Its been a long hot month with lots of Chinese martial arts news. That means that now (before the start of the new semester) is the perfect 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!
The Situation in Hong Kong
Given this blog’s emphasis on the Southern Chinese martial arts (and Wing Chun in particular), I know that many readers are following the unfolding civil unrest in Hong Kong closely. While the US media covered the initial burst of protest following the proposal of the now withdrawn extradition law, the topic quickly faded from the headlines for much of the summer, only to reappear with the escalation in the conflict between the police and pro-democracy demonstrators in the last week or so. More troubling has been the occurrence of new rounds of violence between the demonstrators and gangs of similarly dressed men, often armed with poles or sticks.
Recently the North Point neighborhood became a flash point, and press coverage began to focus on calls for “reinforcements” being sent from the area’s working class Fujianese residents to fellow countrymen from their home villages and cities. Rumors have been circulating in the last few weeks of large groups of men, intent of fighting the pro-democracy demonstrators, crossing the border. While the South China Morning Post has managed to substantiate some of these reports, it has cast substantial doubts on others.
More interesting from our perspective are the persistent rumors that certain Triads (including 14K) and specific martial arts clans are openly siding with Hong Kong’s government against the protesters. I blogged about one set of reports here, and found the actual details of the accusation difficult to verify and somewhat unlikely (in that specific case). Of course this is not to say that similar things could not happen or aren’t happening in other instances. The “fog of war” is precisely why historians usually wait until after events are over to write their books.
Nevertheless, even if it remains difficult to confirm the involvement of specific martial arts groups in the ongoing street violence, it is clear that the area’s rich Kung Fu traditions is being rhetorically invoked and involved in the unrest. More reports out this week have detailed the protesters adoption of Bruce Lee as something of a patron saint. Specifically his thoughts on the nature of JKD, and his famous “Be Like Water” quote, have been used in the creation of a new set of tactics by demonstrators in their confrontation with the police. Note the following report from The Daily Beast.
HONG KONG—A citywide strike and a series of anti-police activities shut down much of what is normally an international financial center and logistics hub here on Monday, as the city entered its ninth week of protests. Cathay Pacific, Hong Kong’s flagship airline, canceled more than 150 flights. The subway was paralyzed. Major banks shut their branches. Shops were closed for the day. The Hang Seng stock index dipped by more than 3.6 percent at market closing, wiping out all gains made since January.
Many of the protesters, who have adopted black as their color and wear it from head to toe, are in their teens or twenties. How did they manage to bring a major city almost to a halt?…..The overarching philosophy behind blackshirt actions is “Be Water,” two words lifted from Bruce Lee’s idea of how to overcome what may seem like insurmountable fear: “Empty your mind, be formless, shapeless, like water… Water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend.” Taking the concept even further, protesters have even formulated four principles: “Be strong as ice, be fluid like water, gather like dew, scatter like mist.”
Bruce Lee’s global fame and strong association with both Chinese nationalism and anti-colonial sentiments make him an obvious figure head for such a movement. However, most of Hong Kong’s other famous martial arts film stars and teachers seem to be taking a low profile and minimizing any public statements. The career risks in speaking out against the government are obvious, as are the negative economic consequences of alienating your younger fans.
Still, not everyone has kept their heads down in what from a marketing perspective appears to be a no-win situation. Jackie Chan, who has a history of pro-Beijing remarks and activities has enraged a fair number of Hong Kongers with recent states like ‘Safety, stability, and peace are just like fresh air, you never know how precious it is until you lose it.’
This politicization of martial art film figures may also be spreading to North America. This is most evident in the recent #BoycottMulan campaign. That was launched following Liu Yifei’s (star of the forthcoming Disney Mulan remake) recent tweets in support in of the Hong Kong Police. In contrast Jet Li and Donnie Yen (also part of the project) have steered clear of the controversy, at least publicly.
