It has been too long since our last news update. Halloween is just around the corner, 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
It’s always nice to start a news report off on a strong note, and the following article might be one of the best that I have read in the last year. Titled “Beyond Shaolin: in search of the kung fu masters of China’s Henan province,” and being published in the South China Morning Post, this piece certainly deserves a look. The author attempts to locate and interview village masters from Henan province whose local styles have largely dwindled next to the industrial-cultural complex that is the Shaolin Temple (including all of its media promotion and outlying Wushu schools). Be sure to check this one out!
Shaolin kung fu is misunderstood. TV shows would have us believe a monk named Bodhidharma, from India, taught yogic type exercises to the Buddhist monks to relieve aches and pains brought on by long periods of meditation….
The truth, though, is more prosaic. The Shaolin Temple lies in a mountain pass not far from the ancient capital of Luoyang. War, banditry and rebellion have long ravaged the area. The temple was often caught in the middle and so kept its own militia. Over hundreds of years, the fighters absorbed various forms of martial arts from the surrounding areas, the temple becoming a hub for the exchange of ideas and the development of kung fu.
If you want to know more about the author you can find a short bio here.
If nostalgia for the good old days of Carradine and Jet Li is more your speed, you might want to see this piece, titled “Reminiscing Shaolin” in the China Daily. Its much more of a “soft ball” discussion of the temple, and very much a personal retrospective. Editorial note, this piece is not 100% factually reliable. Check out Shahar or a source like that if you are interested in the historical details.
Though it was over 30 years ago, I still remember the first time I came here. In 1981, I was a student at Nankai University in Tianjin. It was late August, and together with some classmates, we began our journey with a long train ride to Loyang. A rickety bus up a long, winding dirt road, mud-soaked from summer rains, brought us the rest of the way to a legendary temple called Shaolin at the sacred Mount Songshan.
We arrived at the iconic Shaolin Temple gate. Having grown up in America with the television series “Kung Fu” starring David Caradinne, and as a practicing martial artist immersed in Bruce Lee books and movies, arrival at the gate of the iconic Shaolin Temple was both personal and powerful. Clouds drifted above misty waters like an unmistakably classic Chinese painting. What we would find inside would further awaken the mind, suspended still in a dreamlike astonishment.
“Homeless make friends, ease stress at tai chi class in Utah.” The next article ran in several outlets including the Washington Post and the New York Post. It discusses a program at the Salt Lake City Public Library which runs free Taijiquan classes for the local homeless population. I actually reported on this when the classes first started, and three years later it looks like they are still doing great work and have up to 70 students per class. I would really like to spend some time with group the next time I am in Salt Lake City. It would seem to be an ideal case study of the role that martial arts training can play in marginal and insecure communities.
Our next story comes from the public diplomacy file. I like it as it reminds us how complicated that subject can be. Sometimes public diplomacy is carried out by consular officers and state backed media. But in other cases it is simply the activity of private citizens, or “public-to-public” diplomacy. In this case we have a state backed news outlet picking up a heartwarming story of the more private variety of inter-cultural networking. It follows an English teacher in Shanghai attempting to bridge divides through martial arts instruction.
“We have so many similarities, but also some differences. By knowing where the differences lie, you can have a proper dialogue,” the 54-year-old English teacher at Shanghai University and founding president of Shanghai-based Double Dragon Alliance Cultural Center told Shanghai Daily.
“I hope I can be this kind of bridge to help bring people close together.”
For many, Oliver, known to her Chinese students and friends as Wang Meigui, the Chinese for rose, was that bridge. She is the English lady teaching tai chi to Chinese at Caoyang Park in Putuo District. She is the local expert who brings groups of foreigners to the local communities and encourages them to interact with each other. She is also the workshop organizer or friend who slowly adds more adventurous Chinese food to your diet.”
Not all of the news this month has been so serene. Lots has been going on in the realm of social media fueled challenge fights. As the South China Morning Post notes a “Chinese MMA fighter knocks out two kung fu ‘masters’ in one night, in 72 seconds each.” Interestingly, this seems to be the second time that one of these traditional “Masters” has been publicly pummeled by an MMA fighter, suggesting that the outcome of the match shouldn’t have been much of a surprise to anyone.
All of this has led one editorialist in the SCMP to proclaim that “It’s time to admit most traditional martial arts are fake and don’t actually teach you how to fight.” We have been discussing this article on the Kung Fu Tea’s Facebook group. Lots of good points have been brought up. Hopefully I will have a chance to elaborate a few of my own thoughts on the author’s frustrations later this week.
