A Time for Lists
Holidays are the rhythm section of life. They provide the beat that gently nudges us towards the next phase of the yearly cycle. While holidays like Christmas, Hanukah and Yule have a distinctly timeless quality to them, New Years in when we flip the hourglass and obsesses over the clocks. It is our portal back into mundane time where daily life can take place.
And nothing drags one kicking and screaming back to reality quite like a list. We have lists of things that we have done, lists of those tasks yet to be undertaken, and seemingly endless lists of the ways in which we could be better human beings in the coming year. Forget the ball dropping in Times Square, or fireworks lighting the skyline. New Years is fundamentally a celebration of human anxiety congealed as a list. This tendency is all the stronger as we approach the end of a tumultuous decade.
Everywhere we turn our social media feeds are full of lists. As responsible scholars and social scientists one might assume that it is our role to study and critique this tendency. And at another time of the year that might be exactly what I would do. But since making lists (which hopefully inspire a little conversation) can also be great fun, here are my picks for the top ten stories, events and people that defined the Chinese martial arts over the course of the last decade.
As many readers will be aware, I provide regular (usually monthly) updates and discussion of the appearance of Chinese martial arts in the new. In researching this feature, I have gone back through these posts, talked with friends, and meditated on the state of the Chinese martial arts. I looked for either “critical events” or examples of stories or discourses that appeared repeatedly, shaping our collective discussion of these fighting systems.
Of course, “Chinese martial arts” is a huge topic comprised of many distinct communities and trends. As such I have likely missed some critical stories. Or maybe my list is just different from yours? In either case, feel free to let us know what you think the top stories of the last decade have been in the comments section below. Alternatively, what sort of events and trends are likely to define the next decade in the Chinese martial arts?
Without further ado, lets get on with the list!
Top Ten News Stories about the Chinese Martial Arts during 2010-2020.
10. Intangible Cultural Heritage – This was the decade when we all became familiar with the UNESCO’s ICH designations, and what at times seemed like a mad rush among various traditional hand combat groups to achieve formal recognition as critical pillars of local heritage. In point of fact, a variety of scholars have noted that ICH designations can be something of a mixed bag for the traditions deemed worthy of preservation. Very often a subtle shift happens where the intended audience for some skill is now an international cadre of intellectuals or government officials, and not the local people who originally practiced a given system. This can lead to painful forms of displacement as outsiders appear to tidy things up. While ICH granting bodies have anticipated and tried to ameliorate these problems, there are still debates in the world of dance, music, and food culture as to the actual costs and benefits of such designations.
In point of fact relatively few martial arts have ever been granted official ICH status at the highest level. However, with the encouragement of the UN, individual member states, regions and even cities have been dutifully compiling their own lists of local practices which they want to see preserved and promoted. These more regional lists are full of practices that are of interest to students of martial arts studies.
Hong Kong caught the ICH bug in 2014 when the city’s government released a massive list of local practices that deserved preservation. Unsurprisingly the Southern Chinese martial arts and Cantonese opera were both well represented. Multiple lineages of Wing Chun even received special mention.
Nor was Hong Kong alone in these efforts. Henan is rightly proud of both its Shaolin and Chen Taijiquan traditions, and has sought to use ICH designations to promote investment and tourism in the region. Shanghai also got in on the act creating a “Jingwu heritage zone” in the city and promoting a revival of “Lost Track” boxing.
Still, the biggest ICH debates in the last two years have focused on Taijiquan. A number of voices within Chinese social media loudly promoted the idea that Chinese government should submit Taijiquan for UNESCO recognition. They even circulated rumors that if China did not do this now another country (either South Korea or Japan) might attempt to steal credit for Taijiquan. Ultimately Taijiquan didn’t make the cut (at least not this year). But the notion of ICH has become a focal point of discussions regarding the preservation and value of the Chinese martial arts in ways that would have been surprising at the start of the decade. They have also been an avenue whereby different levels of government have been able to exercise a degree of control over how the Chinese martial arts are discussed, structured and promoted within global discourse. But more on that aspect of the story later.
