Chinese Martial Arts in the News: February 16th, 2019: All the World’s a Stage


    Introduction I hope that everyone enjoyed their Lunar New Year.  Its always a time of many public exhibitions and celebrations.  They, in turn, generate an uptick in news coverage of local martial arts practices and well as Lion… Continue Reading →



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Hawkins Cheung and the Making of Modern Wing Chun History


    Regrets As many readers will already know, Master Hawkins Cheung Hok Jin passed away on Sunday February 3rd 2019, in Los Angeles.  Within the martial arts community regrets take many forms.  One of my great regrets is that I… Continue Reading →



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Chinese Martial Arts in the News: January 20th 2019: Jingwu, Chinese Armor and Liberating the Nunchuck


A Chinese historical reenactor in traditionally inspired armor. Source: Sixthtone.

 

Introduction

Its been over a month since our last news update, which means that there is no better time to get caught up on recent events! For new readers, this is a semi-regular feature here at Kung Fu Tea in which we review media stories that mention or affect 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.

Its been way too long since our last update so let’s get to the news!

 

 

News From All Over

True story.  While hanging out with with the guys at my university martial arts club in Japan, it was a constant point of fascination that while I was allowed to own all manner of firearms (most which were strictly prohibited in Japan), several traditional Japanese martial arts weapons, including nunchucks, were illegal where I lived. Being a resident of New York State (and not a student of traditional karate), I have never actually owned a set of nunchucks.  But maybe its finally time for that to change!

A federal court recently struck down the state’s ban on these weapons as unconstitutional and declared them to be covered under the Second Amendment.  Various news outlets have reported on how this ruling came about, but I liked the coverage over at Bloody Elbow.

Last month Judge Pamela K. Chen of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York ruled that New Yorkers have a constitutional right to own nunchucks. The ruling comes after James A. Maloney, a lawyer and nunchucks enthusiast, launched a complaint over the state’s 40-year ban on the traditional martial arts weapon in 2003.

According to The New York Times New York decided to criminalize nunchucks in 1974 while the “United States was in the middle of a kung fu fever” inspired by martial arts movies.

At some point I am probably going to write a blog post on all of this.  Obviously the weapon came to be strongly associated with Bruce Lee, and I feel that its subsequent ban reveals a darker side to the “Kung Fu Fever” of the 1970s.  More specifically, news reports of the era were quick to point out that African-American and Hispanic youth joined various martial arts groups in huge numbers. Given the racial, social and political subtexts of Bruce Lee’s films, the sudden popularity of hand combat systems among young men of color made many authority figures uneasy.  Everyone from school teachers to politicians had something to say about his phenomenon.  The ban on these weapons makes more sense (historically speaking) when viewed through a racial and generational lens.  But I need to read and think a little more about this before jumping into a more detailed discussion of that episode.  In the mean time, I should probably just decide what type of nunchuck needs to be added to my collection.  I have certainly seen some interesting flails in old Chinese photographs….

 

 

One place that you are unlikely to ever run across a set of nunchucks is in a Wing Chun class. But that is ok as, according to this review in the South China Morning Post, Wing Chun offers many benefits to the perpetually stressed, always on the go, young professional.  Basically, “mindfulness practice” is key to not getting hit in the face.

That brings us to one of the most interesting aspects of this article.  The author finds it necessary to provide a “trigger warning” and lets readers know that there is a lot of two-person drilling in Wing Chun, so if you decide to go to a class you need to be ok having a certain amount of physical contact with strangers.  If this bothers you, then “you should bring a friend.”

I began to wonder whether the author might actually have been more comfortable in a class on the Taijiquan solo forms as I read this article. Indeed, I felt as though she was attempting to push Wing Chun in that direction as I contemplated her first impressions of the practice.  This is a valuable reminder of the gap that often exists between hardcore martial arts enthusiasts and the new students who we are always trying to attract to our schools. While so many of us are looking for greater levels of “realism” (e.g., bodily conflict) in our training and sparring, its well worth remembering that these sorts of aspirations don’t fit within a large segment of the population’s mental map of the martial arts.  They are dealing with a very different set of “discomfort thresholds.”

 

Personally, I would be much more concerned if my martial arts class involved “incidental contact” with any sort bovine, rather than a human training partner.  Chinese bullfighting, which leapt into the popular press during the autumn of 2018, is still managing to keep itself in the news.  This recent story in NPR is of interest as it includes some discussion of how bullfighters (wrestlers?) are trained and the competitive structure of their shows  All of this explained by the performers themselves with invocations of “the explosive power of hard qi gong” and meditations on Chinese masculinity.

 

 

A theoretical lens for approaching the recent bullfighting phenomenon might be found in the scholarly literature on public spectacles.  I suspect that it could also provide a certain amount of analytical purchase on our next story as well.  The Fox Sports desk has been running a number of martial arts features recently.  Their most recent offering is modestly titled the “5 most unbelievable Chinese martial arts techniques of all time.

The article itself is basically background commentary on video clips featuring five distinct styles.  They portray a range of both traditional and more modern practices.  I don’t think a long-time student of the Chinese martial arts is going to learn anything new here, but the clips might be useful as an illustration of the sorts of material that the general public finds interesting.

 

 

One of the more important articles in this news roundup, titled “Honoring ancestors in old boxing tradition,” was published at Shine.com (the Shanghai Times).  It profiles Huo Jinghong, the great-great granddaughter of Huo Yuanjia (1868-1910) and the “inheritor” of his lianshouquan style. What makes it so interesting is that the further you read, the more complicated all of this becomes. Like all Chinese, university level, martial arts coaches, Huo’s background (and first love) is actually the performative disciplines of modern Wushu.  Her family never taught her Huo Tuanjia’s lianshouquan (or any other traditional art) as they had stopped practicing it during the Cultural Revolution (and possibly before).  In actual fact, she seems to be researching and reconstructing the style as much as anything else.

Yet the popular discourse around her efforts insists on emphasizing her genetic relatedness to Huo Yuanjia and concepts such as transmission and inheritance.  Much of her efforts in this area also appears to be rooted in (or at least inspired by) a couple of big government backed projects to promote Huo Yuanjia’s memory (and the historic Jingwu movement more broadly) for political and economic purposes.  In reading this article I felt like I had come across a short case study in how these sorts of public diplomacy and economic development projects take root in, and eventually restructure, the identities and practices of various individuals.

Her enduring connection with celebrated ancestor Huo Yuanjia restarted in late 2014, when she was asked to shoot a video to display lianshouquan. It was actually the first time that she learned the routine of the ancient boxing art.

“Lianshouquan had long been forgotten in the family,” she said. “My father learned a bit when he was a child but was stopped by my grandfather Huo Yating.”

Huo Yating’s decision was aimed at protecting the family during the “cultural revolution” (1966-76). His father, Huo Dongge (1895-1956), the second son of Huo Yuanjia and the major inheritor of the boxing art form, moved to Southeast Asia in the 1920s and never came back. Such an “overseas connection” could have spelled disaster for the entire family during the “cultural revolution,” so the family kept a low profile away from martial arts.

 

To really understand Huo Jinghong’s profile, it should probably be read in the context of another article (also published in Shine.com) titled “Martial arts fans mark Chin Woo master’s 150th birthday in Shanghai.”  While much more general in nature, it suggests something about the scope of the efforts to promote the city (and tourism) through this aspect of its martial history.

A thousand martial arts lovers practiced traditional Chin Woo boxing in Hongkou District on Saturday to commemorate the 150th birthday of Huo Yuanjia who founded the Chin Woo Athletic Association in Hongkou in 1909.

The martial artists from both home and abroad practiced the mizong boxing at the North Bund waterfront along the Huangpu River. The martial art style is what has made Huo famous ever since the early 1900s.

The event aims to promote China’s traditional martial arts culture and highlight the spirits of the Chin Woo association such as patriotism, self-cultivation, justice and readiness to help, according to the Shanghai Chin Woo Athletic Federation, the organizer of the event.

Our next article is also worth taking some time with.  It is not an exploration of the traditional martial arts so much as an extended investigation into the emergence of armored fighting (both in the context of competitive events and historical reenactment), in China.  This reporting brings up all sorts of questions about identity and the current direction(s) of Chinese nationalism.  Its worth noting that the larger social movement that these practices seem to be most closely discursively related to is not the martial arts per se, but rather the hanfu traditional clothing movement.  Again, it may be time to brush up on the scholarly literature on public spectacle in identity construction and community formation.

Incidentally, the Chinese government is not always enthusiastic about people putting on home made armor and bashing each other with swords and maces in public places.  That is just hard to imagine…

Here is the money quote:

It’s entertaining — even comedic at times — but for Gao, bringing China’s martial past to life through real armor, combat, and historical re-enactment is a serious matter. “Only if you understand this can you understand how you came to be — how your own nation, your own people, made it to the present day,” he tells Sixth Tone in December from a Shanghai café, a stone’s throw from the video game studio where he works as an animator.

 

As always, the South China Morning Post has had some things to say about the martial arts.  Perhaps the most articulate piece was this editorial defending Xu Xiaodong’s right to make a living through fighting.  Apparently he has been criticized in Chinese social media for not just harming the reputation of traditional culture, but for being paid by fight organizers (who have started to offer huge purses to anyone who might be able to defeat Xu).  Indeed, everyone involved with these bouts appears to be paid. But the recent rhetoric echoes the traditional criticism of those who would “sell their kung fu.”  All of that seems pretty unfair to the SCMP’s columnist who notes that professional MMA fighters have a right to make a living.  Still, he does implicitly criticize Xu for only accepting challenges from individuals who are obviously inferior opponents.