All of this puts Disney is a difficult situation as it counting on its live action remakes of classic animated works to be a major sources of corporate earnings in the next year. China is an increasingly important audience for big budget American films, and it is clear that this project has been produced in an attempt to appeal to that market. It is unlikely that Liu’s tweets will have any ill effects within the PRC. However, to create a true global block buster, a film must succeed in all of the major markets, not just one. It is thus worrying to some in Hollywood that the campaign is creating unwanted negative publicity in North America.
One suspects that Disney’s response to the crisis (and the success of the #BoycottMulan hashtag) will probably be contingent on what happens in Hong Kong in the near future. Yet the episode also reveals the very real structural difficulties of appealing to Western and Chinese audiences in moments of political crisis. If relations between China and the United States continue to sour in the coming years, will entertainment companies be forced to release smaller projects that focus on only one market or the other, further fragmenting global popular culture? And what would the long-term impact of that be? These are important points for further consideration.
The situation in Hong Kong is not just effecting the film industry. Dana White recently said that the Hong Kong protests (particularly the two day closure of the airport) have created challenges for the August 31st event that is scheduled to go forward in Shenzhen. Zhang Weili has a fight on that card and is currently looking to become the league’s first Chinese champion.
News From All Over
This transitions us nicely into another, much more interesting, article. While this one addresses the mixed, rather than the traditional, martial arts, I highly recommend it for all readers as it really speaks to important issues in current Chinese martial culture. More specifically, the South China Morning Post recently published a detailed article discussing efforts of Chinese media outlets (on government directives) to censor tattoos on TV. Obviously this would have a huge impact on MMA which has enthusiastically embraced ink and is highly dependent on media exposure for growth within the Chinese marketplace.
Last year, China’s top media regulator, the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television, decreed that media programmes “should not feature actors with tattoos [or depict] hip hop culture, subculture and dispirited culture”, according to a report in Chinese news outlet Sina. This later widened to televised sport, with footballers in China’s three professional leagues told by the Chinese Football Association to cover up tattoos with athletic tape – “no visible ink” was the word from the top. The issue has also appeared to touch MMA and other combat sports with rules said to be in place across CCTV and other major state broadcasters.
This is a wonderful example of the ways in which the regulatory state (this time through the control of the media) can seek to effect the culture of a martial arts community in an attempt to influence something about society more generally. I also found it interesting that while it was claimed that UFC stars were fine to compete in China as they were “foreigners,” the Thai fighters profiled in the piece were not granted the same exceptions. Perhaps this suggests that the media handlers of MMA on CCTV are taking a page from professional wrestling’s book and tattooed Western fighters are bound to be type-cast as the “heel” in an essentialist drama where virtuous Chinese athletes beat the “culturally dispirited” West at their own game?
Speaking of MMA, Xu Xiaodong is continuing his ongoing feud with the existence of Taijiquan. Reports indicate that he has accepted a challenge from ‘tai chi idiot liar’ Fan Shuai Xin, going on to refer to his art as “the biggest martial arts scam in China.” Xu underlined that assertion by pointing to a supposed push-hands type match that Fan Shuai Xin fought with his teacher. As often happens in such meetings, the teacher won with improbable ease. For his part, Fan had some choice things to say about Xu’s declining social credit score and reluctance to accept challenges from any opponent who was not clearly deluded or outmatched.
Finally, the South China Morning Post has just released another story in which Xu Xiaodong is now speaking out in support of the Hong Kong people.
Speaking of Taijiquan, “Lou Reed Tai Chi Day” is now a thing, with the inaugural event being celebrated in multiple cities and countries. This sounds like an interesting gathering, and if it happens in NYC again, I will need to make an effort to get to it.
Bright and early this weekend on the northwest corner of Prospect Park, tai chi enthusiasts, tattooed hipsters, unassuming passersby, and old friends of the late Lou Reed congregated at the front steps of the Brooklyn Public Library. It was 9 a.m. on a sunny Saturday morning, and around the world, people were celebrating the inaugural Lou Reed Tai Chi Day. The Brooklyn edition of the event was planned in collaboration with Reed’s widow, the artist Laurie Anderson, who smiled peacefully over the crowd with her signature spiky hair as she led a morning meditation. Simultaneously, away from Reed’s hometown of New York, celebrations were ongoing in Berlin, Warsaw, San Francisco, and Washington D.C.