Is beating up fake Taijiquan masters a political act? It might be when you know that the Taijiquan cultural establishment is backed by a government attempting to use it to promote a global soft power campaign. And refusing to take multiple hints from the police that one should stop probably doesn’t help. Nor does releasing video statements in support of the Hong Kong protesters…If you haven’t read it already you must take a look at Deadspin’s article on how Xu has managed to become an unlikely political dissident, and what this suggests about the state of both China and its martial arts.
Did Bruce Lee create mixed martial arts in Hong Kong?
So asks the following short animated documentary published by the SCMP. In case you are wondering, the short answer is “No.” For a slightly more elaborate discussion of how and why non-fictional discussions of the martial arts so often go badly, please see this recent essay on “Martial Arts Documentaries and their Discontents.”
Bruce Lee is rarely absent from our news updates, but in the last month he seems more omnipresent than usual. Not all of the stories are happy. It has been widely reported that Lee’s former home in Hong Kong has been destroyed despite a decades long campaign by his fans to save it. The Hong Kong government has shown little enthusiasm for any sort of permanent museum or attempt to preserve Lee’s memory architecturally, and there are few things less romantic than Kong Kong’s real estate markets. This loss does not come as much of a surprise.
Bruce Lee also showed up in a few other discussions of MMA in China. He received a nice shout-out from Zhang Weili, who has certainly given the sport’s Chinese fans a boost in energy and enthusiasm. The SCMP ran this article on her career and evolution as a fighter. It’s well worth checking out. I particularly liked some of the discussion of her early life and introduction to the martial arts.
“Zhang’s childhood in Hebei province was filled with scrapes, schoolyard fights, sports and training in martial arts – inspired by the success of pioneering former women’s world champion Ronda “Rowdy” Rousey.
Zhang was a tough little girl and often defended her friends, who relied on her when bully boys pushed them around. “I would make them run,” Zhang said. “I loved to do that, to protect my friends. I wasn’t afraid of the bullies or of a fight.”
What aspects of Chinese culture do foreigners have the most positive associations with? What do they see as being truly indicative of Chinese culture? And what about it is desirable? A recent survey suggests that both food and the traditional martial arts rank very highly on almost everyone’s list. Yet their relative ranking varies. More people in developed countries thought cuisine best represented Chinese culture, while more respondents in developing countries chose TCM and martial arts, according to the survey. I thought that was an interesting fact, and it might go a long ways toward explaining the sorts of Kung Fu diplomacy that we currently see in the developing world. After all, programs like those can’t succeed if there is no demand for the cultural products that they offer.
“Chinese Kung Fu opens new chapter for China-Kuwait military exchanges.” So proclaims the Shanghai Daily. The article reports on the progress of Chinese military trainers attempting to build relationships between the PRC and the armed forces of multiple countries in the Middle East.
“Li Shanliang, head of the training group, had traveled to Jordan and Romania for training foreign soldiers and has accumulated a lot of experience in training foreigners.
Considering the foreigners’ interest in Chinese Kung Fu, Li combined Wing Chun Kung Fu and foreign fighting techniques and adopted a new fighting method, which was widely welcomed by Kuwaiti soldiers.
“I hope to break the traditional Chinese martial arts into modern fighting techniques, not only to strengthen the body, but also to make good use of it, so that Chinese Kung Fu can be passed down and carried forward,” he noted.
According to Li, the KNG soldiers who participated in the training were very eager to learn the Chinese Kung Fu.”
You know those self-help books on business management strategies that sit around in piles at airport book stores that we all instinctually ignore? Well it looks like we might have to take a second look at those shelves. There is a new book out there on how Wing Chun can make your business better. Yeah?
“What Really Kept ‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’ from a China Release?” This article in the Los Angeles Magazine suggests that the answer might be more complicated than it first appears. Yes, Shannon Lee did appeal to Chinese censors who requested that the movie be recut to eliminate most of the material with Lee. However, this reporter thinks that the film may have basically been a victim of bad timing. Lee’s elevation to patron saint of the Hong Kong protests may be an issue, as is simmering cultural tensions set off by Trumps trade war and the recent explosion of hostility towards the NBA. Also, Shannon’s attempts to shut the project down may be secondary to her own efforts to negotiate a movie deal about her father in China. Still, with close to $370 million in global ticket sales to date, an extended directors cut headed to theaters, and lots of Oscar buzz, neither Tarantino or Sony seem all that upset about missing out on a China release.
