Its been months (and multiple conference trips) 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 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
Whenever possible I like to kick off these news updates with a little (positive) Wing Chun news. This update begins with a feel good story that comes in the form of a photo essay on xinhuanet. It profiles a 74 year old instructor from Hong Kong who has set up a school in Shandong. I love the look of this guys school. And the bronze statue of Ip Man that he has is great! Someone needs to start selling those to WC students in North America and Europe. Check it out.
Our next story introduces one of the major threads that can be detected running through this weeks stories, more specifically, women within the martial arts. Our first article, titled ‘I have dedicated my life to martial arts and I have no regrets’, is an interview with a Shaolin disciple in the UK, published in a column titled “Strong Women.” Its a well done interview which, while clearly framed by questions of gender, also includes a discussion of Shaolin discipleship in a modern, Western, context.
Next is a report (picked up by multiple outlets) on how “Women in Cairo are using martial arts to combat harassment.”
In the heart of Egypt’s capital, an ancient Indonesian martial arts sport is helping dozens of women stand up to harassment.
With the help of Indonesian students, over 1,200 women and children are learning the sport at a cultural centre in Cairo.
“Of course there are problems in the street,” Egyptian teenager Rahma Hatem said during a break from training.
Technically, this piece focuses more on Silat than Kung Fu, but I wanted to include it for a couple of reasons. The first was that it received fairly wide distribution. Secondly, it is a nice reminder that China is not the only state practicing “Kung Fu Diplomacy” in the current era. Indonesia is also seeking to promote its indigenous martial arts traditions as a way of building soft power and social connections around the globe. While generally using a low key strategy, this article is a nice reminder of what these programs often look like.
Speaking of public diplomacy and the martial arts, CGTN (a Chinese TV network) has been busy distributing its latest programing on the traditional Chinese martial arts. This takes the form of short informational clip (generally about 5 minutes), press releases and full length TV programs. While all of this material is subtitled it seems to be aimed, rather directly, at a Western audience. Still, the production values are high and some of the themes are quite interesting. This is a classic public education/public diplomacy campaign in action. Check out this article and clip on: Chinese Martial Arts: Shaolin Boxing Style.
Or if you are like me, and you tend to prefer your martial arts with a Cantonese flavor, check out their special on Choy Li Fut, complete with pilgrimage to Foshan.
Still, all is not well in China’s current campaign to harness the soft power of the traditional martial arts as a source of global influence. Journeyman MMA coach and occasional fighter Xu Xiaodong has continued to be a thorn in the side of these efforts. And Xu’s situation has recently gotten even more complicated. While he has continued to win fights (beating such martial arts powerhouses as this guy) in the ring, China’s courts have handed him a resounding setback in his campaign against one of the luminaries of Tajiquan.
You can read accounts of the legal actions here and here. But basically the story runs as follows, Chen Xiaowang (above) sued Xu for defamation and won. Xu was ordered to pay a large fine (more than $60,000 USD), which he did. But he was also ordered to retract his statements and make a publicized apology to Chen, which he refused to do. As a result the government has lowered his “social credit” score. While this sounds quite boring, it actually has the potential of making travel (specifically to new challenge matches) more difficult and time consuming.
Xu has also been ordered to cease self-promotion (there is no sign of that as of yet) and obscure his identity in any future matches. Yet rather than dissuading him from issuing new challenges, Xu seems intent on going full Lucha Libre. Indeed, there is both a strong discourse about values (what sort of place should modern China be), as well as an element of public spectacle in his matches. That is precisely what makes them potentially threatening to both the PRC’s wushu establishment and government. Perhaps his masked turn was simply the natural evolution of where things were going anyway. I think its fair to say that this situation is still evolving.
So for anyone keeping score in the soft power battle, things are not looking great for the Chinese martial arts. That point was really driven home to me when I came across the following blog post in the Beijinger.
