2020 is now a few days old, and that means that it’s time to reveal our top picks for the news stories, people and trends that shaped the popular discussion of the Chinese martial arts in the last decade. As regular readers will already be aware, I conduct semi-regular (usually monthly) roundups of the press coverage of these fighting arts here at the blog. I spent a good chunk of the last week going through dozens of these to determine which stories and themes had the greatest staying power. In other words, what best reflected and shaped the discussion of the Chinese martial arts in the last decade?
Part I of this list can be thought of as revealing important background trends. These included everything from the increased popularity of MMA in China, to the rise of government backed campaigns to have specific fighting traditions acknowledged as examples of “intangible cultural heritage.” Today’s list things gets a little more specific focusing on the sorts of stories that found their way in major publications or media outlets. Without further ado, let’s get on with the list!
5. Shaolin’s Rocky Decade
Things have been relatively quiet for the last year or so, but for most the decade the Shaolin Temple in Henan province was constantly in the news. Much of this news was exciting. Teams from the temple toured the world promoting Shaolin arts in spectacular staged performances. Large festivals were staged, and seemingly endless streams of tourists flocked to the temple. Efforts were made to preserve the temple’s unique textual and medical traditions.
Other stories were more mixed. Plans were laid out (and then scaled back) for a huge temple-resort complex (complete with golf course and luxury condos) to be built on Australia’s Golden Coast. There were multiple articles about the sanctuary’s business acumen, but also rumors of damaging disputes with the local government over the immense revenue that tourism generates.
A few of the stories were downright disturbing. Among these would be a murder in Spain by a self-proclaimed Shaolin disciple, whose actual connections to the temple were basically non-existent. Then there were accusations of corruption against the Temple’s abbot which, in the current domestic climate in China proved to be very disruptive, even if he was eventually cleared by officials. It was after this incident that Shaolin largely faded from global headlines. More recently here has also been coverage (and criticism) of the temple’s embrace of new government initiatives designed to increase nationalism and loyalty to the party within religious institutions.
The Shaolin temple was one of the most frequently cited institutions in all Western news coverage of the TCMA, and its notoriety within Chinese social media seems to have been almost as large. In a sense, this is not a new thing. Shaolin has defined the popular image of the Chinese martial arts for decades, through films and TV programs (headlined by such figures as Jet Lee and David Carradine). The popularity of the many massive martial arts schools that dominate the local economy of Dengfeng has also helped. In a sense this seems to go all the way back to the Ming Dynasty.
Yet in the 2010s news coverage coming from the temple began to change. In some ways it reflected the larger anxieties about China itself. The growing wealth, influence and sophistication of the institution were lauded, but critics worried that the cradle of Chan Buddhism might be losing its soul. Later these voices would amplify charges of corruption and hypocrisy at exactly the same time that massive government led anti-corruptions were reshaping China’s social landscape. If one believes (as I do) that we should study the martial arts because of what they reveal about the fears, hopes and aspirations of the societies that gave rise to them, then the good news and bad swirling around the Shaolin temple during the 2010’s make for mandatory reading.
4. Bruce Lee Remembered
For a martial artist who passed on in 1973, Bruce Lee has managed to appear in a truly surprising number of films over the last decade. Just consider his recent roles in Ip Man 4 or Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, to say nothing of Birth of the Dragon. He was even digitally resurrected for an ill-conceived effort to sell Johnnie Walker.
More recently Matthew Polly (who previously wrote on the Shaolin Temple) produced what will doubtlessly be remembered as the definitive Bruce Lee biography. Charlie Russo also wrote an important book contextualizing Lee’s efforts within the larger Bay Area martial arts community. While very high quality, both books were aimed at the popular rather than the scholarly or practitioner audience.
In some senses this eternal popularity actually reflects the growing weakness within Hong Kong’s Kung Fu film industry. Where are the next generation of stars to replace figures like Bruce Lee or Jackie Chan in the popular imagination? Why is Donnie Yen still the most recognizable Chinese face in martial arts filmmaking today? There are certainly younger actors appearing in Chinese martial arts films, but they don’t seem to be rising to the same superstar status.
It is also important to consider some of the ways that Bruce Lee has been remembered over the last decade. There were immense nostalgia driven campaigns around just about every anniversary in his life. Whether it was his birth, death or the release of a film, Lee was being constantly invoked in ways that asked us to go back and evaluate our own creative passions, or our own connections with the Chinese martial arts.
