There is so much heavy stuff going on in the world today. Sadly, it doesn’t look like things will be letting up soon, and they may even get worse as we head into the fall semester. So this seems like the perfect time to sit back and enjoy those last few weeks of summer with some light reading. As such, I have assembled a special group of news stories perfect for the beach or pool as we all maintain appropriate social distance buffers.
We will return to our regular survey of hard hitting news in September. In the mean time, put your feet up and relax!
Chinese Martial Arts in the News
While COVID-19 has conspired to suppress in-person training around the world, Chinese media sources have been churning out lots of photo essays and feel good reports to help everyone keep their spirits up. Better yet, many of these come with well produced five minute video segments. Our first such story can be found in the pages of the always reliable South China Morning Post which published the following profile of a local Wushu athlete: “Wushu world champion from Hong Kong explains how Chinese kung fu has broadened his horizons.”
Colin Cheng Chung-hang recently showed the South China Morning Post some of the techniques he has mastered in wushu, a martial art also known as Chinese kung fu. The 32-year-old says wushu has changed his life, and put him on the world stage. Cheng won a gold medal at the 2011 World Wushu Championship and earned
While watching this video be sure to note the historically dubious claim that something identifiable as wushu dates to the stone age when the ancient residents of China had to defend themselves from wild animals. This little bit of boilerplate is repeated in most Wushu discussion coming out of the PRC, and it makes about as much as saying that the internal combustion engine also has its origins in the stone age when people found that they needed to move really fast to avoid being trampled by mastodons. That is to say, one or two links in the chain of causality behind both of these statements are missing. I have actually thought about writing an essay on this rather odd invocation which graces the opening pages of so many Wushu books, but I will leave that for another day. After all, we are here for summer fun…
And what could be more fun than a virtual visit to a Wing Chun class! CCTV has been working on a series of five minute segments profiling various martial arts for what seems like the last year. A new batch dropped this month and I was excited to see that one of them was a profile of “Wing Chun: One of the traditional southern fist styles.”
Granted, this video has some undeniably odd elements. Given the lavish production budgets for these shorts, and the series’ clear interest in exploring various fighting systems as products of China’s distinct regional cultures, I thought it odd that what was clearly Ip Man style Wing Chun (even if it was being preformed with a lot of isometric tension) was presented as something created in Fujian province, which only later spread to Guangzhou, Foshan and then Hong Kong. Granted, in the 18th and early 19th century Fujian was critical to the dissemination of all sorts of martial arts, but I don’t recall anyone claiming that modern, fully formed Wing Chun, was one of those systems. In fact, if I was a cynic I might say that this is an interesting attempt to appropriate and rebrand a globally famous martial art. If only someone had written a scholarly history of Wing Chun, and the other Southern Chinese martial arts, which could help us to sort out these kinds of claims? But no…summer fun…
I liked most of the other entries in this series. They tended to focus less on dubious origins claims and more on how the lives of their various interview subjects had been shaped by martial practice. This included tackling difficult questions such as periods of unemployment and financial struggle, identity and aging. It is these more personal discussions that have generally attracted me to the series. And each of the five minute videos, which accompanies the articles, would make great beach viewing!
Originating in Mount Emei, a sacred mountain situated in southwest China’s Sichuan Province, Emei is one of the three traditional martial arts schools in China. Known for its unique style with many branches, it features a variety of fists; among them, the Sword Fist. It was created by a monk from western Sichuan in 1860. The technique has been passed on with special characteristics for more than 150 year.
I really enjoyed the selection on Mantis, and found its discussion to be grounded and worth thinking about. Or maybe the Mantis coach that they interviewed just reminded me of my own father: Mantis Fist: Routines in martial arts reflect the philosophy of life.
Mantis Fist is one of the four famous fists from east China’s Shandong Province. This treasured Chinese martial arts technique dates back to the end of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). It belongs to the category of pictographic fists. Legend has it that a man named Wang Lang based the technique on the moves of a mantis hunting cicadas. It has no blocking position and all the moves are offensive.
While slightly less grounded the next selection, discussing Red Boxing, is also fun. This is one of those styles that I often encounter in my historical reading on the late 19th and early 20th century, but it is not something that I have ever had a chance to look into that deeply. Still, watch out for the creation myths in this piece as well. A living martial tradition dating back to the Zhou dynasty (as in the Bronze Age) seems a bit unlikely (summer fun…summer fun…).
The “red” in the name implies that the fist is bloody and lethal, with blade-like moves inspired by the ancient battlefield. Later in the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), it developed into a barehanded martial art due to the ban of weapons. Nonetheless, the moves are still lethal.
The Red Fist also has unique cultural characteristics, and is the essence of Shaanxi martial arts culture. As the chairman of the Shaanxi HongQuan (Red Fist) Culture Research Association, Shao Zhiyong has been committed to the promotion of Red Fist. In his view, the fist focuses on the balance between inner and outer strengths. It is for both good health and competition.
As I mentioned in the introduction, various Chinese tabloids published a number of photo essays documenting the return to training after the COVID lockdown in that country. Perhaps the most visually striking of these can be found in xinhuanet.com. It doesn’t really offer much in the way of text, but it makes for an interesting study in the color red.