But that might be about to change.  One of Xu’s upcoming challengers (an appropriately fake Shaolin monk), is an experienced fighter in the ring and might provide a more interesting contest while allowing Xu to continue his quest to debunk the “frauds” of the traditional Chinese martial arts community.

 

The next article is for those who prefer their “reality fighting” to happen on the street rather than in a ring.  It is an account of two Chinese martial artists who get the better of three Russian thieves attempting to snatch a bag from a Chinese tourist.  The moral of this story appears to be that the “Chinese tourist” you are threatening to pull a weapon on might just be an off-duty law enforcement officer.

 

 

How did Bruce Lee die?  Newsweek seems a little late to this party, but enquiring minds never seem to tire of this debate. The magazine’s webpage published an article summarizing the major theories that have arisen over the years, including some of the more medically sound ideas that have been proposed recently.  This might be a fun read for Bruce Lee fans.  Those looking for general biographical treatment can check out this recent article over at the GB Times.

 

 

Did you see Ip Man’s ten year challenge photos? I thought that was pretty clever. Apparently Donnie Yen would like to remind us that Ip Man 4 is coming soon. Incidentally, I am sure someone could turn this into a great meme.  Any takers?

 

 

 

I thought “Henan’s Snow Covered Shaolin Temple” was a better than average photo-essay. It is more focused on architecture than Kung Fu (though there is a bit of that).  Yet some of these images are striking.  Worth checking out if you are a Shaolin fan and can’t get out to train because of the snow!

 

 

If you live anywhere in New York State, not being able to get out to train might be the least of your problems.  Given the amount of snow that just fell, we will all be snowed in for a while.  Luckily TimeOut magazine has the entertainment covered.  It has just released its list of the “21 Best Kung Fu Movies Made in Hong Kong.” Given that none of us are going anywhere, we may as well grab the popcorn and boot up the streaming service of our choice.  While all quality picks, I thought this list played it pretty safe. So do you see anything that is missing?

 

 

Martial Arts Studies

The spring semester is just starting and the Martial Arts Studies community is lurching back to life.  As always, there is a lot to get caught up on.  The latest issue of MAS, packed with original research articles and reviews, has just be released.  Head on over to the Journal’s webpage to find out what is inside.

The table of contents is as follows.  (Hey, look at that.  A crack team of scholars wrote an article about the development of Wing Chun in Germany!):

 

 

 

Be sure to also check out the Martial Arts Studies YouTube channel.  The presentations from this years Bruce Lee conference have just been posted, and it looks like there is some interesting stuff.  Given that we recently discussed the classic article “Liberate Yourself from Classical Karate,” it might be fun to start with Lyn Jehu’s paper “Bruce Lee or Budo? Is the Mess Really that Classical?”

 

 

On the journal front, readers will be excited to learn that there is also a new issue of Revista de Artes Marciales Asiáticas (RAMA) with multiple English language articles.  You can see its table of contents here.

 

 

Last but not least, Greg Downey has just uploaded his paper (with Monica Dalidowicz and Paul Mason) “Apprenticeship as method: Embodied learning in ethnographic practice.”  This is a nice methods piece that will be helpful for many researchers in the field of Martial Arts Studies.  You can read it at Academia.edu.

 

 

Chinese tea set. Source: Wikimedia.

 

Kung Fu Tea on Facebook

A lot has happened on the Kung Fu Tea Facebook group over the last month.  We discussed a set of antique butterfly swords, reviewed important martial arts manuals and learned that bodily techniques from the traditional Japanese martial arts could help us in daily life. 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!

 

 

 



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Events and Trends that Shaped the Chinese Martial Arts in 2018


 

This is the time of year when it is only natural to pause and reflect on where we have been and what may be coming next.  2018 has been a busy year in the Chinese martial arts.  Progress has been in made in certain areas, while suggestions of trouble have arisen in others.  Lets explore all of this together as we count down the top ten news stories of the last year.  As always, if you spotted a trend or article that you think should have made this list, please feel free to leave a link in the comments below!

 

A “Kung Fu” nun demonstrates a pole form at a Tibetan Temple in Nepal.

 

10. The first story on our list reflects one of my favorite themes (and research areas).  Namely 2018 saw an expansion in the Chinese government’s efforts to harness its traditional martial arts as a tool of cultural and public diplomacy.   Confucius Institutes around the world have a mandate to hold various sorts of cultural education events, and if you live near one in North America or Western Europe it is not that difficult to find a martial arts themed event once or twice a year.  These efforts pale in comparison to the resources being invested in cultural exchange and education programs in Africa (where China has made substantial investments and is eager to maintain a positive public image) and in other regions affected by the “Belt and Road Initiative.”  As I reviewed the last year’s news it seemed that we were hearing more about these sorts of efforts in South and Central Asia. This story, from back in July, nicely illustrates these trends as it discusses efforts to expand the profile of the Chinese martial arts in Nepal.

 

 

9.  In a very real sense we are the product of our identities.  They create us and impart a sense of purpose and meaning in our lives.  Yet no identity is perfectly stable.  These things are constantly shifting, slipping and being renegotiated as their relationship with society changes.  As such, identity can be a source of anxiety, though people will go to remarkable lengths to suppress these feelings.  Still, 2018 seems to have been a year when anxiety in the TCMA boiled to surface and entered into a number of (seemingly) unrelated discussions.

Certainly the ongoing trend of traditional “masters” being pummeled by journeyman MMA fighters on social media has helped to crystalize this.  But it can be seen in other places as well.  For instance, this account of a “Chinese Cultural Night” at a local University caught my attention as it argued that the traditional martial arts were a critical aspect of Asian American identity.

Yet Asian American media critics are increasingly reserving their praise for projects that distance the Asian American community from what they see as limiting activities  and lazy media troupes.  Indeed, on the media front 2018 will certainly be remembered as the year of “Crazy Rich Asians” rather than anything martial arts related. The value and place of these activities within the constellation of ideas, representations and practices that collectively comprise “Asian American Identity” seems to be up for explicit renegotiation.

A different, and more official, version of this debate seems to have emerged among certain Chinese policy makers.  As our first story noted, the Chinese government has long sought to harness global interest in the martial arts, cooking and other traditional practices as a “soft power” resource in international politics.  Yet another group of officials is becoming concerned that these self-Orientalizing strategies will backfire in the long run.  They worry that China is not doing enough to showcase itself as a rich, technologically advanced and urban society. Individuals who travel to China may be disappointed when they discover a wonderland of modern materialism rather the romantic haven of “traditional” culture that they imagined.  In any case, who is to say that this more realistic image of Chinese culture would not appeal to an ever greater segment of the world’s population (specifically, the sorts of people who enjoy scenes of rapid economic development, followed by the rise of soaring glass and steel skylines). Is it a problem that the identity which China seeks to cultivate on the world stage does not reflect the values and aspirations of many of its citizens?  It will be interesting to see where this debate goes in 2019.

 

Xu Xiaodong Strikes again!

8. Xu Xiadong topped the 2017 news list, and he succeeded in making waves in 2018 as well.  I had a particular fondness for   this article which appeared Bloody Elbow  back in April.  It struck me as interesting on two counts.  Its title, “MMA fighters batter Wing Chun Masters in China”, was a masterpiece of aspirational misstatement.  A more accurate title would have read: “MMA (journeyman trainer) batters (unknown) Wing Chun (practitioner) in Japan.”  Yeah, that is better.  

Beyond that, this story, and others like it, capture so much of the anxiety that surrounds the Chinese martial arts.  Xu has gotten in trouble with the government as they view his antics as devaluing China’s traditional culture and “humiliating the nation” (no matter how much he protests to the contrary).  And the press coverage of Xu’s activities really frames an entire group of other stories chronicling the rise of MMA, Muay Thai and BBJ in China as activities to be taken up by regular citizens rather than just professional fighters (which is where Sanda and Olympic Judo had largely remained).   My favorite of those pieces was the New York Times article titled “The First Rule of Chinese Fight Club: No Karaoke.” It provides a nice profile of a local “fight club,” inspired both by the founder’s love of the movie, and the growing popularity of Western combat sports in China.  It discusses the legal and administrative hurdles that such a business faces, and in so doing gives a nice glimpse into the social anxieties that still surround the martial arts. Here is a quote to whet your appetite:

“…boxing, mixed martial arts and other high-energy fighting forms have been enjoying a minor boom in China in recent years. Gyms and audiences have multiplied across the country. Precise numbers are hard to come by, but one fan group estimates that the number of clubs had reached 8,300 in 2016, up from 2,700 in 2008.

Even so, commercial fight venues that draw a broader audience are rare. And Chengdu, with its zestful night life and hipster scene, seemed as good a place as any to try opening one. Yet even here the club has struggled to balance between being cool enough to draw customers and respectable enough to keep the inspectors at bay.

In a former venue, the fight club had to fend off complaints from the police, who deemed the weekly bouts undesirable, if not illegal. The authorities cut off their power and water late last year, Mr. Shi and Mr. Wang said. Tensions had also grown when a national controversy erupted last April after Xu Xiaodong, a mixed martial arts fighter, challenged masters of China’s gentler traditional martial arts to fight and flattened one of them in about 10 seconds.

