It has been over a months since our last news update. 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.
Lastly, this month’s news update ends with an important announcement about the blog. Thanks for your patience.
It is surprising how often a single event dominates the monthly news cycle for Chinese martial arts. This time the clear leading story was the release, and subsequent struggles, of Disney’s long awaited live action Mulan project. As most theaters in the US are still closed, or operating on a very limited basis, the studio decided to release the project on their Disney+ streaming service for an additional $30 fee. Needless to say, that decision generated all sorts of controversy, and more followed quickly including renewed calls to boycott the film after consumers began to question the ethics of filming in a region of China where Uighurs Muslims are being detained in large numbers.
Mulan received an even more hostile reception in China (an increasingly important market for American films) where audiences felt that it suffered from wooden performances and cringeworthy cultural tropes, despite its obvious efforts to pander to Chinese audiences. The general consensus seems to be that the new project is a step backward from the beloved animated classic. All of this is terrible news for Disney in a year when they badly needed a financial win. But it did generate a fair amount of discussion on topics related to the Chinese martial arts!
One of the more positive treatments of the film can be found in this piece on its co-star Donnie Yen who is “proud of the richness of Chinese culture, and celebration of family” in Mulan.
Action star Donnie Yen gets the chance to dazzle us on the big screen with his martial arts skills in Disney’s “Mulan.” But he had a very personal reason for wanting to be part of this movie. The veteran actor said he is completely familiar with the story; first, as part of Chinese lore. Secondly… because his daughter loved the 1998 animated movie!
“She grew up watching with me, ‘Mulan,'” said Yen. “We sang the songs over 100 times!”
More typical of the ensuring frustration was this conversation in South China Morning Post, which noted that Disney is just one US company to be called out for missteps regarding human rights in Xinjiang. Alternatively, a reviewer in the Observer called Mulan “A mess of hollow representation and real-world controversy.”
More interesting than the reviews of the film itself were some of the stories that it inspired. We might call these “Mulan adjacent” essays. The first of these, published on the National Geographic webpage, provides a surprisingly indepth overview of Chinese martial arts history. With the assistance of Dr. Johnathan Clements, who has been a talking head on a number of National Geographic projects, it touches on everything from General Qi Jiguang, the Maiden of Yue, Shaolin, the Shaw Brothers and (of course) Bruce Lee. At this this point my main question is, how does one get on the interview list for these sorts of things?
Equally interesting is this piece in the South China Morning Post modestly titled “Forget Mulan: meet Khutulun, Mongolia’s undefeated wrestling princess, Genghis Khan’s great-great-granddaughter and Turandot inspiration.” So far as a summery goes, the title pretty much says it all.
Rather than folk fable, the Mongolian warrior princess Khutulun was quite real and had the body count and fearsome reputation to prove it. She was the daughter of Kaidu Khan and great-great-granddaughter of Genghis, a cousin of Kublai Khan who would found China’s Yuan dynasty.
Chinese Martial Arts in the News
Earlier in the year we saw accounts of deadly skirmishes along the China-India boarder between groups of soldiers using improvised weapons and spiked clubs in an area where the use of firearms was prohibited by a treaty between the two countries. Apparently tensions in the region have flared up once again, and Chinese soldiers have now augmented their arsenal with quickly made guangdao and spears. This story has been getting a lot of coverage both globally and in India. For instance, Forbes magazine notes that “China May Be Arming Its Soldiers With Medieval Halberds To Fight India.”
Forget tanks and jet fighters. Chinese soldiers may have found a new weapon to battle the Indian army: medieval-style halberds.
Photos have surfaced that purportedly show Chinese troops in Tibet carrying polearms. Chinese soldiers in modern battle gear – including body armor and helmets – are seen holding long sticks topped with curved blades that resemble machetes. Presumably the weapons are meant to be used against Indian soldiers, with whom China has fought recent border clashes.
Not all of the news has been so grim. Asian One ran a story on the growing popularity of Shuai Jiao, or traditional jacketed wrestling, in the Beijing area.
Chinese wrestling is making a return thanks to a veteran of the fighting sport.
At an indoor facility in downtown Beijing, a group of young enthusiasts was recently training and practicing the traditional martial art of shuai jiao, which is little known outside China.
As usual, there have been a fair number of “public diplomacy” stories in which the promotion of fighting arts is used as a way of strengthening, or celebrate, cultural ties between countries. The government run China Daily reported that “Martial arts supplies from China delight Romanians.” I thought that this story was interesting as one of the beneficiaries of this diplomatic largess was a Wing Chun school. Generally speaking, these sorts of efforts favor official Wushu programs and sometimes community Taijiquan classes. I don’t think I can recall seeing a Wing Chun school discussed in this context before.
