It has been way too long since our last news update. We are fortunate to have had such a rich series of guest posts exploring the ways that COVID-19 has impacted both our personal training and the field of Martial Arts Studies. That series has not yet concluded, but I thought that it might be a nice change of page to get caught up with the news. 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. As one might expect, many of the martial arts stories published over the last month centered on the global disruption of the novel coronavirus. Still, it is fascinating to note the wide variety of ways that it is being discussed with reference to the martial arts.
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.
The Impact of COVID-19 on the Chinese Martial Arts
Calculating the cost of a catastrophe is never easy. In the case of the TCMA these losses can be seen in the slow attrition of the schools, institutions and infrastructure that support our community. Perhaps the greatest of these institutional losses has been the closure of Kung Fu Tai Chi Magazine. The entire magazine industry has been in decline for decades, but in this case the current epidemic was the final straw. Gene Ching, the magazine’s former publisher (and before that editor), has been an important friends to the growing field of Martial Arts Studies and I have had the pleasure to work with him on several small projects over the years. This must have been a devastating blow for him and the entire production team. At the same time, Kung Fu Tai Chi served as an important unifying voice in an area so diverse and riven with factionalism that simply keeping up with current developments is a real challenge.
Newsstand martial arts magazine had a profound impact on me as I grew up in a small, relatively isolated, town. They created an image of martial practice that was almost intoxicating to my young and impressionable mind. The loss of KFTC Magazine feels like losing another slice of my younger self. All created things must end, and it has been a good 28 year run.
COVID-19 is not only impacting the martial arts in North America. While Hong Kong, Taiwan and the Peoples Republic of China seem to have come out on the other side of their respective curves, the effects of the pandemic on their economies, and martial arts communities, continues to be dire. Particularly interesting was an article in Bloomberg titled “Hong Kong’s Economic Crisis Just Keeps Getting Worse,” which opens and closes with the struggles of one of the city’s many Wing Chun schools. Of course, the ongoing civil unrest in Hong Kong adds an extra hurdle for that city’s economy.
“Passing on this cultural touchstone to the next generation is proving to be Lam [Shu-shing]’s biggest challenge yet as the number of students has dwindled to a handful. “This is the toughest moment in the past 40 years that I am teaching Kung Fu,” said Lam, who at almost 70 had to give up his gym when he couldn’t afford the rent. “I don’t see any improvement in Hong Kong any time soon.”
As in North America, some Chinese schools have found new opportunities as they continue to negotiate long-term shutdowns. I found a fun photo essay in the China Daily titled “Martial arts master turns to online classes for global students.” The physical and highly personal nature of instruction has made the martial arts sector resistant to any sort of consolidation (something that we have seen in other areas of the fitness industry). One wonders how resilient the new networks of students and teachers being formed now will prove to be, and whether they might be a harbinger of change in the future.
“Martial arts master Yu Danqiu is teaching apprentices around the world online after his club was closed by the COVID-19 outbreak. On May 9, Yu, chairman of the Ming He Quan, or the Calling Crane Fist Research Association of the Fujian Martial Arts association in Jianxindongling village of Cangshan district, in Fuzhou, East China’s Fujian province, taught fist forms remotely to apprentices from five countries, including Russia, Australia, and the United Kingdom.”
Of particular interest to me has been the differences and similarities in how universities, on the one hand, and martial arts schools, on the other, have handled the migration to an online format. To be entirely honest, I am not sure how successful this experiment has been on he academic side. Chronic absenteeism and levels of rock-bottom morale suggesting actual depression have left many high-school and college instructors struggling to connect with their students. I have seen some great on-line teaching happen in traditional martial arts venues, but this is also a crowd that generally self-selects. Still, it is always fascinating to see these two world coming together as happened recently when the Taijiquan classes sponsored by Miami University’s Confucius Institute were forced to turn to on-line grading for their students’ Duanwei advancement.
“WA martial arts business owner willing to go to jail to stay open.” While most news stories featured discussions of the move to on-line teaching, the previous headline reminds us that a not insignfigant number of schools have refused to take this rout. In the last month there have been several stories of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu schools that have refused to close their doors in defiance of state and local regulations. One of these is the Battleground Martial Arts Academy in Battleground Washington.
“Rodeman says he disinfects the space on a daily basis, and does everything to maintain a clean environment. But he also noted that his business doesn’t really fit into the phased reopening plan, which left him with few options.
“A law enforcement officer came to my door, handed me a paper that says I can’t even reopen until phase four. I said, ‘Even at phase four, I’m still not legally able to practice jujitsu in here.’”