NPR recently produced an article titled “Wushu Coaches Help Chinese Students Master Literacy And ‘Become A Better Person.” Its a nice example of the sorts of personal interest reporting that they are known for, and this is another article that I recommend as fun reading. It profiles a couple who run a modern competitive Wushu academy. My favorite bits were the personal histories of the husband and wife team. And watch out for a Foshan connection!
Kung Fu Diplomacy
I have occasionally invoked the term “Kung Fu Diplomacy” on this blog as a sort of metaphor covering all sorts of ways that the promotion of the martial arts within civil society can create a measure of good will in the global environment. But this article is a good reminder that sometimes that sort of diplomacy involves, and is inspired by, by actual government diplomats. In this case representatives from Romania and China signed an agreement in which China promised to donate a sizable amount of martial arts training equipment to that countries Wushu programs. The Romanian diplomats had very nice things to say about the importance of Wushu training and Chinese culture.
We have a few other stories that round out this month’s “Kung Fu Diplomacy” segment. The first, titled “Chinese Martial Arts Legend’s Hometown Attracts African Practitioners,” discusses a three month course of study in China. Note that it was brought to you by the Publicity Department of the Xiqing District of Tianjin.
Eighteen students from six African countries including Zambia, Sao Tome and Principe, Liberia, Equatorial Guinea, Kenya and Zimbabwe became students of the latest martial arts training class in the Xiqing District of north China’s Tianjin, also known as the hometown of legendary martial arts master Huo Yuanjia. Organized by the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, the class kicked off in Tianjin Huo Yuanjia Civil and Military School on July 24, according to the publicity department with Xiqing District, Tianjin.
Next up, is modern life making you lazy? Are your kids addicted to their phones? Try Kung Fu! Someone must think that this article was a winner as I saw that it ran in at least four of the major English tabloids. That is pretty good distribution for a piece like this. Admittedly it is hard to check your messages when doing Kung Fu. But its also hard to follow facebook when swimming….
SAN FRANCISCO, Aug. 3 (Xinhua) — Learning Chinese Kung Fu (martial arts) can help kids develop more meaningful habits by diminishing their addiction to modern electronics devices, a Chinese Kung Fu super star said Saturday….
Bruce Leung [Siu-lung], who was in the Bay Area to attend the Eagle Claw Cup International Wushu (Kung Fu) Invitational Tournament held in Union City, expressed concern about mobile phone addiction by young people. He says they spend too much time in the cyber world, leaving them lost in real life.
“There are a lot of children who are spoiled by their parents and lack independence in real life, and some of them can hardly face setbacks and even commit suicide,” he said. Leung said he was happy to see many foreign people practicing Kung Fu in China, some of whom speak Chinese fluently. “This indicates they are devoting their enthusiasm and energy to Chinese traditional culture.”
The Shanghai Daily ran its own piece on martial arts training and wellness. I actually liked this piece a bit better as it focused on a relationship between an Argentine student in Shanghai (who makes a living teaching Tango) and his Chinese Taijiquan instructors. The narrative focuses on cultural exploration and exchange. Its another article that I would recommend checking out.
The next story is a timely reminder that China isn’t the only country in the Kung Fu Diplomacy game. Both Reuters and the South China Morning Post ran a story titled “Judo diplomacy: Fighting China’s sway in Samoa.” This short video introduced one of Japan’s efforts to push back against Chinese diplomatic expansion within the Pacific Islands using their own traditional sports. Also, as a political scientist I find it really interesting how completely entrenched the metaphor/theory of “soft power” has become in popular discussions of these issues.
