It’s the end of summer, autumn is in the air, and now 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.
Let’s get to the news!
Chinese Martial Arts in the News
We are saddened to begin this update by noting the passing of Brian Kennedy, a long time student of Chinese Martial Studies who will be remembered for his many articles and two co-authored books, Chinese Martial Arts Training Manuals (2005) and Jingwu: The School that Transformed Kung Fu (2010). I wrote a few words on contributions to the development of Martial Arts Studies, which can be found here. His loss is all the more shocking to the community as Brian was still relatively young and full of life. Our thoughts are with his wife Elizabeth, family and many friends.
As I write these news updates its not unusual to discover one or two events that really drive the media coverage of the Chinse martial arts for a few weeks at a time. This month there were two such issues. The first was was the victory of Zhang Weili over Brazil’s Jessica Andrade to claim the UFC’s women’s straw weight title. This makes Zhang the first Chinese champion within the UFC. The symbolism of her victory was all the more potent as the fight itself took place in China, a market where the UFC has struggled to find a foothold.
Needless to say, Chinese fans and martial artists have been thrilled. All of this has led to a flood of stories on Zhang Weili in the Chinese press, and a few of these have even found their way into English. The entire thing has been interesting as the Chinese media has had a complex relationship with MMA which has often been seen as discrediting the traditional Chinese martial arts, and thus humiliating China itself. Zhang’s victory resulted in a number of pieces seeking to more fully embrace the rising star and her sport.
One article in Xinhuanet stands out as a strong example of this genre. It is titled “A thousand years of history in one 42-second victory.” The author writes from an avowedly nationalistic position claiming, among other things, to document China’s importance to the development of the mixed martial arts. The argument is advanced in a short (notably unreliable) historical sketch. It is not very useful when it comes to understanding the actual development of the UFC, but very revealing in illuminating the changing place (and mythology) of MMA within Chinese popular culture.
The South China Morning Post also dedicated a fair amount of coverage to the fight. The more “human interest” pieces also sought to bridge some of the outstanding gaps between the new champion and a practice that has often been associated with Western culture. But this time the goal seems to have been to make her more accessible within a local marketplace rather than nationally. For instance, this article focuses on her relationship with the Bruce Lee legacy and even notes that she visited his home town of Foshan. These seem to be details that would appeal to students of Southern China’s martial culture.
Anyone skimming the headlines will likely notice a second trend in the recent press coverage of the Chinese martial arts. After action reports of government supported Wushu demonstrations in exotic locations are never rare. Indeed, there seems to be a main mechanism by which diplomatic officials seek to project the “soft power” of the Chinese martial arts into global marketplaces. But there has been a sudden and quite notable uptick in these events over the last few weeks. If one reads a little further what quickly becomes evident is that most of these international demonstrations have been organized to celebrate the fast approaching 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. This anniversary seems to have taken on additional symbolic significance and the government has determined that martial arts demonstrations are a great way to mark the occasion in cities around the world.
One of the better accounts that I came across in the China Daily followed events at an exhibition in Bucharest:
A dozen Chinese martial arts athletes performed for nearly 500 spectators, demonstrating some 20 varieties of traditional Chinese martial arts, including nanquan, changquan, taijiquan, taiji fan, nine-section whip, southern stick and swordsmanship. 13 Romanian martial arts athletes, most of them the best practitioners in their country, also showed their skills at the event.
The event, one of a series of activities organized by the Chinese Embassy in Romania to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China and of the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and Romania…
Other events have also been held in Eastern Europe and the Baltic region. For instance, Xinhuanet carried an account of a demonstration in Tallinn which also explicitly linked the event to international efforts to celebrate the PRC’s 70th anniversary.
Similar things are happening throughout the developing world. This article in interesting as the remarks presented by the Chinese Ambassador seem to frame the traditional martial arts in almost Manichean terms, rather than focusing on the health, character development and global friendships that seems to define the talking points seen at these events. One certainly runs across an interest in justice in Wuxia stories and Kung Fu movies, but its not typically the rhetoric that one expects to see here.
In his remarks, Ambassador Rao stressed the importance of the sport. “Kung-fu has profound values and morality in Chinese philosophy. It is a good demonstration and reminder that we should not let evil deeds prevail over the good.”
This was not the only “Kung Fu Diplomacy” story related to events in Africa. Xinhuanet put together this short video essay on a group of African students who had been sent to China to study traditional martial arts. It is well done and fairly short. I would suggest checking it out.
Not all such stories are the result of government or diplomatic initiatives. This article profiled a Sanda team, desperately in need of some sort of community or corporate sponsorship, in India. It frames the promotion of Sanda among female athletes as something that began as a way to resist the rising tide of sexual assaults that have been so much in that country’s headlines.
Chinese Martial Arts on the Big and Small Screen
There didn’t seem to be much news on new martial arts films and TV projects over the summer, but things are starting to pick up. I noted a number of articles in the last few weeks on a series titled the Wu Assassins. Somehow I missed this one, but after reading a few pieces like this, I think I will need to track it down.
I expect that for most readers of this blog the big news will be that there is now a release date (in China) for Ip Man 4. Apparently this film will focus on a fictional visit in which Ip Man comes to America to help out his student Bruce Lee, and then somehow manages to end up in a fight with the US Marine Corp. That last bit seems unlikely. Then again, the thought of Ip Man getting on a boat or plane in the 1960s to travel to California is also way off the historical reservation. Please don’t email me asking if any of this really happened, it did not. Still, one can’t help but notice that the storyline of this latest film seems to correlate with the growing animosity between the American government and China.