Are you new to China’s capital and looking to do a little martial arts training? Are you searching for a school to study in? That is great, because this column has some suggestions. Sadly, most of them have nothing to do with the Chinese martial arts. Instead it recommends Aikido, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and even Krav Maga before moving on to a school that teaches “Kung Fu” (what type is never specified) and another focused on Taijiquan. This is a valuable remainder that while the traditional Chinese martial arts have struggled in recent years, other schools of hand combat have been expanding in China. It seems telling that the assumption is that ex-pats in the capital are likely to be just as interested in checking out its BJJ scene as finding a local Wushu teacher.
It would clearly be a mistake to attribute all of Wushu’s lost luster to Xu’s crusade against “fake masters.” Indeed, one should probably see him more as a symptom of the problem rather than its genesis. Still, his social media notoriety does seem to be moving the needle on this conversation in important ways. I think one sign of this was a multi-part series of articles in the South China Morning Post reexamining the relationship between Bruce Lee (and by extension the city of Hong Kong) and the Mixed Martial Arts.
While MMA figures in the West have spent the last few years attempting to appropriate Bruce Lee’s memory in an attempt to anchor and burnish the image of their sport, this feels different. One suspects that, on a certain level, it is an attempt to deal with the sting of Kung Fu’s decline by redefining MMA as something that only appears to be American (or Western), but is in fact a product of Hong Kong’s turbulent decades of roof-top fighting in the 1950s and 1960’s. It reminds me of newspaper articles in the 1930s desperately asserting that China, rather than Japan, was the true home of Judo. You can checkout the first article in the series, titled “How Bruce Lee and street fighting in Hong Kong helped create MMA (long before it emerged as UFC)” here. Also be sure to take a look at the multi-media infographic that was created here.
I am mostly interested in these articles as an example of the ongoing development of the social discourse surrounding Hong Kong’s martial arts. But from the perspective of a martial arts studies scholar, I would note that some of the assertions made here need to be taken with a healthy grain of salt. For instance, I don’t know of a single responsible person who would actually argue that the much publicized (but terribly executed) fight between Wu Gongyi and Chen Kefu in 1953 was really the very “first MMA fight.” While newspaper coverage of that event certainly got lots of people in Hong Kong talking about the martial arts again, after watching footage of the event I am not entirely sure that it would have made many people’s short list of all time best martial arts exhibitions.
Our next article touches on a number of themes that we have already introduced. Yet rather than discussing the “Chinese martial arts” it is more a story of one Chinese martial artist (Zheng Shuyin) and her controversial defeat by Biaca Walkden (UK) at the recent Taekwondo World Championship. Walden, who was trailing in the match forced Zheng to step out of bounds multiple times. Given the number of fouls she (Zheng) was already carrying, this led to her being disqualified and Walkden being handed the victory, much to the displeasure of the crowd watching the match and Chinese TKD officials everywhere.
While Walkden’s tactics appear to have been entirely within the rules, the Chinese have called for the referee to be banned from the sport for life and forced to issue a public apology. Though it remains unclear to me how anyone could be forced to offer an apology after being banned. In any case, only in the Chinese coverage of the fight are the referee’s actions seen as questionable. The Western conversation was generally intent on criticizing Walkden herself for “unsportsmanlike conduct,” while conceding that the referee followed the rules as they were actually laid out. The entire episode makes for interesting reading, and as is so often the case, your first stop should probably be this article in the South China Morning Post. In high stakes professional competition, should “norms of conduct” trump the competitive desire to win? I think that there is an interesting conversation to be had regarding our values and understanding of the martial arts here.
Our next article is much more prosaic. The Telegraph ran a decent profile of a “Canadian who turned his passion for Chinese kung fu and medicine into career.” Just the title of this one interests me as its obviously a novel concept for the author, but I suspect we all know half a dozen people who have done just that. Still, the profile itself offers an interesting glimpse as to how the intersection of personal and political worlds can nudge that process.
As the liaison to the Canadian consulate in Hunan province, Haase helps to promote Chinese culture in Canada. Now his focus has shifted to education. Haase believes that human development is inseparable from education. As an international student, he strongly encourages all students to visit the world outside.