Mr. Xu may have won that fight hands down, but the episode brought bad publicity for new martial arts in China.”

A student performs at a demonstration near Mt. Song. Source:http://www.dailymail.co.uk/

7.  The government’s involvement with Xu’s various challenge fights should inspire students of martial arts studies to critically reflect on the various intersections of politics and Kung Fu.  Indeed, the second half of 2018 saw a number of stories in which the Chinese government explicitly demanded a greater degree of loyalty from the nation’s institutions of traditional cultural.

The Shaolin Temple, in its double capacity as both a religious institution and center for martial arts training, found itself at the center of this controversy. Seeking to get ahead of new government policy directives designed to limit the independence of Chinese religious movements from the state and Communist Party, the temple’s leadership decided to take a much more visible and proactive role in promoting “patriotism” (rather than simply Buddhism) in the monks’ public performance.  This is actually a somewhat nuanced topic as Chinese Buddhist monasteries have never been truly independent of the state and Shaolin, in particular, already carries a patriotic reputation.  Still, the move has inspired some controversy and much discussion.  A good overview of all this can be found in the South China Morning Post article titled: “Red flag for Buddhists? Shaolin Temple ‘takes the lead’ in Chinese patriotism push.” Here is a sample of the sort of pushback that has been encountered:

Tsui Chung-hui, of the University of Hong Kong’s Centre of Buddhist Studies, said Buddhist scripture already required its followers to respect the state.

“The government does not need to take pains to promote [this] and monasteries also do not need to pander to politics,” Tsui said on Tuesday. “They should let monks dedicate themselves to Buddhism and not waste their time performing various political propaganda activities.”

China has recently come under the spotlight for its efforts to clamp down on minority religions including Islam and Christianity, which it associates with foreign influence or ethnic separatism. Mosques and churches flying the national flag have become an increasingly common sight in China amid the crackdown.

Interested readers may also want to check out this follow-up article critically examining the state of Buddhism in China, including multiple discussions of the compromised situation of the Shaolin Temple.

 

 

6. When thinking about the Chinese martial arts and politics it would be a mistake to focus solely on the question of national identities.  These systems are also invoked as part of efforts to define and shore up a wide variety of local and regional structures.  This is something that we can see throughout the realm of the traditional Asian martial arts.  Still, when reviewing media coverage of these events I noted that “Southern” arts (and cities showed up) with a fair degree of frequency.  These articles are so interesting to me that its hard to pick just one. Over the course of the last year we saw lots of good news coverage of Wing Chun in Hong Kong, exhibitions on the Hakka arts, and a really nice piece on the rebirth of Foshan’s Choy Li Fut in the 1990s. But if forced to choose I might suggest taking a look at this piece on White Crane in Taipei.  I liked the way that it explicitly engaged with the discourse linking local martial arts practice with regional prestige/identity.  Note the following quote:

Every Asian nation and culture around Taiwan has laid claim to a signature martial art, such as taichi, wing chun, karate, taekwondo, Muay Thai and escrima, [Lin] said.

“It is a shame that Taiwan does not have a representative martial art,” he said. “I want to leave behind something for the nation. I have vowed that I will travel to make the feeding crane style thrive all over the world,” he said.

 

 

 

5. Anthony Bourdain’s death earlier this year inspired a torrent of press coverage.  Interestingly, some of it focused on both the famed chef’s prior drug use and relationship with the martial arts. While not directly related to the traditional Chinese martial arts (Bourdain was an avid BJJ student), his passing did reignite interest in the use of all sorts of martial arts training to treat (and support) individuals recovering from addiction.  I addressed the discursive relationship between Bourdain’s celebrity, addiction recovery and martial arts practice here.  And much of the subsequent media discussion focused on programs attempting to use Taijiquan (rather than BJJ) in institutional settings.

 

 

4. Our collection of top stories in 2017 discussed some of the ways that the “Me Too” movement manifested itself within the martial arts community.  2018 was not without some disturbing new revelations of its own. But even more common was a different sort of account settling, one in which female martial arts pioneers were acknowledged for their accomplishments.  The San Francisco Chronicle  ran a great piece on Cheng Pei-Pei (probably the first female martial arts star) who was honored at CAAMFest.  It has a number of good quotes on the golden age of Hong Kong film as well as the development of Cheng’s career.  And it all started with her epic first film, “Come Drink With Me.”

From the moment she entered that inn and took a table in the middle of the room with steely confidence amid dozens of leering men — then dispatched them in an epic fight with a fury unseen in cinema up to that point, 19-year-old Cheng Pei-Pei was a star.

The year was 1966, and “Come Drink With Me,” directed by the great King Hu, was the first major martial arts movie to have a woman as the central action star, paving the way for Michelle Yeoh, Zhang Ziyi and many others. And this was 13 years before Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley character in “Alien” broke ground in Hollywood as an action heroine.

Other stories focused on the up and coming female martial artists.  The rapid growth of the MMA scene in China has led to the rise of a new generation of female fighters, and reporters have been quick to record and promote their stories.

 

English language tabloids continue to discuss the newly “rediscovered” tradition of “kung fu bull fighting.” This is basically the latest attempt to parlay martial arts exhibitions into a local tourist attraction.

 

3.  It seems that every year has that one story that just won’t die.  Somewhat improbably, 2018’s champion would have to be “Kung Fu Bull Fighting.”  If you have never heard of this “ancient” practice before, don’t worry, you are not alone.  Bull wrestling was first registered as an ethnic martial art (attributed to the Hui people) in 2008.  More recently practiconers in Zhejiang have taken to the practice in an attempt to create a local tourist attraction, capturing a slice of China’s lucrative domestic tourism market.  And its hard to blame them.  The massive success of places like Chen Village and the Shaolin Temple ensures that local officials throughout China are always on the lookout for raw material that can be turned into the next martial arts pilgrimage destination.

Still, the practice of Kung Fu bullfighting (which first hit the English language press in September of this year) feels different.  While many Chinese language books on the martial arts begin with a boilerplate paragraph explaining that these fighting systems were invented in the ancient past to defend the people from “wild animals,” I don’t think I have ever seen a modern “martial art” system that claimed to take animals as their primary opponent.  While it would be easy to look at this story in terms of (transparently) “invented traditions” and the demands of local tourism markets, I suspect that there is more going on here.  The constant comparisons to Spanish bull fighting in these articles suggests an exercise in both gender and national identity construction.  On the other hand, given all of the news about the Chinese martial arts (movies, sporting events, kung fu diplomacy, etc…) that is produced every month, one has to wonder why this story has captured the English language press to the degree that it has? Clearly there is a healthy dose of Orientalism going on here.  But what specifically do readers imagine that they are learning about Chinese culture as they immerse themselves within the world of “ancient” Chinese bullfighting?  What does this suggest about the ways that China continues to be imagined in the West?  The strange endurance of this story reminds us that even the least serious practice can inspire important questions.

 

 

2.  There is no better known figure within the Chinese martial arts than Bruce Lee.  Indeed, he is probably the most well-known martial arts figure of all time.  Still, even by Lee’s elevated standard, 2018 was a good year.  Anniversaries aside, much of that credit must go to the well known author Matthew Polly who finally released his long anticipated (and extensively researched) biography.  I don’t think its an exaggeration to say that this Polly’s effort is destined to be remembered as the definitive Bruce Lee biography.

Just as interesting as the book itself was the media’s response to it. While the tabloids tended to dwell on Polly’s more lurid revelations, the book was reviewed, discussed and meditated upon in a surprisingly wide variety of print and televised outlets. Pretty much every major newspaper and magazine weighed in on Polly’s book, some more than once. Discussions of this work dominated the Chinese martial arts headlines for months, testifying to Lee’s enduring charisma. Lee even got his own academic conference earlier this year (at which Polly made an appearance)!  All in all, 2018 was a good year for the Bruce Lee legacy, and it suggests that his image continues to shape the way that the public perceives the Chinese martial arts.

 

 

1.  This brings us to the top news story of 2018, the passing of Louis Cha, also known to his fans as Jin Yong.  Indeed, coverage of his achievements began relatively early in the year with the announcement of new graphic novels based on his work, and  the release of an important English language translation of Legend of Condor Heroes. While Cha is the best selling modern Chinese author, few of his works had found English language publishers. As such, this new translation was treated as a major publishing event which generated a large number of reviews, discussions and think pieces.

That press coverage proved to be only a primer of what was to come  following the author’s death (at the age of 94) at the end of October.  It seemed that every major paper and news outlet on both sides of the Pacific was eager to remember and reevaluate the fruits of a remarkable life.  There was much to be said regarding Cha’s contributions as a newspaper editor and leading (and at times controversial) political figure during Hong Kong’s transition to Chinese rule.

Yet it would be impossible to overstate the importance of Cha’s Wuxia novels in the rejuvenation of Hong Kong’s post-war martial arts culture.  His stories provided practices that were often publicly scorned with a degree of gravitas.  They granted cathartic relief to a generation of exiled readers struggling with the sudden realization that after 1949 they would not be returning to their homes in other parts of China.  Later they helped younger readers to position their own martial practice and social struggles in terms of larger cultural and historic narratives.

While Cha was never known as a martial artist, his writings helped to popularize and give social meaning to these practices.  Indeed, for cultural historians of the Southern Chinese martial arts it is often necessary think in terms of the “pre” and “post” Jin Yong eras.  While Cha’s passing is a tragedy, the remembrances of the last few months have highlighted his enduring contributions to the public appreciation of the Chinese martial arts.