This nostalgia driven Lee served as a flexible creative template connected to the creation of everything from music to parkour. More specifically, this decade saw a concerted drive to recontextualize Lee as inspiration, godfather, or possibly creator, of the modern mixed martial arts (MMA). This is an interesting claim as Jeet Kune Do is very much a “mixed-martial art.” But for that matter, almost all fighting styles start life as a mixture and re-evaluation of existing components and techniques. Choy Li Fut, for example, is very much a mixture of existing fighting styles. Nor is that old in the grand scheme of things. But no one sees it as a precursor to MMA.
When Lee is invoked in this capacity something else is implied. He is seen to represent a definitive break with the past. Figures around the UFC (including Danna White) seeking to legitimate MMA in cultural terms began to stress the degree to which Lee served as a spiritual inspiration for what has been constructed. They point to his use of innovative fingered gloves and grappling in the opening scenes of Enter the Dragon.
Recently reports and commentators in China have gone far beyond this, advancing historically problematic arguments that Lee himself was almost singularly responsible for the creation of modern MMA while living in Hong Kong. Dodgy historical foundations notwithstanding, the social function of such claims are transparently obvious. At a time when MMA is gaining popularity in China, there is a perceived need to legitimize and localize what might otherwise be seen as an aggressive foreign sport.
The shared nostalgia around Lee has once again allowed him to act as a bridge between East and West, seeming to validate the argument that “of course MMA was really Chinese all along.” Few commentators mention that these contemporary sporting events bear little resemblance to the street fights that actually inspired Lee and his fellow Wing Chun students in the 1950s and 1960s. Still, the conversation around Lee in the last decade reminds us that memory is a powerful thing, even when we find ourselves collectively nostalgic for that which never existed.
3. Ip Man’s (and Donnie Yen’s) Decade
Many of this blog’s readers are Wing Chun students. As such it is worth reminding ourselves that most people have never heard of Ip Man. But if his name rings a bell it will almost certainly be because they watched one of the many movies about him which have been released in the last decade. While Lee’s image has been haunting magazine covers for decades, Ip Man’s emergence in the pop-culture zeitgeist is a more recent phenomenon.
Ip Man emerged in the popular consciousness in 2008 following Wilson Ip’s eponymously titled film. Most Americans were initially exposed to the film over the next few years on DVD. By 2010 the second installment of his series was released, followed by a third in 2015, and four that is out in theaters now (2019). Nor was Wilson Ip alone in these efforts. Herman Yau released The Legend is Born: Ip Man in 2010. This was followed up with (my personal favorite film in the genre) Ip Man: The Final Fight, in 2013. Wong Kar-Wai’s critically acclaimed “The Grand Master” was also released in 2013. It goes without saying that each of these films inspired its own wave of interviews, media reports and documentaries. It is hard to think of another figure in the Chinese martial arts that has had such critical impact on popular culture over the span of a single decade.
There is some evidence that Ip Man mania was initially fired by the difficulties in securing the rights to make new films about Bruce Lee. The reputations of teacher and student are forever entwined. Still, at this point it’s clear that, as a fictional character, Ip Man has achieved a certain degree of narrative independence from Lee. While his student’s fame pushed Wing Chun into the limelight in the 1970s and 1980s, this new wave of films helped to insulate the art from the decline that gripped so many other TCMA systems during the last decade.
Finally, these efforts also succeeded in more closely binding together the image of Wing Chun practice to Cantonese identity in Hong Kong. For much of the decade Ip Man, and hence Donnie Yen were hailed as authentic local heroes. More recently Yen, and Ip Man 4, have been targeted with boycotts by protesters in Hong Kong for remarks deemed to be sympathetic to Beijing. It will be interesting to see what impact, if any, this has on Ip Man’s image in Hong Kong going forward.
Given the close connection between the two in the public imagination, any decade that is deemed to be good for Ip Man can only be great for Donnie Yen. The success of these films has served to raise his profile with Western audiences. When Lucasfilm began to look for a Chinese martial arts master to be cast in Rogue One, Yen was an obvious choice to play the Chirrut Îmwe, a wandering warrior monk.
Given some latitude to define the character and his fighting style, Yen suggested making the Chirrut a blind warrior, immediately invoking the rich filmic history of such figures in Japanese and Chinese cinema. His character quickly stole the show in what probably remains the best Star Wars movie produced since Disney acquired the franchise. Protestations of the directors and visual dictionaries notwithstanding (which note none of the characters in the film are force sensitive), Yen’s incredible fight choreography and acting abilities left most audience goers in no doubt that the warrior monks was capable of touching the force in some way. China, it seems, had scored its first “Jedi.”