Finally, lets close this news segment out with one final story touching on the Little Dragon’s legacy. Bruce Lee’s LA studio has reopened in Chinatown (under new management….)
The studio opened on Sunday at 628 College Street, but the 1964 building was vacant for a long stint; it’s housed the Chinatown Dental Center for at least a decade. The studio will be led by Los Angeles native Eric Carr, a student of Lee’s student Jerry Poteet, told the station he grew up “poor and surrounded by bad influences.” He met Poteet in 2001 and traveled to China, where he studied Taoist philosophy. Today, he’s fluent in Mandarin Chinese, Tai Chi, and Taoist Feng Shui.
Martial Arts Studies
There are have a few interesting notes on the Martial Arts Studies front. First off, check out this essay on the importance of interdisciplinary work and the value of PhD researchers employed outside of the academy (two of my favorite subjects). Who wrote it? You guessed it, someone interested in Martial Arts Studies. Sadly he didn’t get much support for his project inside of academics. I think it is easy to forget how recent the growth of our field really is. The piece is titled “Leaving academia: there are still opportunities to make a difference in research.”
Next, I would like to draw everyone’s attention to some recent publications and forthcoming books:
Michael Staack. 2019. Fighting As Real As It Gets: A Micro-Sociological Encounter (Beiträge zur Praxeologie / Contributions to Praxeology). J.B. Metzler. 208 Pages. $55 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 trainings, 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 is a Research Associate at the Institute for Sports Sciences, Department ‚Social Science of Sports‘ at the Goethe-University Frankfurt a.M.
Staging Brazil: Choreographies of Capoeira is the first in-depth study of the processes of legitimization and globalization of Capoeira, the Afro-Brazilian combat game practiced today throughout the world. Ana Paula Höfling contextualizes the emergence of the two main styles of capoeira, angola and regional, within discourses of race and nation in mid-twentieth century Brazil. This history of capoeira’s corporeality, on the page and on the stage, includes analysis of illustrated capoeira manuals and reveals the mutual influences between capoeira practitioners, tourism bureaucrats, intellectuals, artists, and directors of folkloric ensembles. Staging Brazil sheds light on the importance of capoeira in folkloric shows in the 1960s and 70s―both those that catered to tourists visiting Brazil and those that toured abroad and introduced capoeira to the world.
ANA PAULA HÖFLING is an assistant professor of dance at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. She splits her time between North Carolina and Brazil.
Gyozo Molnar, Sara N. Amin, Yoko Kanemasu (Editors). Women, Sport and Exercise in the Asia-Pacific Region: Domination, Resistance, Accommodation. Routledge. 275 pages. $48 USD.
Although socio-cultural issues in relation to women within the fields of sport and exercise have been extensively researched, this research has tended to concentrate on the Western world. Women, Sport and Exercise in the Asia-Pacific Region moves the conversation away entirely from Western contexts to discuss these issues with a sole focus on the geographic Asia-Pacific region.
Presenting a diverse range of empirical case studies, from bodybuilding in Kazakhstan and Thailand, karate in Afghanistan, and women’s rugby in Fiji to women’s soccer in North Korea and netball in Papua New Guinea, the book demonstrates how sports may be used as a lens to examine the historical, socio-cultural and political specificities of non-Western and post-colonial societies. It also explores the complex ways in which non-Western women resist as well as accommodate sport and exercise-related sociocultural oppression, helping us to better understand the nexus of sport, exercise, gender, sexuality and power in the Asia-Pacific area.
This is a fascinating and important resource for students of sports studies, sports management, sport development, social sciences and gender studies, as well as an excellent read for academics and researchers with an interest in sport, exercise, gender and post-colonial studies.
Readers should note that multiple chapters dealing with martial arts (including both Karate and TCMA) are included in this volume. I am sure that many of the discussions will be theoretically interesting, but students of Gender Studies and Martial Arts Studies will probably want to be aware of these new offerings.
Kung Fu Tea on Facebook
A lot has happened on the Kung Fu Tea Facebook group over the last few months. We debated the nature and effectiveness of the Chinese martial arts, read vintage Plumb Blossom manuals, and discussed everything that can wrong with go martial arts documentaries. 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!