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Events and Trends that Shaped the Chinese Martial Arts in 2018


 

This is the time of year when it is only natural to pause and reflect on where we have been and what may be coming next.  2018 has been a busy year in the Chinese martial arts.  Progress has been in made in certain areas, while suggestions of trouble have arisen in others.  Lets explore all of this together as we count down the top ten news stories of the last year.  As always, if you spotted a trend or article that you think should have made this list, please feel free to leave a link in the comments below!

 

A “Kung Fu” nun demonstrates a pole form at a Tibetan Temple in Nepal.

 

10. The first story on our list reflects one of my favorite themes (and research areas).  Namely 2018 saw an expansion in the Chinese government’s efforts to harness its traditional martial arts as a tool of cultural and public diplomacy.   Confucius Institutes around the world have a mandate to hold various sorts of cultural education events, and if you live near one in North America or Western Europe it is not that difficult to find a martial arts themed event once or twice a year.  These efforts pale in comparison to the resources being invested in cultural exchange and education programs in Africa (where China has made substantial investments and is eager to maintain a positive public image) and in other regions affected by the “Belt and Road Initiative.”  As I reviewed the last year’s news it seemed that we were hearing more about these sorts of efforts in South and Central Asia. This story, from back in July, nicely illustrates these trends as it discusses efforts to expand the profile of the Chinese martial arts in Nepal.

 

 

9.  In a very real sense we are the product of our identities.  They create us and impart a sense of purpose and meaning in our lives.  Yet no identity is perfectly stable.  These things are constantly shifting, slipping and being renegotiated as their relationship with society changes.  As such, identity can be a source of anxiety, though people will go to remarkable lengths to suppress these feelings.  Still, 2018 seems to have been a year when anxiety in the TCMA boiled to surface and entered into a number of (seemingly) unrelated discussions.

Certainly the ongoing trend of traditional “masters” being pummeled by journeyman MMA fighters on social media has helped to crystalize this.  But it can be seen in other places as well.  For instance, this account of a “Chinese Cultural Night” at a local University caught my attention as it argued that the traditional martial arts were a critical aspect of Asian American identity.

Yet Asian American media critics are increasingly reserving their praise for projects that distance the Asian American community from what they see as limiting activities  and lazy media troupes.  Indeed, on the media front 2018 will certainly be remembered as the year of “Crazy Rich Asians” rather than anything martial arts related. The value and place of these activities within the constellation of ideas, representations and practices that collectively comprise “Asian American Identity” seems to be up for explicit renegotiation.

A different, and more official, version of this debate seems to have emerged among certain Chinese policy makers.  As our first story noted, the Chinese government has long sought to harness global interest in the martial arts, cooking and other traditional practices as a “soft power” resource in international politics.  Yet another group of officials is becoming concerned that these self-Orientalizing strategies will backfire in the long run.  They worry that China is not doing enough to showcase itself as a rich, technologically advanced and urban society. Individuals who travel to China may be disappointed when they discover a wonderland of modern materialism rather the romantic haven of “traditional” culture that they imagined.  In any case, who is to say that this more realistic image of Chinese culture would not appeal to an ever greater segment of the world’s population (specifically, the sorts of people who enjoy scenes of rapid economic development, followed by the rise of soaring glass and steel skylines). Is it a problem that the identity which China seeks to cultivate on the world stage does not reflect the values and aspirations of many of its citizens?  It will be interesting to see where this debate goes in 2019.

 

Xu Xiaodong Strikes again!

8. Xu Xiadong topped the 2017 news list, and he succeeded in making waves in 2018 as well.  I had a particular fondness for   this article which appeared Bloody Elbow  back in April.  It struck me as interesting on two counts.  Its title, “MMA fighters batter Wing Chun Masters in China”, was a masterpiece of aspirational misstatement.  A more accurate title would have read: “MMA (journeyman trainer) batters (unknown) Wing Chun (practitioner) in Japan.”  Yeah, that is better.  

Beyond that, this story, and others like it, capture so much of the anxiety that surrounds the Chinese martial arts.  Xu has gotten in trouble with the government as they view his antics as devaluing China’s traditional culture and “humiliating the nation” (no matter how much he protests to the contrary).  And the press coverage of Xu’s activities really frames an entire group of other stories chronicling the rise of MMA, Muay Thai and BBJ in China as activities to be taken up by regular citizens rather than just professional fighters (which is where Sanda and Olympic Judo had largely remained).   My favorite of those pieces was the New York Times article titled “The First Rule of Chinese Fight Club: No Karaoke.” It provides a nice profile of a local “fight club,” inspired both by the founder’s love of the movie, and the growing popularity of Western combat sports in China.  It discusses the legal and administrative hurdles that such a business faces, and in so doing gives a nice glimpse into the social anxieties that still surround the martial arts. Here is a quote to whet your appetite:

“…boxing, mixed martial arts and other high-energy fighting forms have been enjoying a minor boom in China in recent years. Gyms and audiences have multiplied across the country. Precise numbers are hard to come by, but one fan group estimates that the number of clubs had reached 8,300 in 2016, up from 2,700 in 2008.

Even so, commercial fight venues that draw a broader audience are rare. And Chengdu, with its zestful night life and hipster scene, seemed as good a place as any to try opening one. Yet even here the club has struggled to balance between being cool enough to draw customers and respectable enough to keep the inspectors at bay.

In a former venue, the fight club had to fend off complaints from the police, who deemed the weekly bouts undesirable, if not illegal. The authorities cut off their power and water late last year, Mr. Shi and Mr. Wang said. Tensions had also grown when a national controversy erupted last April after Xu Xiaodong, a mixed martial arts fighter, challenged masters of China’s gentler traditional martial arts to fight and flattened one of them in about 10 seconds.

Mr. Xu may have won that fight hands down, but the episode brought bad publicity for new martial arts in China.”

A student performs at a demonstration near Mt. Song. Source:http://www.dailymail.co.uk/

7.  The government’s involvement with Xu’s various challenge fights should inspire students of martial arts studies to critically reflect on the various intersections of politics and Kung Fu.  Indeed, the second half of 2018 saw a number of stories in which the Chinese government explicitly demanded a greater degree of loyalty from the nation’s institutions of traditional cultural.

The Shaolin Temple, in its double capacity as both a religious institution and center for martial arts training, found itself at the center of this controversy. Seeking to get ahead of new government policy directives designed to limit the independence of Chinese religious movements from the state and Communist Party, the temple’s leadership decided to take a much more visible and proactive role in promoting “patriotism” (rather than simply Buddhism) in the monks’ public performance.  This is actually a somewhat nuanced topic as Chinese Buddhist monasteries have never been truly independent of the state and Shaolin, in particular, already carries a patriotic reputation.  Still, the move has inspired some controversy and much discussion.  A good overview of all this can be found in the South China Morning Post article titled: “Red flag for Buddhists? Shaolin Temple ‘takes the lead’ in Chinese patriotism push.” Here is a sample of the sort of pushback that has been encountered:

Tsui Chung-hui, of the University of Hong Kong’s Centre of Buddhist Studies, said Buddhist scripture already required its followers to respect the state.

“The government does not need to take pains to promote [this] and monasteries also do not need to pander to politics,” Tsui said on Tuesday. “They should let monks dedicate themselves to Buddhism and not waste their time performing various political propaganda activities.”

China has recently come under the spotlight for its efforts to clamp down on minority religions including Islam and Christianity, which it associates with foreign influence or ethnic separatism. Mosques and churches flying the national flag have become an increasingly common sight in China amid the crackdown.

Interested readers may also want to check out this follow-up article critically examining the state of Buddhism in China, including multiple discussions of the compromised situation of the Shaolin Temple.

 

 

6. When thinking about the Chinese martial arts and politics it would be a mistake to focus solely on the question of national identities.  These systems are also invoked as part of efforts to define and shore up a wide variety of local and regional structures.  This is something that we can see throughout the realm of the traditional Asian martial arts.  Still, when reviewing media coverage of these events I noted that “Southern” arts (and cities showed up) with a fair degree of frequency.  These articles are so interesting to me that its hard to pick just one. Over the course of the last year we saw lots of good news coverage of Wing Chun in Hong Kong, exhibitions on the Hakka arts, and a really nice piece on the rebirth of Foshan’s Choy Li Fut in the 1990s. But if forced to choose I might suggest taking a look at this piece on White Crane in Taipei.  I liked the way that it explicitly engaged with the discourse linking local martial arts practice with regional prestige/identity.  Note the following quote:

Every Asian nation and culture around Taiwan has laid claim to a signature martial art, such as taichi, wing chun, karate, taekwondo, Muay Thai and escrima, [Lin] said.

“It is a shame that Taiwan does not have a representative martial art,” he said. “I want to leave behind something for the nation. I have vowed that I will travel to make the feeding crane style thrive all over the world,” he said.

 

 

 

5. Anthony Bourdain’s death earlier this year inspired a torrent of press coverage.  Interestingly, some of it focused on both the famed chef’s prior drug use and relationship with the martial arts. While not directly related to the traditional Chinese martial arts (Bourdain was an avid BJJ student), his passing did reignite interest in the use of all sorts of martial arts training to treat (and support) individuals recovering from addiction.  I addressed the discursive relationship between Bourdain’s celebrity, addiction recovery and martial arts practice here.  And much of the subsequent media discussion focused on programs attempting to use Taijiquan (rather than BJJ) in institutional settings.