“So I decided to say, I can’t agree to that, I can’t follow,” he said. “I could be looking at a $5,000 fine and one year in jail. … I’m willing to make a stand because I believe what I’m doing is right.”
Prolonged closures is a threat to all sorts of martial arts schools and gyms. Still, BJJ schools seem to face additional challenges as their style has grounded its legitimacy not in solo-drills with grappling dummies, or Zoom conditioning classes, but rather in constant practice with a non-cooperative opponent. Not all instructors are enthusiastic about the possibilities of remote instruction as a way to stay connected with their students. Additionally, given the popularity of the style many schools are located in large locations which command relatively high rents. Similar stories of defiance are playing out in other states as well, such as the case of Rice Brothers BJJ in California.
“(My group) thinks the virus is on the downscale and there are studies that came out that show most of us have had coronavirus anyway,” Rice said. “We need to operate and we need to pay rent. It’s either we go broke and file bankruptcy or we operate business.”… Rice isn’t going to conduct online classes and remains adamant about allowing his grapplers to train at his gym. Rice says he is making his students follow proper sanitation guidelines by having them wear only freshly-cleaned gis and his staff is washing down the mats before and after each training session.”
Of course the vast majority of BJJ schools have opted to place the safety of their students and local community first by following state and local regulations. Still, the economic costs of being a good citizen are high as the following article reminds us. There is some relief on the horizon for gyms and martial arts studios in states like Georgia and Florida which are currently encouraging reopening. Yet once again, the intimate nature of BJJ training seems to ensure that returning to the mats will not necessarily be a return to normal training.
Gracie Barra Martial Arts School in Kissimmee is implementing several safety measures, including having each person practice in their own square, 6 feet apart from others.
“We are allowing people who live in the same household to train together, such as siblings, spouses, roommates,” Owner of Gracie Barra, Igor Andrade, said.
The school is also requiring temperature checks and sanitizing at the door. Members must also come dressed and ready to avoid crowded use of locker rooms.
While COVID-19 is having a profound impact on small businesses around the globe, its effects are also playing themselves out in the realm of public diplomacy. One Chinese, English language, tabloid ran a story titled “Chinese Martial Arts Help Cubans Deal with COVID-19 Lockdown.” The traditional arts seem to be almost custom made for this sort of event. And given the profound ways in which the COVID-19 outbreak has damaged China’s global image, it is not surprising to see stepped up public diplomacy efforts. At least some of that has come in form of increased support for martial arts communities overseas, as this article reminds us. Facing profound economic dislocation, the Chinese embassy in Rwanda has donated a large amount of food to help support the country’s Kung Fu community in the hopes that they can continue their training.
The National Review (which has a very specific editorial direction) addressed these sorts of efforts in an article titled “Traditional Chinese Medicine as Soft-Power Play.” While it directly addresses TCM’s interplay with COVID crisis, one suspects that similar arguments could be made about certain martial arts programs.
“As scientists and biotechnology companies around the world are racing to develop therapeutic drugs and a vaccine for COVID-19, China has been busy promoting traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) abroad as an effective treatment for the disease. The Chinese government reported that 87 percent of COVID-19 patients in China received TCM as part of their treatment and that 92 percent of them had shown improvement as a result. This claim hasn’t been independently or scientifically verified. So why is the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) advocating TCM with such vigor? Ultimately, this push is part of a soft-power play.”
News from All Over
Speaking of public diplomacy, in the last few weeks CCTV has released at least half a dozen new video profiles of various Chinese martial arts. Most of these episodes are 5-6 minutes in length and well produced. I noticed that they had new treatment of Emei and Wudang Jian (the later being one of my favorite subjects). However, I found myself more drawn to a set of profiles of Shaolin Warrior monks. Each of the individuals seemed to be a bit older (mid-20s) and acted as a coach within the warrior monk corps. What made the pieces unique was that their interviews spoke candidly about personal struggles, ranging from body image issues to dealing with profound physical injuries, within martial arts practice. It will take 20 minutes or so to work your way through the set, but it is well worth it.
