Welcome to Chinese Martial Arts in 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.
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.
News from all Over
Our first story this month is a pleasant surprise for Wing Chun students. Bloomberg aired an interview with Ip Chun, the 96 year old son Ip Man. Apparently he is still getting around well and is working to carry on his father’s legacy. It is a nice interview, and with the death of his younger brother earlier this year, these sorts of chats seem more timely than ever.
A number of tabloids and news outlets have reported that the Chinese Wushu Association proposed a statement earlier this week asking folk martial artists to refrain from calling themselves masters, declaring the creation of new styles, naming themselves inheritors of lineages, or engaging in mixed style bouts. Readers will recall that this is not the first such call that we have heard from this body in the last year. Obviously these statements are almost entirely a response to the viral videos of traditional “masters” getting destroyed in matches with combat sport practitioners over the last few years. The latest example seems to be an interesting document, but also one that raises as many questions as it seeks to settle. While I am sure that such guidelines would avoid a certain amount of embarrassment on social media (thus making it easier to use Chinese martial arts in cultural diplomacy projects), I am less certain that ordering people to “stay in their lane” is going to address any of the deeper structural issues in these arts. In any case, the now frequent repetition of such calls raises the question of whether they have much impact on the behavior of local masters and communities.
The Chinese Wushu (martial arts) Association proposed in a statement on Thursday that wushu practitioners should not declare themselves as “kung fu masters” or “head” of a certain sect, nor participate in irregular competitions that only seek profit so as to protect the image of Chinese martial arts.
Some people proclaim themselves as “wushu masters” only to pursue their personal fame through staging fights to get public attention, which will seriously damage the image of Chinese martial arts, read the statement.
Without a doubt the most frequently reported story dealing with Chinese martial artists over the last few weeks has focused on the deadly hand-to-hand clashes between Indian and Chinese soldiers along the disputed line of control in Kashmir. After the initial clash it was widely reported that specialized militia units made up of both mountain climbers and mixed martial artists were being transferred to staging areas in Tibet.
Tibet commander Wang Haijiang said the Enbo Fight Club recruits would “greatly raise the organisation and mobilisation strength” of troops and their “rapid response and support ability,” China National Defence News reported, although he did not explicitly confirm their deployment was linked to ongoing border tensions.
Readers may recall that we have discussed the Chengdu based Enbo Fight Club a number of times on this blog. Most recently they were involved in scandal that revolved around the recruitment of young orphaned children to fight in MMA matches. India was quick to answer these stories with press releases about their own commando units being rushed to the area.
The Global Times recently ran a story titled “Chinese martial arts association to apply for UNESCO World Intangible Cultural Heritage status” which inspired some good discussion on the KFT Facebook page.
The Chin Woo Athletic Association in East China’s Shanghai Municipality announced on Saturday that it is preparing to apply to UNESCO for the association’s martial arts culture to be recognized as a World Intangible Cultural Heritage. In China, the association was listed as a National-level Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2014, according to a report from Chinese news site The Paper.
One could certainly have a very interesting discussion as to whether Jingwu can represent traditional Chinese heritage as it arose as a heavily Western inspired national reform movement in the early Republic period that competed directly against much more traditional and regionally based martial arts groups. Still, the truly surprising thing about this article is that rather than talking about any of these issues, or Jingwu’s contributions to the modernization and commercialization of the Chinese martial arts in general, the entire piece focuses on the Bruce Lee film ‘Fists of Fury’, which has only a tangential relationship to the historic organization. Maybe Jingwu is more in need of cultural preservation efforts than I thought?
NPR (and a bunch of other outlets) recently ran a story on “The Kung Fu Nuns of Kathmandu.” We have discussed them before but this article is worth checking out as it is longer and more detailed than much of their coverage. It even includes a short profile of one of their members and how she decided to join the order as a teenager (spoiler alert, her family in India was not thrilled).
Shannon Lee, daughter of legendary martial artist and pop culture icon Bruce Lee, denounced President Donald Trump’s use of the term “kung flu” as a nickname for COVID-19. She also shared thoughts on harnessing the philosophy of kung fu to overcome the insult.
Lee, who regularly writes and speaks on her father’s philosophies, told NBC Asian America the president’s racist rhetoric runs counter to the actual spirit of the practice of kung fu as well as the late icon’s teachings. Trump used the term at a Tulsa, Oklahoma, rally last week after joking that the coronavirus “has more names than any disease in history.”
“I can name ‘kung flu,'” Trump told the crowd. “I can name 19 different versions of names.”
This is far from the only political controversy that has touched public discussion of the martial arts in recent weeks. In Hong Kong much of this energy has been focused on Donnie Yen and his public statements celebrating Hong Kong’s ‘return to the motherland.’ These statements come at a particularly sensitive time given the passage of the new security law in the city. As always, the South China Morning Post has been covering the situation.