Yen’s importation of the Chinese martial arts into Star Wars is important enough that I almost made it a separate item on this list. But then I remembered that as far as most people (and the internet memes) were concerned, what had just been revealed was that Ip Man was actually a Jedi knight all along….Which is ironic as the real life Ip Man hated stories of mysterious wandering monks and mysterious Qi powers. I am guessing he would not have been a Star Wars fan.
2. This was the decade when the PRC redefined the public conversation on the Chinese martial arts.
There has been a remarkable transformation in the news stories that one encounters on the traditional Chinese martial arts in internet news searches over the last ten years. During the late 1990s and the first decade of the 2000s most seemed to be generated by the domestic martial arts industry of whatever country one might be living in. Content was typically produced by instructors and distributed through either local news reports or the specialized trade press. From there a handful of stories made it onto outlets with wider distribution. Occasionally the Chinese martial arts would receive coverage in the national media, but this was often the result of a major event (like the release of Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon), or as simple human interest pieces (“photo essay of martial arts being practiced at a park in Shanghai.”). These types of stories tended to have a distinct feel to them. They were either underproduced (most reporters know very little about any kind of martial art), or they focused on the sorts of questions and issues that consumed the small business owners that dominated the martial arts landscape.
A quick spin through my recent news updates reveals that things now look very different. There are still stories on successful martial arts films, and the occasional bit of independent reporting. But it seems that the plurality of serious English language discussions of the Chinese martial arts are now being written and produced in China itself, and then distributed in a coordinated fashion through a variety of English language newspapers, tabloids and public TV stations. These pieces are often of high visual quality, and it’s clear that more resources are being lavished on these projects than was ever the case in the past.
Most of these reports share a broadly similar perspective on what the Chinese martial arts are (ancient, mysterious, beautiful and self-orientalizing) and why Westerners should be interested in them (to improve China’s image in the West). What this means is that certain topics are accentuated (local culture, intangible cultural heritage, health benefits) whereas others are treated with silence. Seemingly forbidden topics include serious self-defense training, relationships to crime or socially marginal groups, or any connection to religious traditions in the case of something like Plum Blossom Boxing.
Of course, this is precisely where the interests of many Western martial artists and Chinese media and government officials diverge. There is a lot of interesting educational content about local styles or projects in these stories. But there is something else as well, a not too subtle attempt to bring the global image of the Chinese martial arts in-line (still defined in large part by the memory of Bruce Lee) with the one that has been created for domestic consumption within the PRC.
One might be tempted to get conspiratorial with this, but as it turns out there is no need to speculate. Many of these same articles and reports explicitly discuss the fact that the Chinese martial arts are being promoted by the government to increase China’s “soft power” overseas. Others include quotes and statements not just from government Wushu officials, but actual foreign service officers and ambassadors. In an attempt to leave no room for misunderstanding, the experts and diplomats quoted in these sources often spell out in pretty explicit terms how audiences should understand the martial arts, and what sorts of incorrect beliefs (typically that these things are used for actual fighting) should be abandoned.
It doesn’t take great detective work to understand that the popular English language discussion of the TCMA is currently being shaped by a large, seemingly coordinated, government backed and funded messaging campaign. Still, it is remarkable to type “Chinese Martial Arts” in a Google news search and to count just how many of these hits rise to the top of the algorithm. Such stories were rarer when I started this blog back in 2012. All of which is great news if you happen to be researching and writing on the relationship between public diplomacy and the Chinese martial arts like I am. Indeed, one of the things that is slowing my current manuscript project down is that there is just so much going on at the current moment.
It would also be a mistake to assume that public diplomacy is the same as propaganda, or that it’s an inherently bad thing. In general, public diplomacy campaigns are designed to increase mutual understanding and sympathy between two groups of citizens so as to limit the possibility of unnecessary conflict in the future. Student exchange programs are a classic example.
The US engaged (and still engages) in similar behavior by sponsoring film and art projects around the world, and by sending American musicians on tour. “Jazz diplomacy” was a huge thing during the Cold War. And while much of the current reporting on the martial arts coming out of China doesn’t tell the whole story on a style’s evolution, or even a single master’s career, very few of these reports contain anything like malicious untruths. While reporters are clearly putting China’s best foot forward ,the information that is presented is usually up to date and reported in an open ended way (…just so long as the audience is clear that there is more to the TCMA than Bruce Lee). That is what makes this different from an exercise in propaganda where target audiences are fed mistruths that are designed to weaken or impede them.
After 9/11 the American government renewed its efforts in the field of Public Diplomacy in an attempt to deter future terrorist attacks. This generated a lot of professional and academic literature, and China very quickly absorbed these lessons, and began to create its own institute and long-term projects to promote its own efforts. Something like this is necessary if you don’t want other nations to view your efforts at global expansion as inherently threatening.