Now is the perfect time to do some traveling, that is, if you are from a country where you can travel on your passport (summer fun…). And it looks like I just discovered another reason to go to Fujian! It now has a tourist attraction that lets you role play as a martial arts character in a Wuxia story. Some of the reviews are calling it “Disneyland with Kung Fu” which, of course, is the very best kind of Disney experience.
Speaking of Disney, the Mulan live action project has been making waves in the press. After repeated COVID related release delays, the studio has finally decided to add the film on their Disney+ service…for thirty additional dollars. That seems a little steep for a movie that most of us would only see once. But I guess the price is probably better than taking your family to a theater, paying for overpriced popcorn and then wondering about that person coughing in the front row. All of this discussion has led a number of people to ask questions about the historical roots of the Mulan story. Was she real? When does she first appear in Chinese literature? If you have been wondering about that, you can read my recent short essay on the subject, or this piece in the the Radio times.
Mulan is not the only remake of an animated classic on the horizon. Fans of “Avatar: The Last Airbender” have been on an emotional roller coaster lately. This charming cartoon series inspired lots of kids to take up Chinese martial arts as the various types of “elemental bending” featured in the story each drew on real world fighting systems. Netflix crushed the hopes and dreams of many of these now adult fans when it was announced earlier this week that the creators of the original series were leaving their posts as executive producers on the live-action project after encountering “creative differences” with the streaming service. Rumor has it that some of these issues had to do with the racial make-up of the cast, though I haven’t seen that confirmed yet. In any case, there have been a slew of stories about Avatar, some of which have focused on the martial arts angle. I found the original animated series to be delightful, and the perfect thing to binge watch before September.
Ok, lets say that by some miracle you do get to Hong Kong this summer (I couldn’t manage it, but your luck might be better). A recent article in the SCMP claims that the very first thing that any true martial arts aficionado will note is that city has no museum for Bruce Lee, its most famous son. So why not create your own walking tour of Lee’s Hong Kong instead?
This sounds like a genuinely fantastic idea and the article offered some helpful suggestions about important addresses from Lee’s life that you can still hunt down. Still, reading this list I did notice a rather odd omission. It makes no reference to his time actually studying martial arts while in the city! But I am sure that we can fix that. If only there was someone who spent weeks tracking down the addresses of all of Ip Man’s old schools during the 1950s and 1960s…
Most of the stories that I selected for the first part of this news round-up were actually videos, but nothing says summer quite like the perfect “beach book.” Of course, if you are into Martial Arts Studies your beach books might be a little different from everyone else’s. Still, here are a couple of my top picks!
“Jixiao Xinshu” is a comprehensive military warfare manual, written by Ming Dynasty General Qi Jiguang in 1560. It consisted of chapters on Spear fighting, Archery, terrain, troops formation etc… One of the chapters is “Quanjing Jieyao”, which contains 32 unarmed fighting stances for soldiers’ training. There has been multiple attempts by various people to translate this ancient Chinese Fist manual. The ones which I’ve read are usually translating them literally. In order to make the translation & interpretation more meaningful, I’ve seeked to discover the core principles behind each of these 32 unarmed fighting stances. In this book, you’ll see how these principles can be applied to any martial arts style, or any weapon. By training in these 32 martial principles, it will provide a complete & holistic training for a warrior, medieval or modern. I believe that my work in this book will help you in advancing your martial arts practice, no matter which fighting style you’re from.
Augustus John Roe. The Martial Arts of Vietnam: An Overview of History and Styles. YMAA Publications Center. 160 pages. $17.95
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.
The Martial Arts of Vietnam lifts the veil of secrecy long surrounding this socialist state to reveal its combat systems and their thousand years of evolution.
Margaret J. Kartomi. 2019. Performing the Arts of Indonesia: Malay Identity and Politics in the Music, Dance and Theatre of the Riau Islands (NIAS Studies in Asian Topics). NIAS Studies in Asian Topics, 368 pages. $32.66
The 2,408 islands of Indonesia’s Kepri (Kepulauan Riau or Riau Islands) province are said to be “sprinkled like a shake of pepper” across the Straits of Melaka and South China Sea. For two millennia until colonial times, they were part of the ‘maritime silk road’ between China and Southeast, South and West Asia. Kepri’s two million inhabitants thus share a seafaring worldview that is reflected in their traditions and daily life and is expressed most commonly in the performing arts of its largest and smallest population groups, the Kepri Malays and the formerly nomadic Orang Suku Laut (People of the Sea) respectively. In recent decades, Kepri also has become home to large numbers of immigrants from other parts of Indonesia, some of whom practise the Malay as well as their own ethnic arts. Despite its close proximity to Singapore, this is a little-known world, one brought to life in a fascinating and innovative study. Grounded in extensive fieldwork, the volume explores not only the islands’ iconic Malay (Melayu) performing arts―music, poetry, dance, martial arts, bardic arts, theatre and ritual―but also issues of space and place, local identity and popular memory. Generously illustrated and with a companion website presenting related audio-visual material, Performing the Arts of Indonesia will be an essential resource for anyone interested in this fascinating region.”