Remembering Bruce Lee
The Globe and Mail ran an article titled “Hong Kong’s Bruce Lee: Kung Fu, Art, Life exhibition helps dispel Chinese stereotypes.” The piece discusses a small, temporary exhibit on Bruce Lee (which sounds quite nice) in Hong Kong, while wondering about the reluctance of the city to honor its most globally famous son, and the city’s declining interest in martial arts generally. I am going to go out on a limb here and suggest that the anti-government protesters adoption of the “Be like water” slogan has made the prospects of the city developing a permanent museum or exhibit even more remote.
Finally, as I am sure many of you have read, Quentin Tarantino has responded to criticisms of the “arrogant” portrayal of Bruce Lee in his latest film “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” claiming that it isn’t so inaccurate after all.
“Bruce Lee was kind of an arrogant guy,” Tarantino said at a recent press junket in Moscow….
“The way he was talking, I didn’t just make a lot of that up. I heard him say things like that, to that effect. If people are saying, ‘Well he never said he could beat up Muhammad Ali,’ well yeah, he did. Not only did he say that, but his wife, Linda Lee, said that in her first biography I ever read. She absolutely said that,” the director continued.
Its a fun game to guess how someone who has been dead for decades should have responded to a fictional character who never existed. But if you are interested in reading more about Lee’s personality and life than most people would ever want to know, you could just pick up a copy of Matthew Polly’s recent (and extremely comprehensive) biography. Spoiler alert, Lee was often pretty cocky.
Martial Arts Studies
As always, lots has been happening in the world of Martial Arts Studies, even when everyone has been away for the summer holidays. We will be discussing new conferences, journals and articles in an upcoming edition of the news update. But for now I would like to draw your attention to three very interesting new books. The first of these adds to the mushrooming scholarly literature on Capoeira and seems to approach the art from a perspective that I as a political scientist find fascinating.
Zoë Marriage. 2019. Cultural Resistance and Security from Below: Power and Escape through Capoeira. Routledge. 176 pages. $137 HC/$57 Kindle. (released June 24th).
This book uses the Afro-Brazilian art of capoeira to examine how security has been pursued from below and what significance this has for security analysis and policy. Illegal at the beginning of the twentieth century, capoeira is now a cultural institution and export that is protected by the Brazilian state and recognised by UNESCO, with capoeira players protecting and promoting their interests through the practice and development of their art. The book brings the musical and corporeal narrative from capoeira into conversation with debates on security; these have typically been dominated by northern, white, military voices, and as a result, the perspective of the weaker player is routinely overlooked in security literature and policy making.
Bringing the perspective of the weaker party, Cultural Resistance and Security from Below examines the distribution of security from two angles. First, it presents the history of the interaction between capoeira players and the Brazilian society and state that resulted in political and legal acceptance of capoeira. Second, it explores how the practice of capoeira generates knowledge of identities, explanations and values, and how this knowledge empowers communities of players and is communicated to society more broadly. The book then turns to consider how capoeira resists within Brazil’s contemporary context of insecurity, and what significance the knowledge and power, along with capoeira’s core move of escape, have to security analysis and policy. The book concludes by taking the lessons from capoeira to inform understanding of other cultural activities and ways of life as potential sites and forms of resistance.
Conceptually and methodologically original, this book will be of interest to scholars and students in the fields of security studies, development studies, political science and international studies. It will also be of interest to those scholars interested in the changing interaction between politics and the arts.
Zoë Marriage is a Reader in the Department of Development Studies at SOAS University of London, UK.
Next we have John Christoper Hamm’s latest work. I am really looking forward to this, both because of the importance of Xiang Kairan in defining a new image of the martial arts in China’s Republic era popular imagination, but also because of the quality of Hamm’s prior research. I first encountered Hamm’s writings when I was working on my own volume on the history of the martial arts in the Pearl River Delta and was struck by how much of the actual practice and culture of the martial arts in the late Qing and early republic he managed to pack into the first few chapter of his book on Jin Yong. I can’t wait to get my hand on a copy of his latest book.