According to the production company Bona Film Group, the movie is about Ip’s famous protégé Bruce Lee, who opens a martial arts school in San Francisco but upsets the local martial arts community and is later challenged by some racists in America. Ip then teaches Lee how to defend China’s national integrity with kung fu when the discrimination and bullying against Chinese people escalate.
A new trailer and a new poster were unveiled on Thursday, showing Ip goes alone to a U.S. Marine Corps military camp and engages in some kung fu fighting scenes there.
This is not the only place that Lee shows up in our news round-up. The South China Morning Post (a reliable source of coverage on all things Little Dragon related) notes that a number of his personal effects are expected to be auctioned off in the next few days. This includes a few particularly important documents including his “Definate Chief Aim” statement, which is so often discussed by Bruce Lee biographers and historians. It will be interesting to see how much all of this goes for.
Finally, a Chinese martial art master has set a world record for blowing out candles with nunchakus. Who even knew that was a thing? Apparently it is.
Martial Arts Studies
As always, a lot has been going in the world of Martial Arts Studies. Eric Burkart’s conference “Fighting – Knowledge – Bodies: Historical Perspectives on Fighting Practices” has just wrapped up at the University of Trier. Hopefully we will be having a full report on that in the next week. I can’t wait to hear more about the papers that were presented there.
And we have a new crop of books to look forward to. The first of these is:
R. F. Gonzalez. 2019. Chinese Gong Fu: Toward a Body-Centered Understanding (Released October 8th). McFarland. 275 pages. $40 USD.
Gong fu, the indigenous martial art of China, was exported into American popular culture through numerous “kung fu” movies in the 20th century. Perhaps the most renowned of the martial arts in the U.S., gong fu remains often misunderstood, perhaps because of its esoteric practices that include aspects of Daoism, Confucianism, Buddhism and other syncretic elements.
Using the science of embodiment–the study of the interaction between body, mind, cognition, behavior and environment–practitioner and teacher R.F. Gonzalez explores the relationships among practitioner, praxis, spirituality, philosophy and the body in gong fu. Drawing on familiar routines, films, artifacts and art, the author connects the reader to ancient Chinese culture, philosophy, myth, shamanism and ritual.
J.B. Metzler. 2019. Fighting As Real As It Gets: A Micro-Sociological Encounter. 208 pages. $75 USD.
Michael Staack’s multi-year ethnography is the first and only comprehensive social-scientific analysis of the combat sport ‘Mixed Martial Arts’. Based on systematic training observations, the author meticulously analyses how Mixed Martial Arts practitioners conjointly create and immerse themselves into their own world of ultimate bodily combat.
With his examination of concentrative technique demonstrations, cooperative technique train-ings, and chaotic sparring practices, Staack not only provides a sociological illumination of Mixed Martial Arts culture’s defining theme – the quest of ‘Fighting As Real As It Gets’. Rather further-more, he provides a compelling cultural-sociological case study on practical social constructions of ‘authenticity’.
Michael Staack (Author) Michael Staack is a Research Associate at the Institute for Sports Sciences, Department of the Social Science of Sports‘ at the Goethe-University
And last but not least, we have a sneak peak at something coming early next year. I have always loved Luke’s scholarship, and I adore the Kung Fu comedy genre. Needless to say, I am very much looking forward to this book:
Luke White. 2020. Legacies of the Drunken Master: Politics of the Body in Hong Kong Kung Fu Comedy Films (April 30, 2020). University of Hawaii Press. 288 pages. $68
In 1978 the films Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow and Drunken Master, both starring a young Jackie Chan, caused a stir in the Hong Kong cinema industry and changed the landscape of martial arts cinema. Mixing virtuoso displays of acrobatic kung fu with knockabout humor to huge box office success, they broke the mold of the tragic and heroic martial arts film and sparked not only a wave of imitations, but also a much longer trend for kung fu comedies that continues to the present day.
Legacies of the Drunken Master―the first book-length analysis of kung fu comedy―interrogates the politics of the films and their representations of the performing body. It draws on an interdisciplinary engagement with popular culture and an interrogation of the critical literature on Hong Kong and martial arts cinema to offer original readings of key films. These readings pursue the genre in terms of its carnival aesthetic, the utopias of the body it envisions, its highly stylized depictions of violence, its images of masculinity, and the registers of its “hysterical” laughter.
The book’s analyses are carried out amidst kung fu comedy’s shifting historical contexts, including the aftermath of the 1960s radical youth movements, the rapidly globalizing colonial enclave of Hong Kong and the emerging consciousness of its 1997 handover to China, and the transnationalization of cinema audiences. It argues that through kung fu comedy’s images of the body, the genre articulated in complex and often contradictory ways political realities relevant to late twentieth-century Hong Kong and the wider conditions of globalized capitalism. The kung fu comedy entwines us in a popular cultural history that stretches into the folk past and forward into utopian and dystopian possibilities.
Theoretically rich and critical, Legacies of the Drunken Master aims to be at the forefront of scholarship on martial arts cinema. It also addresses readers with a broader interest in Hong Kong culture and politics during the 1970s and 1980s, postcolonialism in East Asia, and action and comedy films in a global context―as well as those fascinated with the performing body in the martial arts.
Kung Fu Tea on Facebook
A lot has happened on the Kung Fu Tea Facebook group over the last few months. We debated MMA’s expansion in China, watched some classic Hung Gar and rescued old steel from a flea market. 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!