 

 

4. Our collection of top stories in 2017 discussed some of the ways that the “Me Too” movement manifested itself within the martial arts community.  2018 was not without some disturbing new revelations of its own. But even more common was a different sort of account settling, one in which female martial arts pioneers were acknowledged for their accomplishments.  The San Francisco Chronicle  ran a great piece on Cheng Pei-Pei (probably the first female martial arts star) who was honored at CAAMFest.  It has a number of good quotes on the golden age of Hong Kong film as well as the development of Cheng’s career.  And it all started with her epic first film, “Come Drink With Me.”

From the moment she entered that inn and took a table in the middle of the room with steely confidence amid dozens of leering men — then dispatched them in an epic fight with a fury unseen in cinema up to that point, 19-year-old Cheng Pei-Pei was a star.

The year was 1966, and “Come Drink With Me,” directed by the great King Hu, was the first major martial arts movie to have a woman as the central action star, paving the way for Michelle Yeoh, Zhang Ziyi and many others. And this was 13 years before Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley character in “Alien” broke ground in Hollywood as an action heroine.

Other stories focused on the up and coming female martial artists.  The rapid growth of the MMA scene in China has led to the rise of a new generation of female fighters, and reporters have been quick to record and promote their stories.

 

English language tabloids continue to discuss the newly “rediscovered” tradition of “kung fu bull fighting.” This is basically the latest attempt to parlay martial arts exhibitions into a local tourist attraction.

 

3.  It seems that every year has that one story that just won’t die.  Somewhat improbably, 2018’s champion would have to be “Kung Fu Bull Fighting.”  If you have never heard of this “ancient” practice before, don’t worry, you are not alone.  Bull wrestling was first registered as an ethnic martial art (attributed to the Hui people) in 2008.  More recently practiconers in Zhejiang have taken to the practice in an attempt to create a local tourist attraction, capturing a slice of China’s lucrative domestic tourism market.  And its hard to blame them.  The massive success of places like Chen Village and the Shaolin Temple ensures that local officials throughout China are always on the lookout for raw material that can be turned into the next martial arts pilgrimage destination.

Still, the practice of Kung Fu bullfighting (which first hit the English language press in September of this year) feels different.  While many Chinese language books on the martial arts begin with a boilerplate paragraph explaining that these fighting systems were invented in the ancient past to defend the people from “wild animals,” I don’t think I have ever seen a modern “martial art” system that claimed to take animals as their primary opponent.  While it would be easy to look at this story in terms of (transparently) “invented traditions” and the demands of local tourism markets, I suspect that there is more going on here.  The constant comparisons to Spanish bull fighting in these articles suggests an exercise in both gender and national identity construction.  On the other hand, given all of the news about the Chinese martial arts (movies, sporting events, kung fu diplomacy, etc…) that is produced every month, one has to wonder why this story has captured the English language press to the degree that it has? Clearly there is a healthy dose of Orientalism going on here.  But what specifically do readers imagine that they are learning about Chinese culture as they immerse themselves within the world of “ancient” Chinese bullfighting?  What does this suggest about the ways that China continues to be imagined in the West?  The strange endurance of this story reminds us that even the least serious practice can inspire important questions.

 

 

2.  There is no better known figure within the Chinese martial arts than Bruce Lee.  Indeed, he is probably the most well-known martial arts figure of all time.  Still, even by Lee’s elevated standard, 2018 was a good year.  Anniversaries aside, much of that credit must go to the well known author Matthew Polly who finally released his long anticipated (and extensively researched) biography.  I don’t think its an exaggeration to say that this Polly’s effort is destined to be remembered as the definitive Bruce Lee biography.

Just as interesting as the book itself was the media’s response to it. While the tabloids tended to dwell on Polly’s more lurid revelations, the book was reviewed, discussed and meditated upon in a surprisingly wide variety of print and televised outlets. Pretty much every major newspaper and magazine weighed in on Polly’s book, some more than once. Discussions of this work dominated the Chinese martial arts headlines for months, testifying to Lee’s enduring charisma. Lee even got his own academic conference earlier this year (at which Polly made an appearance)!  All in all, 2018 was a good year for the Bruce Lee legacy, and it suggests that his image continues to shape the way that the public perceives the Chinese martial arts.

 

 

1.  This brings us to the top news story of 2018, the passing of Louis Cha, also known to his fans as Jin Yong.  Indeed, coverage of his achievements began relatively early in the year with the announcement of new graphic novels based on his work, and  the release of an important English language translation of Legend of Condor Heroes. While Cha is the best selling modern Chinese author, few of his works had found English language publishers. As such, this new translation was treated as a major publishing event which generated a large number of reviews, discussions and think pieces.

That press coverage proved to be only a primer of what was to come  following the author’s death (at the age of 94) at the end of October.  It seemed that every major paper and news outlet on both sides of the Pacific was eager to remember and reevaluate the fruits of a remarkable life.  There was much to be said regarding Cha’s contributions as a newspaper editor and leading (and at times controversial) political figure during Hong Kong’s transition to Chinese rule.

Yet it would be impossible to overstate the importance of Cha’s Wuxia novels in the rejuvenation of Hong Kong’s post-war martial arts culture.  His stories provided practices that were often publicly scorned with a degree of gravitas.  They granted cathartic relief to a generation of exiled readers struggling with the sudden realization that after 1949 they would not be returning to their homes in other parts of China.  Later they helped younger readers to position their own martial practice and social struggles in terms of larger cultural and historic narratives.

While Cha was never known as a martial artist, his writings helped to popularize and give social meaning to these practices.  Indeed, for cultural historians of the Southern Chinese martial arts it is often necessary think in terms of the “pre” and “post” Jin Yong eras.  While Cha’s passing is a tragedy, the remembrances of the last few months have highlighted his enduring contributions to the public appreciation of the Chinese martial arts.



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Chinese Martial Arts in the News: Dec 10, 2018: Young Masters, Colorful History, Chinese Swords


 

Introduction

Its official, holiday madness is upon us. Still, I wanted to comment on some of the more interesting stories that have been floating around. For new readers, this is a semi-regular feature here at Kung Fu Tea in which we review media stories that mention or affect 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.

Its been way too long since our last update so let’s get to the news!

 

Keeping kung fu relevant. Source: South China Morning Post.

 

News From All Over

The South China Morning Post  is a pretty reliable source for news on the Chinese martial arts.  But what I really love is the number of Wing Chun stories they publish! Nor did they disappoint during the last news cycle.  Click this link for a profile of a young instructor battling to “Keep Kung Fu Relevant” in the modern world. Or, if you prefer your profiles in written form, you can find a short article on the same instructor in Yahoo news.  Both are worth checking out.

 

 

English language tabloids continue to discover the newly “rediscovered” tradition of Chinese “bull fighting.” This is basically the latest attempt to parlay martial arts exhibitions into a local tourist attraction.

It seems that every year has that one story that just won’t die. If you had asked me at the beginning of the year whether that would be the “ancient art” of kung fu bull fighting, I would blinked in disbelief and asked if you were thinking of Mas Oyama.  But here we are!

Calling this an art, or somehow more “real” than Spanish bull fighting, seems like a stretch.  But the sudden appearance of this practice (unknown to the international press just last year), suggests that it would make a great case study on the “invention of tradition” in the Chinese martial arts.  Or perhaps you could use it to delve into the evolving construction of masculinity within the martial arts. Calling all graduate students…

 

Shalini Singh’s skill with a broadsword earned her a gold medal last month
at the Pan American Wushu Championships in Buenos Aires, Argentina. The San
Jose teen is an eighth-grader at Stratford School Raynor in Sunnyvale.

 

The Mercury News recently ran a story titled “San Jose teen shines in international martial arts competition.”  It profiles a young Wushu champion and reinforces some of the standard notions about why serious martial arts practice is good for children.

Shalini Singh’s skill with a broadsword earned her a gold medal last month at the Pan American Wushu Championships in Buenos Aires, Argentina. The San Jose teen is an eighth-grader at Stratford School Raynor in Sunnyvale. (Photo courtesy of the Singh family)

She was 7 years old when started at Wushu Central on Coleman Avenue in San Jose and loved it immediately. In 2016, after four years of intense study, she earned a first-degree black belt. Now, she has been practicing Wushu for almost seven years, and currently trains about 18-20 hours per week at Elite Kung Fu Academy in Fremont.

“I really like the focus and discipline that Wushu has instilled in me,” Shalini said. “Wushu has taught me that failures are an opportunity to learn and improve yourself. I used to lose in all of my initial tournaments, and at first, it made me upset and dejected. But the advice of my coaches helped me identify where I was weak, and helped me improve my performance.”

 

For whatever reason, quite a few authors decided to delve into the history (or supposed history) of the Asian martial arts over the last month.  Without a doubt the most sensational of these pieces was provided by the Fox Sports network.  Its offering was modestly titled “4 Asian Martial Arts that teach you to end the fight with one strike.”  This one is too funny (by which I mean bad) not to delve into.

Martial arts have become a means to deliver discipline, commitment and fitness into the practitioner’s life in the modern day scenario. Yes, one does learn how to defend oneself effectively also but they have largely turned into sport. But as recently as in the first half of the 20th century – the whole focus of martial arts was different. It wasn’t just used to imbue good values and equip someone for self-defence, but in those war-torn times, martial arts was an active engagement strategy against the enemy.