John Christopher Hamm. 2019. The Unworthy Scholar from Pingjiang: Republican-Era Martial Arts Fiction. Columbia University Press. 312 pages. $70 USD. August 20, 2019.
In The Unworthy Scholar from Pingjiang, Hamm traces the life and work of Xiang Kairan, one of the most important martial arts novelists of the Republican period. Hamm broadly situates Xiang Kairan into the larger cultural and political landscape of Republican China and investigates the intricacies of the martial arts fiction genre. Hamm is one of the most important literary critics studying martial arts fiction, and this book is a most “worthy” contribution to our understanding of this understudied corner of the modern Chinese literary world. (Michael Berry, University of California, Los Angeles)
Hamm has written a fascinating study of Xiang Kairan, one of the most influential practitioners of the Chinese martial arts (wuxia) novel. In addition to being an exemplary literary biography, The Unworthy Scholar from Pingjiang is a meticulous history of the modern development of the wuxia genre and an insightful reconsideration of the capacious literary category of xiaoshuo (“fiction”). (Christopher Rea, author of The Age of Irreverence: A New History of Laughter in China)
Hamm’s illuminating book paints a vivid picture of the complex literary world of early Republican China, beyond the well-known narratives of New Literature. Like its subject, it bridges traditional and modern Chinese fiction, exploring the literary, economic, and political values mediated by the periodical press and the dominant discourses of the era. An engaging, fresh approach. (Margaret Wan, University of Utah)
An exquisite literary biography, The Unworthy Scholar from Pingjiang is also a definitive study of genre. Hamm demonstrates that Republican-period martial arts fiction was as much part of Chinese modernity as were the highbrow oeuvres of the New Culture movement. His masterful study changes our perception of contemporary Chinese culture. (Meir Shahar, Tel Aviv University)
Finally, there were few individuals more important to the early popularization of the (Japanese) martial arts in America than Teddy Roosevelt. Yet Roosevelt was also the product of, and later helped to shape, a physical culture in which the certain sorts of martial practices (but not others) would thrive. This next book is a more general history opening a window onto an era of history that will be of critical importance to many martial arts historians.
Ryan Swanson. 2019. The Strenuous Life: Theodore Roosevelt and the Making of the American Athlete. Diversion Books, August 20, 2019. 336 pages. $20USD
Crippling asthma and grossly myopic eyesight―as a child, Theodore Roosevelt was plagued by such ailments. Give up exercise completely, he was told by a doctor while attending Harvard, or you might die of a heart attack. Still, Roosevelt pressed on. His body was his weakness, the one hill he could never fully conquer.
But, oh, how he tried!
Roosevelt developed a lifelong obsession with athletics that he carried with him into the highest office in the nation. As President of the United States, Roosevelt boxed, practiced Ju-Jitsu, played tennis, conducted harrowing “point-to-point” walks, and invited athletes to the White House constantly. He also made certain that each of his children participated in athletics. Not surprisingly, Roosevelt’s personal quest had broad reverberations. During his administration, America saw an unprecedented rise in sports and recreational activities. With Roosevelt in office, baseball’s first ever World Series took place, interscholastic sports began, and schools began to place a legitimate emphasis on physical education. Additionally, the NCAA formed, and the United States hosted the Olympic Games for the first time.
And the “Bull Moose,” as he’d come to be known, resided squarely in the midst of this upheaval. He fought desperately (and sometimes successfully) to shape American athletics in accordance with his view of the world. Filled with amazing anecdotes, a who’s who of American political and sports figures from the early 20th century, and Rooseveltian gusto and humor, this book tells the tale of Roosevelt’s struggle, which he termed “The Strenuous Life,” and how it changed America.
Ryan Swanson is an Associate Professor of history at the University of New Mexico’s Honors College.
Kung Fu Tea on Facebook
A lot has happened on the Kung Fu Tea Facebook group over the last few months. We did some test cutting with modern Chinese swords, saw a vintage film on Kendo and translated a Ming era sword manuals. 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!