9. The Rise of Combative Weapons Training – Our next item is less a group of news stories than it is a multifaceted trend. For decades it had been a trope that one thing separating the Chinese martial arts from their Japanese, Filipino or even Western counterparts was a fundamentally different philosophy of weapons training. Where practices like Kendo, Escrima and HEMA all use antagonistic competition and sparring to sharpen their skills, the traditional Chinese martial arts eschewed most forms of sparring and even practical cutting. Most traditional Chinese martial arts relied on taolu and the occasional practice of specific applications to transmit their practices. Aside from wooden swords (which are generally less likely to get you in trouble when practicing the afore mentioned forms in your local park), they hadn’t developed much in the way of specialized safety gear or rule sets which would allow more competitive exchanges to take place.
There have always been a few individuals who promoted a more practical approach to Chinese fencing and other weapons. Scott M. Rodell’s work comes to mind, as does my own Sifu’s reconstruction of the hudiedao sword form in Wing Chun. Chad Eisner’s Sword Lab was another such project. But it was only in the last decade that these sorts of interests went mainstream.
It is now possible to buy pre-made nylon or steel training blades which offer better handling than relatively delicate wooden jian and dao. Likewise, a variety of individuals have taken to translating and attempting to recreate Ming era weapon treaties in ways that are not unlike the approach to text and practice seen in HEMA. Other individuals have had luck in promoting daqiang, or military long spear practice, through the creation of a competitive league. Finally, some swordsmiths in China are turning to experimental archeology in an attempt to recreate the blades (and to a lesser extent the techniques) of the Han and Song dynasties. These are periods from which no texts or living traditions currently exist, so scholars and hobbyists alike are forced to rely on the archeological record and then make their best guesses as to how things might have been used based on the elements of Chinese martial culture that survived (or “ethnographic inference”).
This trend is diverse in both its origins and methods. Still, what provides a sense of cohesion among the various groups and movements is a belief that more “practical” methods of training, sparring and cutting are necessary to preserve (or perhaps resurrect) a vital part of Chinese martial tradition. The emergence of unarmed boxing as a major pursuit dates to the late Ming, and it didn’t come to define the Chinese martial arts until the Qing. Anyone interested in the “deep history” of the Chinese martial arts will probably want to spend a lot of time with long spears, swords, bows and horses, topics that are rarely discussed in most modern martial arts schools.
These trends have been criticized from various quarters. Certain HEMA practitioners have questioned whether the illustrations and descriptions found in Ming Era manuals (or even later works) are really sufficient to reconstruct fighting traditions in the same way that they use German or Italian sources. Meanwhile, students of the traditional Chinese martial arts have expressed suspicions that these efforts are merely an attempt to do an end-run around the existing living traditions by individuals without the connections or disposition to invest in the surviving arts. And it’s all too easy for anyone to note that while we may be able to recreate the weapons of ancient dynasties, experimental archeology and ethnographic inference are weak reeds to lean on when trying to reconstruct martial cultures that have been lost for more than a millennium.
Still, there is little sign that these criticisms are dampening anyone’s enthusiasm for the project. Within China the urge to recreate ancient military practices is clearly related to the growing Hanfu clothing movement as well as the uptick in cultural self-confidence and nationalism that is driving it. And in the West the notion that one should be able to recover the practical aspects of weapons taolu and test them in combative practice has basically achieved the status of common sense (though that doesn’t mean that everyone has access to the skills, tools and training partners to carry such a plan out). The popularization of combative weapons training has started to transform the practice of the Chinese martial arts in fundamental ways during the previous decade, and its likely to define much of what they become in the next.
8. Hing Chao – Our eighth trend of the decade can be summed up as a single name. While some individuals may be unfamiliar with the name Hing Choa, he was responsible for generating many of the stories about the Southern Chinese martial arts (and most recently, the Hakka fighting systems) that we have all been reading for the past decade.
Hing Chao is an independently wealthy scion of the family behind the Wah Kwong Group, who made their fortune in shipping. You can read short biographical sketches of his background and accomplishments in many places. Most will note that after graduating from the University of Durham with a degree in philosophy he was sent to Beijing by his family who were worried that he had become too westernized. After that he became involved in the preservation of nomadic cultures in northern China, basically creating his own salvage ethnography project. A lifelong martial artist Chao then turned his sights to the declining fortunes of the Southern Chinese martial arts, particularly those found in the Pearl River delta.