In that time, the focus of learning martial arts was to grievously maim or even kill your enemy in the battlefield.

In case you were wondering what these four deadly venoms are, we begin with Dim Mak (which is apparently now a single martial art invented by Bodhidharma, rather than a set of techniques), Silat (enough said), Ikken Hissatsu (which, judging by the provided video, is basically point karate highlight reel), and Varna Kali.  All in all, the article is a font of joyful misunderstanding and myth-making.  But in an era when everyone seems intent on tearing down the utility of the traditional martial arts, it stuck me as almost quaint.  As I read it I couldn’t helping thinking, “So was this what 1968 felt like?”

A similar article, though better done, can be found here. Or why not try this one (“The Guru of Kung Fu”).  Bodhidharma looks to be making a serious comeback!

 

Xu Xiaodong Strikes again!

 

The Abbot of the Shaolin Temple chimed in on Xu Xiaodong, the Chinese MMA fighter who has gained notoriety through his challenge matches with various traditional “masters.”  Apparently Shi has his back.

“He’s a good guy, even though he’s a totally amateur MMA fighter,” said Shi, adding that “a hundred people in Henan province alone” could defeat Xu.

But Shi concluded: “Xu is doing the right thing by fighting fake kung fu.”

 

Ok, maybe that wasn’t a ringing endorsement. Still, I didn’t expect that level of engagement with Xu’s quest.  Given his reputation with the Wushu establishment (not to mention the Chinese government) there doesn’t seem to be a lot of political upside for abbot Shi Yong Xinin here.

 

 

Speaking of the development of the MMA in China, Forbes ran an article on the new training facility that the UFC is planning to build in Shanghai.  Clearly this is intended to help the UFC overcome its troubles developing a more extensive network of Chinese athletes.

If you’ve ever been to the UFC Performance Institute in Las Vegas, chances are you’ve been wowed by the facility. Well, there is a new PI being constructed in Shanghai that will be three times the size of the one in Sin City.

 

Cultural Exchange Will Strengthen Bonds Between China & Africa.’ So proclaims a “Kung Fu Diplomacy” article in the Liberian Observer.  This one discusses the close cooperation between local diplomatic staff and branches of the (ostensibly academic) Confucius Institute in using traditional Chinese culture to further the state’s public diplomacy objectives.

The Embassy of the People’s Republic of China near Monrovia in collaboration with the Confucius Institute at the University of Liberia (UL) on Saturday, November 10, hosted the traditional Chinese Arts performance, with some of the main performers coming from the Hunan University of Chinese Medicine in China.

The event, which was hosted at the Monrovia City Hall, was intended to strengthen China-Liberia relationship, highlighting culture exchanges between the two countries. Some of the performances comprised a series of China’s traditional sport-oriented health maintenance practices, including Martial Arts, Tai Chi, Qigong (a popular Chinese song) about unity, and some Chinese folk dances.

 

There have been a couple of interesting photo essays in the last couple of weeks.  The first follows the career of Huo Jinghong, a 5th generation descendent of Huo Yunjia and an inheritor of his system.  That article hits all of the notes that one might expect. 

 

 

Even more interesting is this story, profiling a swordsmith who has devoted himself to reviving certain steel-making techniques.  Prepare yourself for sword pics!

Li Zhujun makes a decorative sword at his studio in Tiejiangzhuang Village of Xingtang County, Shijiazhuang, north China’s Hebei Province, Nov. 14, 2018. For centuries, Tiejiangzhuang Village has been famed for its skillful blacksmiths and prosperous steel making industry. Li Zhujun is one of the village’s top steel makers. Based on the skills inherited from his father, Li gained an expertise in the steel-making technique “refined pattern welding”, which adds complicated patterns to the swords and knives during forging. The technique has been listed as an intangible cultural heritage by the city of Shijiazhuang. In recent years, the 47-year-old blacksmith has devoted himself to the renewal of this technique. His decorative swords, thus forged with more alternative patterns, show the enhanced aesthetics and exquisite product quality. (Xinhua/Chen Qibao)

The Chief Actors in the ‘Pageant of the Dragon’, Performed By The Chinese Labour Corps, Dannes (Art.IWM ART 837) image: five Chinese men stand dressed in elaborate, traditional costumes for the purposes of a pageant. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/12963

Interested in Five Ancestor First, or the Southern Martial Arts Diaspora?  Then check out this announcement from the Philipines.

Filipinos’ fascination for martial arts comes alive as more than 200 martial arts experts across the globe converge in Manila on Nov. 24 to celebrate the 80th founding anniversary of the Kong Han Athletic Club, the country’s premier martial arts school.

Abbot Chang Ding of Quanzhou City’s Shaolin Temple, and some 30 monks and members of the International South Shaolin Wuzuquan Federation, will lead participants on the occasion.

 

Did you hear about Marvel’s ambitious new superhero film project featuring Shang-Chi, a son of Fu Manchu.  As you might have guessed, that last plot point is not going over well in China (where Marvel films are decently popular).  Why? Fu Manchu, the villain of many ‘yellow peril’ novels is still widely remembered as an offensive symbol of Western anti-Chinese discrimination.

 

 

Anyone out there interested in martial arts and politics?  If so, Malaysian Silat has been in the news quite a bit over the last few weeks.  This article, titled “Silat alliance submits memo on ICERD, Malay issues at Istana Negara,” is a good place to get your orientation.

KUALA LUMPUR: Members of a silat coalition, known as Gabungan Silat Pertahan Perlembagaan, submitted a memorandum to the Yang Di-Pertuan Agong today, expressing their protest over International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) and other issues….Apart from the ICERD issue, Shahruddin said the note also highlighted the group’s other demands which included calling for the protection and upholding of Malay rights, Federal Constitution and the royal institution.

More pictures and video are available here. Nor is this the only time that Silat groups have been in the news for their political activism.  Here is another article touching on the involvement of Silat practitioners in violent clashes surrounding a Hindu temple in Selangor.

 

 

Now that we have all read the hot new tell all biography of Bruce Lee, we can turn our attention to Jackie Chan’s deeply confessional autobiography.  Lets just say that Chan does not bend over backwards attempting to paint himself in a positive light.  Whether this should be accepted as a mea culpa has become a topic of conversation in the Hong Kong press.  You can find one reviewer who is relatively sympathetic to Chan here.  But not everyone is as willing to accept his apology.

 

 

Martial Arts Studies

 

Typically I structure the MAS section of these news-updates around conference announcements and book updates.  This time we are going to look at some new articles and papers instead.  The first is a piece that I really  enjoyed by Colin P. McGuire.  You have all heard the song. Now its time to delve into what it really tells us about Cantonese martial culture!

Colin P. McGuire. 2018. “Unisonance in kung fu film music, or the Wong Fei-hung theme song as a Cantonese transnationalanthem.” Ethnomusicology Forum.

ABSTRACT

Wong Fei-hung was a Cantonese martial arts master from southernChina who became associated with a melody called ‘General’s Ode’. Since the 1950s, over 100 Hong Kong movies and television showshave forged the link by using this melody as Master Wong’s theme.During fieldwork in a Chinese Canadian kung fu club, I observed several consultants claiming this piece as a Cantonese nationalanthem—a hymn for a nation without a sovereign state. Virtualethnography conducted online showed that this opinion is heldmore widely, but that the piece also inspires broader Chinesenationalist sentiment. My analysis of speech-tone relationships tomelodic contour in Cantonese and Mandarin versions of the song,however, has revealed a tight integration with the former that thelatter lacked. By sharpening Anderson’s concept of unisonance, I explore how this song has become an unofficial transnationalanthem for Cantonese people, arguing that Master Wong’s themeauralises an abstract sense of imagined community.

 

I chose the next paper as a representative of the rapidly growing literature on the South East Asian martial arts.  And it seemed to offset some of the previous discussion of Silat.

Lian Sutton. 2018. “Embodying the Elements within Nature through the traditional Malay art of Silat Tua.” eTropic17.2 Special Issue: Tropical Imaginaries in Living Cities.

Abstract 

The paper introduces Silat Tua, a traditional Malay martial art, and its relationship to the tropics of the Malaysian Peninsula and Singapore through the imagery work of the four Elements: Earth, Water, Fire, and Wind. In a world of increasing disconnect between Humans and Nature, the Silat Tua practice is a traditional martial art for bringing harmony and healing, as well as an understanding of how the building blocks of Nature can harmonise, complement and resonate with the natural resources of the human mind, body and spirit. Through recounting the legend of the art’s origin, the first proponent of Silat Tua is shown to have gained inspiration and lessons from the inhabited environment. Examples of how a Silat exponent may explore and come to understand the Elements are discussed before venturing into the practical application of the Elements in cultivating mindfulness and influencing behaviour. The physical environment thus, is not only a source of inspiration for movement but indeed an impetus for leading a harmonious and virtuous life. The paper concludes with the connection and implications of the Elements training in Singapore and its potential in navigating oneself through the constant changes inevitable in life.

 

I have not yet had a chance to read the following paper by George Jennings.  But it looks fascinating and brings the conversation around to the martial practices of Latin America (a topic that deserves more discussion).

George Jennings. 2018. “From the Calendar to the Flesh: Movement, Space and Identity in a Mexican Body Culture.”