So long as you are there be sure to also check out a couple of other articles. The first provides another exploration of Bruce Lee’s “Be Water” combat philosophy and why it appeals to so many members of the Hong Kong protest movement.
The next one is a riddle. What does the Matrix, Kill Bill and Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon have in common? The answer is Hong Kong martial arts master Yuen Woo-ping. Check it out, so many of my favorite things together in one place!
Bruce Lee always makes a few appearances in these news round-ups, and this week’s is no exception. Bao Nguyen’s documentary ‘Be Water’ inspired a good deal of conversation, especially as it focused on systemic racism and the struggle of immigrants in American society. You can read my review of the film here, but be sure to also check out this great essay in the Atlantic asking “What it means to understand Bruce Lee.” That one is required reading for fans and scholars alike. Finally, take a moment to read this extensive interview with Matt Polly which touches both on the ‘Be Water’ project (where he was an executive producer) and a number of other topics.
If you are less interested in Lee, but can’t get enough of the ever growing Ip Man genre, I have some good news. Apparently there is a new film that I had never heard of (thanks COVID-19!) titled ‘Ip Man: Kung Fu Master.’ For what its worth Ip Chun says that it captures the likeness of his father’s personality rather well. As always, the actual plot is pure fiction, so don’t go into this expecting biography.
Our last story has nothing to do with the Chinese martial arts per se, but will still be of interest to most readers of Kung Fu Tea. The NY Post reports that Rener Gracie has jumped into the ongoing debate about police violence and arrest tactics which have inspired widespread protests across the United States. The outlines of the discussion will not surprise anyone who has been been following this topic, or who is familiar with the immense popularity of BJJ in law enforcement and military circles. But you should check out the entire discussion for yourself.
Martial Arts Studies
Set aside some time this week because the annual 2020 Martial Arts Studies conference has gone virtual! Rather than having to get on a plane and fly to France (which, lets be honest, most of us are not going to be doing for a while), you can now sit back in the comfort of your own home and review presentations on all of the papers and keynotes via YouTube. On Wednesday and Thursday special discussion sessions will also be posted giving the event a more interactive feel. The subject of this years conference is “Martial Arts, Religion & Spirituality.” I spent more time than I would like to admit perusing the offerings in various panels this weekend and I am happy to report some great finds. But don’t take my word for it, go check them out yourself. If you have never had a chance to join us at our annual meetings, this is a great opportunity to get a peak at the current state of scholarship.
This also seems like a great time to toss out some suggestions for your summer reading list. Even though most of us are going to be enjoying a “staycation” this year, that is no reason not to pack around a coupe of engaging beach books. My first pick in this category is not really a scholarly book, but it is a nice survey of the current state of martial arts practice in Vietnam. As global markets evolve and diversify in the post-COVID world, I have a feeling that we will be hearing a lot more about this topic in the next few years. Now is the perfect time to get a head start!
Augustus John Roe. 2020. The Martial Arts of Vietnam: An Overview of History and Styles. YMAA Publication Center. Expected release date September 1, 2020. $17.95 paperback.
The Martial Arts of Vietnam presents an engaging overview of the evolution of Vietnamese martial arts from 2,000 BCE until today.
We will look at the mythical origins of the Vietnamese people and the impact that invasions from neighboring countries had on the martial culture of Vietnam. We will discover how kings and governments promoted and, in some cases, crushed martial traditions; alongside how Vietnams’ unusual geography both protected and exposed martial styles and lineages.
This work offers stunning photography, era timelines, and regional maps that allow for an engaging adventure through Vietnam’s northern, central, and southern regions, all in search of events and catalysts that shaped its martial history through the ages.
When we arrive at modern Vietnams’ martial arts society, we meet with many teachers from the northern, central, and southern regions who, through courageous efforts, are attempting to codify and preserve their unique combat systems for the benefit of all martial artists. We explore the ethnic minority martial arts, Sino-Vietnamese and Chinese martial arts, as well as various imported and foreign systems and how they are positioned in relation to modern Vietnam’s martial arts practices.
My next pick is more conventional. I feel bad about this book because while the topic is fantastic, I some how missed its release in March of 2019. The price tag for the hardcover is pretty pricy, but if I can get my hands on a copy I will review it for the blog.
Lu Zhouxiang. 2019. A History of Shaolin: Buddhism, Kung Fu and Identity. Routledge. 304 pages. $141 Hardcover.
Shaolin Monastery at Mount Song is considered the epicentre of the Chan school of Buddhism. It is also well known for its martial arts tradition and has long been regarded as a special cultural heritage site and an important symbol of the Chinese nation. This book is the first scholarly work in English to comprehensively examine the full history of Shaolin Monastery from 496 to 2016. More importantly, it offers a clear grasp of the origins and development of Chan Buddhism through an examination of Shaolin, and highlights the role of Shaolin and Shaolin kung fu in the construction of a national identity among the Chinese people in the past two centuries.