One would think that with all of the stuff going on in the world (not to mention social distancing), we would get at least a temporary reprieve from (possibly delusional) traditional “masters” challenging sport fighters to knock them out….and you would be wrong. The last iteration of the viral trend occurred when 69 year old Taijiquan practitioner Ma Baoguo (yeah, the same guy that challenged Xu Xiodong to a fight that the police broke up), got KO’ed by a 50 year old amateur Sanda fighter. As usual, the best coverage of the event itself can be found in the South China Morning Post. Nor should we be surprised to learn that Xu Xiaodong has a few thoughts on the match. The entire Chinese martial arts community should count itself lucky that he was not more badly injured. All we need is for one of these “masters” to die in an ill conceived stunt and the Chinese government will be forced to put real pressure on all corners of the martial arts community. But what exactly does this latest viral video mean for the Chinese martial arts community? Head on over to Tai Chi Notebook for Graham Barlow’s take on things.
The news hasn’t been all bad for Taijiquan. With social distancing in effect, and people concerned about their health, its approach to solo practice has been enjoying a renaissance. Also interesting was a study published in the Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics, which reports that taking weekly classes in the martial art helped a group of 34 children better regulate their ADHD symptoms. Researchers say two 60-minute tai chi classes a week helped to improve the children’s control over hyperactivity and impulsive or inattentive behavior. You can read more about it here.
Taky Kimura, one of Bruce Lee’s most important students and a long time martial arts instructor in his own right, is about to get his own bio-pic!
Taky Kimura, Bruce Lee’s best friend and senior-most instructor, has been lovingly safeguarding Lee’s memory and legacy in Seattle for almost five decades. Many people know and admire legendary martial artist Bruce Lee, but few know about the close friend who helped Lee start his first martial arts school in Seattle’s Chinatown-International District (CID) and carried on Lee’s legacy after he tragically passed. Kimura turned 96 last month and Thursday, May 7, a new short film about his life and relationship to Lee, “Taky Kimura: The Heart of the Dragon,” will premiere online for Asian Pacific American Heritage Month.
And last but not least, did badass sword-wielding, arrow-shooting warrior women of Northern China inspire the legend of Mulan? Yes, the answer is pretty clearly yes….
No actual proof of Mulan’s existence has ever been found — but this is as close as it gets. Anthropologists Christine Lee and Yahaira Gonzalez have been searching for the real Mulan for years, and after re-examining skeletons from ancient Mongolian burial mounds, found bone marks that indicated two of them were warriors who didn’t need to “be a man” (as the song from the animated version goes) to fight. They were fierce archers who potentially wielded other weapons, like Mulan brandished her father’s sword. They could take down the enemy on horseback, much like the legend’s heroine was thought to have done.
Martial Arts Studies
With the entire world going on-line because of COVID-19, its only fitting that there should be some shake-ups in the field of Martial Arts Studies as well.
First off, it seems that the demise of this years MAS conference in Marseille (focusing on religion, spirituality and martial arts) was not so final as one might think. The organizing committee (represented by Laurent Chircop-Reyes and Gabriel Facal) recently circulated an email to individuals who had papers accepted to the conference telling them that the meetings would move to an on-line format. Apparently this will include the recording of 20 minute presentations for each paper and panel discussions, all of which will end up being posted on YouTube in stages. The upshot from this is that while we might not be flying to France this summer, we can all expect some really interesting papers to be coming our way!
Even more exciting is the fact that the field of Martial Arts Studies now has its own podcast! Paul Bowman’s efforts to create video lectures for his classes evolved at some point this semester to guest lectures featuring colleagues from various locations around the globe, and finally to really fun conversations with friends and fellow researchers. 25-30 podcasts have been archived and multiple new releases are planned weekly for the foreseeable future. Each of the conversations tends to focus on a central theme, and that often leads into very interesting territory. Best of all, the audience has a choice of formats to fit their listening (or viewing) pleasure!
In the upcoming weeks be sure to check out Mario Staller on police use of force training (tomorrow), Wendy Rouse on the origins of women’s self-defense in America, Spencer Bennington on rhetoric and martial arts, Oleg Benesch on samurai as well as Meaghan Morris, Anna Kavoura, Martha McCaughey, Alex Bennett, and TJ Desch-Obi.
As you can see, the MAS Podcast is putting together a pretty deep bench. Its hard to know which episodes to recommend as a starting point, so I will just toss out a couple that struck my interest:
And finally this guy….
On East/West Body Image with Dr Ben Judkins (technically this was a guest lecture/discussion for Paul’s class, but it fits).
There is more good stuff here than one could possibly list and I feel terrible leaving anyone out. At this point I will simply encourage you to explore the back catalogue for yourself.
Kung Fu Tea on Facebook
A lot has happened on the Kung Fu Tea Facebook group over the last month. We have discussed Ming era military manuals, looked at antique swords and enjoyed epic training montages (just to keep our spirits up). 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!