Abstract

There are numerous ways to theorise about elements of civilisations and societies known as ‘body’, ‘movement’, or ‘physical’ cultures. Inspired by the late Henning Eichberg’s notions of multiple and continually shifting body cultures, this article explores his constant comparative (trialectic)approach via the Mexican martial art, exercise, and human development philosophy—

Xilam. Situating Xilam within its historical and political context and within a triad of Mesoamerican, native, and modern martial arts, combat sports, and other physical cultures, I map this complexity through Eichberg’s triadic model of achievement, fitness, and experience sports. I then focus my analysis on the aspects of movement in space as seen in my ethnographic fieldwork in one branch of the Xilam school. Using a bare studio as the setting and my body as principle instrument, I provide an impressionist portrait of what it is like to train in Xilam within a communal dance hall (space) and typical class session of two hours (time) and to form and express warrior identity from it. This articledisplays the techniques; gestures and bodily symbols that encapsulate the essence of the Xilam bodyculture, calling for a way to theorise from not just from and on the body but also across body cultures.

 

Finally, Paul Bowman has circulated a draft of this paper for comment and discussion.  Looks fascinating!

Paul Bowman. ‘Kiss me with your fist, it’s alright’: Deconstructing the Pleasures of Martial Arts Violence.”

Abstract

this paper seeks to broach the complex relations of pleasure and violence in martial arts, in relation to their practice, performance and forms of consumption. It does so first by setting out the broad contours of the discursive status of both violence and pleasure in current debates about martial arts, before going on to deconstruct the implications of two short media texts: a controversial 2006 French Connection TV advert known as ‘Fashion versus  Style’, and an uncontroversial music video for the 2015 song ‘Be Your Shadow’ by The Wombats.

 

An assortment of Chinese teas. Source: Wikimedia.

 

Kung Fu Tea on Facebook

A lot has happened on the Kung Fu Tea Facebook group over the last month.  We looked at antique weapons, reviewed some Republic era TCMA manuals, and learned how to defend ourselves with nothing but a bicycle! (Yeah, apparently that was actually a thing in 1900). 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!



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Wabi-Sabi: Martial Arts in a Warming World


This red pine is a unique expression of the Wabi-Sabi ethos. Source:https://bonsaibark.com/2012/12/06/theres-bunjin-and-then-theres/

 

 

Martial Arts and Politics: The Big Picture

 

The latest (dire) global warming report produced by US government scientists is inspiring conversations everywhere. I overheard a particularly interesting discussion between two colleagues earlier this week which focused not so much on the technological or policy measures that would be necessary to deal with rapid climate change, but the sorts of social attitudes would be necessary to support those steps.  They were discussing well-funded public relations campaigns, but I must confess that I have (empirically well grounded) doubts as to how effective these sorts of efforts can be.  “Confirmation bias” suggests that people are most likely to accept messages that reinforce what they already believe, or what they have already experienced.  Long lasting changes in attitude usually emerge from the ground up, and not as a slick advertising campaign. After all, not every advertisement for a product, candidate or social cause is quite as successful as its backers may have hoped.

This is one of the reasons why I am interested in popular culture. It allows one to begin to decipher some of the logic behind larger patterns of political change or stability. Rather than being an escape from the world of politics, I often think of it as the repository of shared attitudes and values which are the raw materials of tomorrow’s innovations. It literally defines the realm of what is imaginable. Whether that is a comforting thought is a different question.

The martial arts may, at first, seemed removed from large scale social or political concerns.  Much of our research focuses on identity, embodied experience, history, or the impact of these practices on relatively small communities.  All of this is important, but it does not exhaust the significance of the martial arts within modern society. I suspect that many of us study the micro-effects of the martial arts as we are martial arts practitioners ourselves.  We are anecdotally aware of their transformative power, so it is only natural that we would want to explore and systematize these insights.

Nevertheless, there is a bigger picture.  The social effects of the martial arts stretch far beyond the relatively small and ever shifting group of individuals who are actually training in them at a given point in time.  Their representation in the media has a profound effect on how we imagine our world.  I also suspect that the interaction between these arts and the political realm are likely to become increasingly significant.

That last proposition may seem far-fetched as we spar, roll or practice on any given night.  To understand how we must first come to terms with the economic concept of the “externality.” Simply put, this notion helps to explain “market failures” when (from society’s point of view) too little or too much of a good is provided. While discussions that treat the martial arts as something that can be bought or sold tend to be socially frowned upon, the simple truth is that almost all of us encounter them as a commercial product within an economic marketplace. An externality exists when the individuals who buy and sell a good (that would be us) are not capable of capturing the full benefits (or negative implications) of their market transaction.

A quick illustration may be helpful. Psychologists have noted that moods tend to be “contagious” within a social network. If you are surrounded by individuals who are stressed and unhappy, you are more likely to feel the same way, all else being equal. But if one of your friends is in a particularly good mood, that is likely to have an impact on your mood as well. I suspect that many of my readers can already guess where I am going with this. Individuals who practice the martial arts (or who engage in any form of regular exercise) report increased levels of wellness (measured across a wide variety of dimensions) and lower stress levels. That is precisely why many of these students pay for school membership in the first place.

Yet the “contagious” aspects of mood and lifestyle choices suggest that friends and family members are also reaping some of the benefits of this consumption choice even if they have never taken a single martial arts class. Because their increase in well-being is invisible in a supply/demand, chart it is not taken into account when a teacher decides how many nights of instruction to offer, or a consumer decides how many hours a week to devote to training. The end result is the existence of an externality where, because the full benefits of some people’s martial arts practices are hard to measure, the “good” in question is under-provided.

This is a single, somewhat trivial, example.  But the world of the martial arts and combat sports generates dozens of similar externalities’ touching on all sorts of cultural, social and political questions. These externalities are likely to be shaped by the social, market and political forces that regulate the expression of the martial arts in a given place, and as such they vary by country and time period. In some cases we may also find that martial arts practice (like the consumption of any good) has unexpected negative consequences and that they are being over-provided.  For instance, one suspects the current culture of traveling long distances for short seminars which is so vital to the financial success of many martial arts schools is doing the planet no favors. That seems like something that is likely to change in the future.

Nor is any of this a particularly new idea, though, to the best of my knowledge, no one has yet to formalize these intuitions through the lens of micro-economics.  China and Japan both subsidized, promoted and even mandated certain types of martial arts practice in the early 20thcentury, but not because there was a burning need to train middle school students in practical self-defense skills. Rather they realized that an entire complex of other values and “benefits” (fitness, discipline, patriotism, increased militarism) accompanied martial arts training.  It was the secondary effects of Guoshu or Budo that drove their consumption.  Whether any of this would really “work in the octagon” was not the primary consideration in the promotion of these programs.

Fortunately for us, the violent and unstable years of the 1930s are now in the past.  But what about the future?  How might the unintended, unpriced, consequences of martial arts practice help us to deal with some of the massive challenges facing modern society? When might some of these externalities take on negative consequences? And what sort of balance are we likely to see between grass roots efforts emerging out of popular culture on the one hand, and coordinated (possibly government backed) information campaigns on the other?

Obviously, such a topic is too big for a single blog post.  It could well be the subject of an entire series of books. My goal in this essay is to lay out some unexpected macro-level ways in which the martial arts might help (or inhibit) our attempts to address largescale issues.  The following post touches on global warming as a “hot” topic that has been in the news. Yet this basic method of analysis, one that focuses on the externalities of martial arts practice, could easily be applied to any number of social or political issues (some of which I may return to in the future.)

 

A typically minimalist Japanese dojo. Photograph by Jared Miracle.

 

 

Wabi-Sabi and a Warming Planet

 

While popular discussions tend to focus on the practical “reality” of the martial arts, or perhaps their history, I suspect that much of their true transformative value lies in the unique aesthetic vision that each art conveys.  A certain amount of caution is necessary here as the exact contents of this vision varies from art to art.  The cunning of Brazilian Capoeira practitioners can be seen and felt in their practice. It is one part of a set of social survival strategies that is discussed, debated and judged in physical movement. Yet the uniqueness of Brazilian society suggests that this cannot ultimately be reduced to the sorts of “cunning” that one might find in Irish stick fighting, or the “yin power” that is expressed in Chinese martial or ritual performance.  Both “yin power” and “cunning” can be understood as aesthetic expressions of cultural meditations on the challenges of survival in often harsh environments. Yet each conveys a distinct set of nuances and insights.

Given the importance of the Japanese martial arts in kicking off the modern exploration of these fighting systems, perhaps we should not be surprised to discover that the concept of Wabi-Sabi (usually understood as values related simplicity, impermanence, asymmetry and austerity) has permeated further into the global consciousness that any of these other martial arts related visions. It is not hard to find evidence of the philosophical notions (focusing on the Buddhist insights that all things are impermanent, empty and vessels for suffering) that underpinned this aesthetic style within the Japanese martial arts. One can see it in the simplicity of the traditional judo gi, the austere etiquette of the dojo, and even the way that scrolls or artwork are presented in the school’s tokonoma.

Still, my first encounter with Wabi-Sabi was not mediated by the martial arts. As I teenager I was lucky enough to study with (and work for) Bill Valavanis, who runs the International Bonsai Arboretum in Rochester NY.  It was primarily through the mediums of bonsai, traditional Japanese gardening and stone appreciation that I encountered a set of concepts which amounted to a profound meditation on the nature of existence at a formative time in my own life. Neither martial artists or Bonsai masters can deny the essential truth of existence.  All things are impermanent, and all things are incomplete.  Within such a philosophical framework it is easy to elevate frugality, simplicity and austerity as the key guiding values of human existence.