Talking about his future work plans, Haase hopes to invite more Canadian students to come to China and come to Hunan to introduce them to the real China.
I recently returned from Israel. As such I was excited to run across this article discussing the 2nd annual “Ambassador’s Cup” tournament. Best of all, it has lots of quotes by the Ambassador (Zhan) who came to oversee the event in person.
“Zhan continued that Wushu has been influenced by many religious and philosophical thoughts over the thousands of years.
He hoped that Israeli Wushu fans and practitioners can identify and connect with these values, exercising self-discipline, respecting each other, and striving for physical strength as well as inner peace and they could take the tournament as a unique opportunity to improve skills, share knowledge and establish friendship.”
Next we have another profile of a female martial arts instructor titled “Shòu Shù Master Using Martial Arts Expertise To Empower Others.” What I really found interesting in this article was the following quote. At first it seems unremarkable. Its the sort of narrative we often hear in the American martial arts community. But after spending the better part of an afternoon reading through articles and press releases generated in China, I was struck by how different this discourse is from how these practices were described in those pieces. On the other hand, the concern with personal safety does seem to mesh well with the narrative that was generated in Hong Kong in the 1960s, documented by the afore mentioned piece in the South China Morning Post.
The Chinese-style of martial arts is centered around self-defense, something Byrd decided was a necessity after a life-changing experience. She was the victim of a home invasion 20 years ago and had no idea what to do during the invasion. The paralyzing helplessness gave Byrd a new outlook.
“If I was gonna go down, I was gonna go down fighting,” Byrd said.
Are you ready for a shocker? Bruce Lee is set to make another appearance on the big screen, this time in a Quentin Tarantino project (Once Upon a Time in Hollywood). And Shannon Lee, who was not consulted on the project, is not happy.
“With Tarantino’s film, to not have been included in any kind of way, when I know that he reached out to other people but did not reach out to me, there’s a level of annoyance – and there’s part of me that says this is not worth my time and my energy,” she told Deadline. “Let’s just see how the universe deals with this one.”…
“In these instances, there are a lot of different ways you can go,” said Lee, executive producer of the new HBO television series Warrior, which is based on writings by her father.
“If they contacted me, I could be completely unreasonable and a pain in the a** and make all kinds of ridiculous demands – but they don’t know that I’m not going to do that.”
I am going to go out on a limb here and say that, reading between the lines, Tarantino and his studio may have known exactly how that conversation was going to go down….
This news update has already run long, but there are some quick highlights from the field of martial arts studies that I would like to underline. First off, the fifth annual Martial Arts Studies meetings, held this year at Chapman University in California were a great success. This was the first year that the meetings were held in North America and it was great to see so many new faces and yet to feel the familiar sense of friendship and excitement that always makes these meetings memorable. I suspect that we will be seeing many of the papers from this years conference making their way into special issues or edited volumes. But in the mean time, check out my conference report here.
I didn’t have a lot of time to relax after these meetings as I had to head to Tel Aviv University for another conference, this one exploring many facets of life in Imperial China. It was a wonderful opportunity to finally meet Prof. Meir Shahar, author of the groundbreaking study of Shaolin Temple, as well as Israel Kanner and Eric Kozin, two graduate students doing great research (with previously unknown documents) in the field of Chinese martial arts history. My own paper examined methodological issues in the development of Martial Arts Studies. I will be posting that on the blog soon, but in the mean time you can read about the event here.
Nor is all of the fun behind us. There are literally so many upcoming conferences in the next year I am having a hard time keeping them all straight. Luckily Paul Bowman has done the heavy lifting on that task. Be sure to check out his post on the conference situation, publishing opportunities and all of the outstanding calls for papers. Note, the first deadline for next years MAS meetings (to be held in Southern France!) are upon us. No one said that the studying Kung Fu would be easy. Get those proposals in!
Kung Fu Tea on Facebook
A lot has happened on the Kung Fu Tea Facebook group over the last few months. We have seen Kung Fu documentaries, discussed new translations of classic martial arts manuals 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!