Despite the prevailing pandemic, Romanian people’s passion for Chinese martial arts hasn’t faded. Recently, about 200 pieces of equipment for the sport were sent to many clubs in Romania, in large packages with “Friendship Lasts Forever” printed on the side.
-Interesting to see that in addition to the expected Wushu organizations a Wing Chun club was also the recipient of some of this gear. We don’t as often see these sorts of folk styles being included in these programs.
Likewise, the Shanghai Daily news enthusiastically reported that a “Sword-wielding 17-year-old cuts a new path in martial arts world.” A fair amount of this report was actually on Wushu’s continued attempts to enter the Olympic arena, with some biography towards the end.
In January this year, the International Olympic Committee confirmed that wushu would make its debut as an official sport at the 2022 Dakar Youth Olympic Games.
“It’s exciting news for martial arts lovers, because it’s a good chance to make more people aware of this wonderful sport, and we hope it features at the summer Olympic Games one day,” said Wang Liang, chief range officer of the Ningxia championship. “More teenagers are engaged in martial arts competitions nowadays, and their competitiveness is improving daily.”
Who are the “Seven Best Taiwanese Martial Artists Masters of all Time?” Click the link to find out! Unfortunately this is more a list than an actual collection of biographies. Still, it could be a great jumping off point for future exploration. And yes, Cheng Man-Ch’ing does make the list.
Every once and a while, you run a cross an article that is a lot more detailed than you were expecting. Such is the case with this breakdown of the various unarmed fighting styles practiced and implied throughout the Karate Kid saga at the Den of Geeks. If you are a fan of the franchise be sure to check this out!
More disappointing was this reprint of stories on martial arts in Hong Kong in the South China Morning Post. While this is one of my favorite topics, I am not entirely thrilled to see a somewhat deceptive discussion of how Hong Kong (and Bruce Lee) is the true origin point for modern MMA. The city’s martial arts history is fascinating on its own without trying to pander in this way. But I have already critiqued a couple of these articles elsewhere so there is no need to repeat myself here.
Next up in the pop culture category, we have a new video game out of China staring the Monkey King. On a technical level the gameplay in this looks great, but the project may also have added significance for students of Martial Arts Studies. Over the last decade video-games have become as an increasingly important vector for introducing all sorts of people to martial arts imagery, essentially supplanting the role of television as a pop-culture incubator. With increased competition between China and America in all sorts of cultural and tech spaces, this may be a potentially important story to watch.
Next we have a couple of feature on the Little Dragon. What is better than a discussion of Bruce Lee in Forbes? A Discussion of Bruce Lee and James Bond! Second, the exhibition “Bruce Lee: Kung Fu, Art, Life” at the Hong Kong Heritage Museum has been extended to 2026. The exhibit is also going to be restaged and expanded in 2021, and will continue to feature more that 600 Lee-related items, including 400 on loan from the Bruce Lee Foundation in the United States. I was planning on heading to Hong Kong this summer (thanks COVID-19!), but I guess I will now have plenty of time to check it out in the next couple of years.
News About the Kung Fu Tea
I recently accepted a job working with one of the federal government’s COVID-19 relief programs. Needless to say, this isn’t what I anticipated I would be doing at the start of the year, but given that it has become difficult to travel for my research, or even visit library collections, this seems like a good use of the next six months or so. As a professional political economist I am really looking forward to getting a granular view of what is happening in the economy and society.
All of that is great news. The downside is that I am about to become very busy as I immerse myself in this new, 60+ hours a week, venture. Sadly, this means that I will have less time for blogging.
I am hesitant to declare the blog on hiatus as I hope to work on the occasional post once things settle down and I can establish a new schedule. I also have a few guest posts and reviews lined up. Still, I expect that regular readers will note a marked decrease in the frequency of my posts over the next few months. WordPress tells me that I have published well over 800 posts (or 3.2 million words) at Kung Fu Tea since 2012, and I am guessing that no one has actually read more than a fraction of that material. As such, I will also be republishing some of my favorite pieces from the archives during this time just to keep things fresh.
I would like to thanks all of you for your support over the last eight years, without which this never would have been possible. A special note of thanks also goes to my wife Tara for her long suffering and editing much of this material. It is amazing to see how much the field of Martial Arts Studies has grown in that time. I look forward to a return to regular blogging and research soon.