Some of his first projects focused on attempts to preserve the physical or architectural heritage of Hong Kong’s martial arts. However, as we all know there is nothing particularly profitable about the martial arts and both Hong Kong’s administration and its real estate developers are notoriously unsentimental when it comes to honoring the past. Still, Hing Chao’s efforts generated a fair amount of discussion.
Other projects have been more successful. Hing Chao has created various festival and conferences dedicated to showcasing the Southern Chinese martial arts. He has been an active force in the publishing world, producing multiple books that are mandatory reading. He also produced the semi-scholarly English language journal Chinese Martial Studies. While few of the articles published in this outlet made any sort of original theoretical contributions, its empirical contribution were great and I thought it had a bright future translating some of the best work of Chinese scholars on these subjects. Sadly, that publication’s run was shorter than it deserved to be.
Perhaps Hing Chao’s greatest contributions have been in the realm of the collection and organization of a vast digital archive of southern Chinese martial arts techniques and styles. Given the declining fortunes of many of these communities the entire project feels a bit like a return to the salvage ethnography of his work with nomadic peoples. Still, this work has led to collaboration with a number of academic institutions and I suspect that we will be hearing more about the fruits of these efforts in the future.
As I went back through the news posts archived at Kung Fu Tea I was struck by how many of the big stories over the last decade were generated by, or somehow connected to, Hing Chao. Better yet, in an era when there has been so much negative news, these stories were almost always hopeful and upbeat. I cannot think of any person (who is not named Donnie Yen) who has done more in the last decade to keep the Southern Chinese martial arts in the news. If you would like to hear more about his work why not check out his TedX talk?
7. The Creation of Martial Arts Studies – It may seem a bit self-serving, but I think one can make the argument that the rise of the interdisciplinary field Martial Arts Studies, in its current incarnation, has had quite an impact on the way that the Chinese martial arts are discussed and imagined in the last decade. The sort of mythmaking and commercial self-aggrandizement that defined the public discussion of these systems during the 1980s or 1990s is almost impossible to imagine today. Indeed, the amount of high-quality research about all of the traditional martial arts currently available to anyone with an internet connection is absolutely staggering. While the practice of the Chinese martial arts may be under increased pressure, we are currently living in a golden age of scholarly study and understanding.
Dating the advent of this golden age is actually somewhat tricky. Academic fields are cooperative endeavors so none of them can properly be said to stem from a single event. And in any case, Martial Arts Studies has had many precursors. Some of these sought to find a place in the University, such as Donn F. Draeger’s Hoplology project, while others, such as the Journal of Asian Martial Arts (JAMA), while occasionally publishing article by individuals with academic credentials, remained a fundamentally para-scholarly exercise. Of course, certain academic disciplines, notably film and media studies, anthropology and history, were more accepting of publications discussing the martial arts than most fields in the social sciences.
One could make a good argument that the first scholarly, theoretically rigorous and peer reviewed, emergence of Martial Arts Studies occurred in the summer of 2014 when JOMEC released a special issue dedicated to the topic. Of course one might also point to the publication of Farrer and Whalen-bridge’s edited volume Martial Arts as Embodied Knowledge (SUNY, 2012) or even Green and Svinth’s Martial Arts in the Modern World (Praeger, 2003). Still, when you look at the type of work that is currently being produced, as well as the scholars who are publishing it, one might be able to make the strongest argument for the JOMEC special issue.
Regardless of the exact date of its genesis, it’s clear that things have moved quickly in the last decade. We have seen a virtual avalanche of high-quality monographs coming out of the top university and commercial presses. Book series, journals (including Martial Arts Studies), grants and regular conferences have all followed suit. It’s clear that the current incarnation of Martial Arts Studies, while still relatively new, has found a degree of acceptance within the University that would have been unthinkable a few years ago. And as junior professors come up for tenure, and more graduate students undertake research in this area, this trend shows no sign of reversing course. It is also gratifying to see so many practitioners contributing to this growing literature. Scott Phillips work on the connections between opera, ritual and the martial arts comes to mind.
I have watched with great interest in recent years as individuals and ideas from Martial Arts Studies have begun to make increasingly frequent appearances not just in academic conferences, but also in popular documentaries and newspaper interviews. And it is not at all unusual to see the work of Meir Shahar or Peter Lorge cited in on-line debates over some aspect of the Chinese martial arts.
