in Paris, the FFE (French Fencing Federation) announced that the sport was being accepted as an official tournament discipline by the national regulatory body, essentially placing it on the same (administrative) level as foil, epee and saber. Needless to say this was great news that generated a huge amount of positive press coverage. But it also seemed to cause a fair amount of tension in many corners of the international lightsaber community. I wrote a quick post reviewing that coverage, and talking about the sources of that discomfort, which you can read here.
Martial Arts Studies
Hoplology is a term that we don’t hear much of in the current Martial Arts Studies literature. But a new issue of Master’s magazine seeks to change that. This special issue, guest edited by Ryan J. Michael and myself, presented the initial results of a research expedition to the Caribbean looking at various styles of stick, machete and whip fighting. In addition to discussing these little known Afro-Caribbean fighting arts, the magazine asks what a “New Hoplology” might look like, and how it could relate to larger field of Martial Arts Studies. You can read my opening editorial, and download the complete issue free of charge.
Margaret J. Kartomi (ed.) (2019). Performing the Arts of Indonesia: Malay Identity and Politics in the Music, Dance and Theatre of the Riau Islands. NIAS Studies in Asian Topics. 386 pages. $90
I think this next title will be of particular interest to students of Silat. While the martial arts are only one of the topics touched upon in this edited volume, the entire book explores subjects that may be of interest to scholars working on the region.
The 2,408 islands of Indonesia’s Kepri (Kepulauan Riau or Riau Islands) province are said to be “sprinkled like a shake of pepper” across the Straits of Melaka and South China Sea. For two millennia until colonial times, they were part of the ‘maritime silk road’ between China and Southeast, South and West Asia. Kepri’s two million inhabitants thus share a seafaring worldview that is reflected in their traditions and daily life and is expressed most commonly in the performing arts of its largest and smallest population groups, the Kepri Malays and the formerly nomadic Orang Suku Laut (People of the Sea) respectively. In recent decades, Kepri also has become home to large numbers of immigrants from other parts of Indonesia, some of whom practise the Malay as well as their own ethnic arts. Despite its close proximity to Singapore, this is a little-known world, one brought to life in a fascinating and innovative study. Grounded in extensive fieldwork, the volume explores not only the islands’ iconic Malay (Melayu) performing arts–music, poetry, dance, martial arts, bardic arts, theatre and ritual–but also issues of space and place, local identity and popular memory. Generously illustrated and with a companion website presenting related audio-visual material, Performing the Arts of Indonesia will be an essential resource for anyone interested in this fascinating region.
While the publisher hasn’t released a cover image for our next book, it looks quite interesting. And its due out pretty soon.
Sergio González Varela. 2019. Capoeira, Mobility, and Tourism: Preserving an Afro-Brazilian Tradition in a Globalized World. Lexington Books (July 15, 2019). 235 page. $90
In Capoeira, Mobility, and Tourism: Preserving an Afro-Brazilian Tradition in a Globalized World, Sergio González Varela examines the mobility of capoeira leaders and practitioners. He analyzes their motivations and spirituality as well as their ability to reconfigure social practices. Varela draws on tourism mobilities, multisited ethnography, global networks, heritage, and the anthropology of ritual and religion in order to stress the commitment, dedication, and value that international practitioners bring to capoeira.
Finally, check out this short chapter by George Jennings looking at both positive and negative aspects of traditional teaching methods with the Asian martial arts.
Jennings, G. (2019). “The ‘light’ and ‘dark’ side of martial arts pedagogy: Towards a study of (un)healthy practices.” In C. L. T. Corsby & C. N. Edwards (Eds.), Exploring research in sports coaching and pedagogy: Context and contingency (pp. 137-144). Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.
Kung Fu Tea on Facebook
A lot has happened on the Kung Fu Tea Facebook group over the last month. We discussed training in Wushu vocational schools in China, translations of classic sword (jian) texts, and drooled over images of antique weapons. 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!