Still, it’s worth noting a fundamental difference between the Jazz diplomacy of the Cold War and China’s current Kung Fu Diplomacy. Western Europeans had already decided that they loved jazz, and that it represented much of what was good in American society, long before anyone in D.C. started arranging for concerts in Germany and France. The situation with the Chinese martial arts is more complicated. China appreciates that the martial arts are popular in the West, but seems to be fundamentally uncomfortable with the Western approach to them (Bruce Lee, self-defense, spirituality).
They would like to shift the popular understanding of the martial arts to something that conveys a fundamentally different set of values. And this is where the rubber hits the road. It’s not difficult to advertise a product or idea that people already want to buy. But how much money will it take to sell concepts that no one is interested in because they represent values they don’t hold? Can that even be done? The next decade will decide the answer to that question, at least in the realm of the martial arts.
1. Xu Xiaodong: Fraud Fighter
As impressive as the PRC’s soft power campaign has been, nothing demonstrates the limitations of its ability to control the conversation around the Chinese martial arts as well as our next story. By any metric, Xu Xiodong must be considered the top story in the Chinese martial arts over the course of the last decade. That is quite an accomplishment given that he only burst into the global spotlight in 2017, but he has remained in the news almost constantly since then.
Individuals who are interested in learning more about Xu’s background and training are free to check out his various interviews, YouTube channel or even his Wikipedia page. He was trained in Sanda and Boxing in a sports school in Beijing and had some success in local Sanda tournaments. In 2001, Xu decided to take up MMA and began to train in Muay Thai and BJJ. While his career as a professional fighter was mixed, he was an early promoter of the sport in China and opened a successful gym.
Xu rose to prominence in 2017 by feuding on-line (and challenging) Taijiquan masters who claimed to have supernatural abilities or unmatched fighting prowess. His match with Wei Lei in Chengdu went viral propelling him to instant notoriety.
Xu gained many new followers who admired his attempts to cleanse the TCMA of supernatural fakery, but he also ignited a massive backlash by those who felt he was disparaging China’s intangible cultural heritage and generally humiliating the nation. Of course, Xu was rising to notoriety by showing that MMA could defeat Taijiquan at exactly the same time that the Chinese government was pouring resources into its “Kung Fu Diplomacy” campaigns. This has led to long running tensions with the police and other authorities. Still, Xu had a huge impact on the way that MMA was discussed within China, and his viral YouTube fights became a shorthand for the struggles of traditional Kung Fu schools in the West. For the last third of the decade he was the one story that everyone was discussing.
Unsurprisingly various authorities in China have taken steps to push back against this notoriety. Even if they have not been entirely successful in silencing Xu they have made his like quite difficult. Police officers have broken up or raided pending fights and shut down his gym. One of the big stories of 2019 (in addition to his defeat of a supposed Wing Chun master) was Xu’s loss in court to Chen Xiaowang who sued Xu for defamation and won.
Xu was ordered to pay $60,000 dollars in damages and became an early object lesson in how damaging it could be to have one’s “social credit rating” downgraded in the new China. Xu has been effectively banned from ever owning or renting property, flying by plane or even riding high speed trains. His social media accounts have been repeatedly banned by the Chinese government, and I don’t think he currently has any platform that can reach a sizable domestic audience. Instead Xu hosts a YouTube channel where he discusses various topics, but this is only viewable outside of China. In late 2019 the situation got even more serious after Xu made political comments supporting the protest movement in Hong Kong, effectively moving him from the category of martial arts maverick to dissident. Unsurprisingly these remarks were followed up by visits from the police.
Xu’s future and ability to fight in challenge matches seems uncertain. And it’s clear that he generates strong polarized opinions both inside China and out. But in the last three years Xu has had a huge impact on the way the public discusses the Chinese martial arts. His campaign seemed to undercut much of the sense of the cultural appeal that the government’s public diplomacy campaign sought to accentuate. His fights were viewed by so many people in the West that Xu ended up being profiled in mainstream news outlets, including Time magazine. I actually can’t count the number of professors and students at the university who know next to nothing about the Chinese martial arts but approached me anyway to ask about Xu.
Right or wrongly, his name has become a one-word argument in practically every discussion about the decline of the traditional Chinese martial arts. It is unclear what the future holds for Xu, but we have all witness his global impact on the way the Chinese martial arts are imagined. His emergence is thus the top CMA news story of the decade.
Click here to read Part I of this list: Trends and Stories that Shaped Chinese Martial Arts in the 2010s, Part I