The Chinese martial arts actually seem to be somewhat overrepresented within the current Martial Arts Studies literature. As a journal editor I actually find myself searching for more research on MMA, Japanese, European and African fighting arts just to balance things out a bit. I suspect that this enthusiasm stems in part from the mix of people who made up the earliest efforts in this area. Scholars such as D. S. Farrer, Paul Bowman, Daniel Mroz and myself all had backgrounds in these fighting systems. Also, the prominence of the academic literature on action cinema and Kung Fu films ensured that media figures such as Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung would play a prominent role in the first generation of scholarly debates.
It is no secret that the martial arts publishing industry has suffered in recent years, mostly because people now go to Facebook and YouTube to research different fighting arts or training methods. The growing market for scholarly or para-scholarly work has been one of the few bright spots, and it seems to have had a genuine impact on the way that these systems are understood. On a recent trip to Barnes & Noble I dropped by the ever shrinking section dedicated to martial arts books (which is now, somewhat remarkably, smaller than the section on long distance running). Along with a handful of MMA training manuals, Bruce Lee reprints, and some tantalizing books about ninjas, I found a copy of Meir Shahar’s Shaolin Monastery. While this volume slightly predates the decade under discussion, it’s presence indicates that something fundamental had shifted in the sorts of discussions that practicing martial artists now have access to.
9. The Rapid Growth of MMA in China – On occasion I have had readers wonder why I bother to write about the fortunes of MMA, BJJ, Muay Thai, or even Taekwondo in China. These things are not, they note, traditional Chinese martial arts. Still, I like to take a more expansive view of the situation. One of the academic reasons why we study the Chinese martial arts is to better understand China itself. Whatever type of martial arts training becomes regionally popular, regardless of its geographic point of origin, has something important to tell us.
It is hard to ignore the fact that arts like Taekwondo and BJJ have been growing in popularity in China’s major cities at exactly the same time that traditional Kung Fu organizations are dwindling. Nor can we explain this away by simply pointing to increased rents or the busy lives of students and young professionals. To understand the story of the Chinese martial arts it is necessary to acknowledge and come to terms with shifting cultural desires and preferences.
If we were to focus on only a single such shift in the domestic marketplace in the last decade, without a doubt the most important development would be the meteoric rise of MMA throughout mainland China. If we go back to 2008-2009 many of the news stories addressing the subject took as their starting point the suborn resistance of Chinese audiences and media markets to MMA and the UFC’s model of competition. We were told that Chinese audiences disliked violence, ground work and blood which goes with MMA and wanted a “cleaner game.” Alternatively, the nation had a vast network of Sanda competitions which were already very popular. It seemed unlike that MMA could find a foothold in this media market, or that China’s top competitors would abandon Sanda or Judo for MMA.
These narratives would evolve in important ways over the decade. We moved from the UFC’s (unsuccessful) attempts to market Cung Le (a Vietnamese American fighter) in China, to the rapid growth of competing regional promotion companies like One FC. Most recently, Zhang Weili has brought the UFC renewed prominence when she was named the strawweight champion after knocking out the Brazilian fighter Jessica Andrade in August.
It is hard to understate how important this has been in facilitating the localization of MMA as a Chinese sport which domestic audiences can take pride in. Indeed, the establishment of such a narrative is critical if MMA will be permitted to grow in China. In some ways it also stands in stark opposition to Xu Xiaodong’s attempts to cleanse the country of “fake” TCMA masters. Those efforts have been seen by some in the government and Wushu establishment as attacking important pillars of Chinese society and thus unpatriotic. In contrast, Zhang Weili’s victory inspired stories in dozens of newspapers arguing that in reality the sport of MMA was born in China, either through the efforts of Bruce Lee in Hong Kong, or through the creation of wrestling traditions that would later give rise to Judo and BJJ. Both of these theories are absurd on strictly historical grounds, yet they signal a fundamental shift in how the “Chinese martial arts” have come to be imagined over the last decade.
This wraps up the first half of our discussion of the top trends, people and news stories that defined the Chinese martial arts during the previous decade. Looking back at our list, it is clear that each of these items is still having an impact on how we think about these fighting systems. As such, they will likely continue to influence their development for some time. Watch this space for Part II in the next couple of days where I discuss the top five trends and stories of the last decade.
If you just can’t get enough of lists, why not check out: Five Moments that Transformed Kung Fu