One suspects that a profound appreciation for Wab-Sabi arose just as much out of the observation of daily life in early-modern Japan as erudite Buddhist argument.  In truth, Japanese life was often harsh, food was scarce, and the material conditions that most people lived under were spartan at best. Japanese houses were (and to a certain extent remain) unheated during the winter, and the hottest days of summer brought their own challenges. Yet students of Japanese history and culture are often amazed by the beautiful material culture that was woven out of these challenging conditions.

The modern West sits at a crossroads.  Our social, economic and political systems have rested on the core principle that people should be able to consume as many material goods as they want.  And if they cannot achieve this level of consumption now, they have a right to work towards it in the future. It seems unlikely that this situation can continue. Failure to politically address rising sea levels, increased severe weather and the future loss of prime agricultural land to drought would be economically and socially catastrophic. One might think of this worst-case scenario as global warming’s “hard landing.”

But even the best-case, most cooperative, scenarios will eventually require a massive adjustment to practically everyone’s lifestyle within the industrialized West.  Short of a miraculous technological innovation that allows us to pull carbon from the atmosphere at will, huge changes in consumer behavior are likely in store.  These will influence what we eat, how we travel and where we live. We are likely to see birthrates plummet across the developed world as raising children becomes more expensive. In the long run, cuts in consumer activity married to a dropping, aging, population, suggests that we could see a significant shrinking of major markets.  That, in turn, suggests a massive reduction in the rates technological, medical and social change which we have come to expect.

Anyone who has spent enough time in the social sciences knows how difficult forecasting is. Economists love to make predictions. In my field (political science) we try to avoid it whenever possible. The challenges of modeling climate change are well known and much discussed.  But they pale next to the sheer impossibility of predicting how people (at either the individual or national level) are likely to respond to this.  And given that the scope of climate change (whether we can ensure a relatively “minor” rise of 2 degrees, or if we end up in more of a worst-case scenario) is dependent on the creative and cooperative behavior of such unpredictable actors, I don’t think that anyone can accurately say what the future will be.

Still, we know a few things.  Whether we agree to tie our own hands through democratically decided legislation, or allow unmediated market forces and natural processes to do it through a “hard landing,” the average resident of the Western world will be consuming a lot less.  Realistic carbon taxes (if instituted) will raise the price of all sorts of inelastic goods (food, transportation, heating) in relatively predictable ways. Drought, sea-level change and a rising demand for energy will do the same things (though in a much less predictable way) through market mechanisms.  One way or another, discretionary spending is going to drop.  It is hard to say by how much, or when.  But it is impossible to believe that this will not have a substantive effect on where and how we live.  In short, we are already transitioning from a period of “wanting more” to one of “getting less.”

 

The beauty of snow, contrasted with the challenge of winter, has often been a subject for Japanese artists. Source: Evening Snow at Kanbara, from the series “Fifty-three Stations of the Tōkaidō” by Utagawa Hiroshige. metmuseum.org

 

This brings me back to the Japanese notion of Wabi-Sabi. Within this philosophical vision “freedom” does not originate from one’s ability to escape the bounds of the natural world. Rather, freedom is found as one lives successfully in harmony with it.  More often than not in Japanese history, this has taken the form of finding beauty and meaning in the simple, the frugal, the rustic and the sincere.

As a political scientist I worry that the sorts of “diminished expectations” that climate change is already bringing will lead to increased levels of social instability and violence.  It is hard to see the current riots in France (the worst since 1968) as anything other than a preview of what could happen in many other places as carbon taxes start to bite, or governments lose the ability to keep up with mounting natural disasters and rising food prices.  Some of this will be unavoidable.  But our social expectations of a world in which progress is measured in increased consumption is sure to exacerbate such tensions.

The concept of Wabi-Sabi is interesting to me as it has always been more than a set of guidelines for gardening or architecture.  It is a remarkably well-developed argument about the benefits of choosing less, of living simply, rather than always pushing for more. The central problem of modern existence is the creation of social and individual meaning.  Whatever its drawbacks, the economically focused “American Dream” succeeded in structuring the imaginations, efforts and expectations of generations.  It can only be modified or replaced by another set of principles capable of doing the same.

Telling a generation of Americans that due to their carbon footprint they can only buy “tiny homes,” or 500 square foot urban apartments, is a recipe for revolution. But supporting a vision of society where people spend more time having experiences with friends and family rather than working to acquire ever more things to stuff in ever larger houses could be the beginning of a renaissance.  Cultivating a deep appreciation for Wabi-Sabi as an aesthetic vision, and accepting the fundamental values that lie behind it, could be an important step in making that happen.  Indeed, it might prove to be the most important moment of cultural exchange between Japan and the global West.

This is where we return to the martial arts.  Sadly, one cannot really gain an understanding of these concepts (let alone cultivate a new set of values) simply by reading blog posts.  In my experience Wabi-Sabi is a set of values that must be physically experienced to be fully appreciated.  My small appreciation for these values came from hours spent working in an arboretum as a teenager, time spent living in Japan as a young adult, and countless hours invested in the training hall.

Sadly, Bonsai is not a not a very popular hobby in the United States.  But the martial arts are. They are studied by children and adults in a wide variety of settings.  More importantly, they are projected, appreciated and debated through our media.  While only a minority of individuals practice them, there are very few people who don’t have some sort of expectations about, or understanding of, the Asian martial arts.  This makes them an important vector to promote a new set of values as society enters an era of consuming less but appreciate more.

As intriguing as this possibility is, it would still require a massive effort.  Indeed, this is where political intervention or well-funded informational campaigns might enter the picture. In large part the martial arts have succeeded in the West as they have been adapted to reflect modern Western values, rather than the full complexity of, say, Chinese or Japanese culture. Yet the perpetual search for authenticity within these communities (and perhaps the new or exotic by those who are curious about them), might provide an opening to increasingly bring notions like Wabi-Sabi to the forefront of public discussions of certain martial arts. Equally helpful would be public relations campaigns linking these values to fashionable changes going on in other areas of popular culture, health, architecture or diet.  Again, physically enacting such values, and experiencing them in multiple realms of life, is a necessary precondition for their acceptance.

One might object, correctly, that in focusing on the philosophical or aesthetic dimension of the martial arts we lose sight of their “true purpose.” Worse yet, we risk turning them into purely didactic, rather than practical, exercise. Certainly, care is necessary. Yet it is worth remembering that communities and nations have always been acutely aware of the externalities that the martial arts produce. Throughout the 19thand 20thcentury states were generally much more interested in the “supplementary” side effects of martial practice than the details of what was actually taught in the training hall. Acknowledging this fact is not “politicizing” the martial arts.  They have been political all along.  The real challenge facing us, both as scholars and practitioners, is to understand the full social implications of what we are already doing. Only then can we ask the difficult questions about what will best safeguard the psychological well-being and physical safety of our students as we move into an uncertain future.

 

oOo

If you enjoyed this essay you might also want to read this piece on gender in martial arts training.

oOo



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Of Pens and Swords: Jin Yong’s Journey


In recent years Louis Cha’s novels have become subjects for comic book artists.

 

 

The Loss of Heroes

The Chinese martial arts community has lost two giants.  The death of Rey Chow (who was instrumental in jumpstarting Bruce Lee’s martial arts films) and Louis Cha (who wrote under the name Jin Yong) comes as a double blow. Granted, neither man is remembered primarily as a practitioner of the martial arts.  Yet as story tellers they had a huge impact on the development of the shared web of signs, meanings and desires that would shape the development of the Chinese martial art community from roughly the 1950s until the present. As scholars we need to pay close attention to this cultural web as it is the software that structures the human experience.  While not strictly determinative, none of us will strive to accomplish that which we cannot imagine.

Both of these figures are deserving of an essay. Yet at the moment I find myself drawn to reflect on Cha. His stature as a literary figure, and frequent forays into modern Chinese politics (both from the editorial page and his service on various governmental committees) are fascinating in their own right. Yet I will admit to having some ambivalence regarding the cultural impact of his novels. To put the question simply, I find myself wondering what Hong Kong’s martial culture would look like today had “Jin Yong” accepted a newspaper job in Taipie in 1947 rather than Hong Kong.

Simply asking such a question smacks of heresy. In many ways Loius Cha is synonymous with Hong Kong, his adopted home. He was the co-founder, and long-time editor, of the Ming Pao daily, a major publication. While Cha is still remembered for his blistering anti-Beijing editorials during the Cultural Revolution, he became the first (non-Communist) Hong Kong resident to meet with Deng Xioping as he sought to steer China on a more open path.  And with over 100 million copies sold (not counting untold pirate editions), as well as derivative films, TV programs, radio dramas, comic books and video games too numerous to count, Cha’s novels are quite possibly Hong Kong’s most important cultural export within the Chinese cultural zone. Yet his impact on the Southern Chinese martial arts has been complex.

Perhaps the best way forward would be to review the contours of a remarkable career as we ask how it was that Cha, and a generation of immigrants like him, came to call Hong Kong home.  This may suggest something about Cha’s impact on the development of Southern Chinese martial culture in the post-1949 era, as well as the continuing echoes and reverberations of his legacy today.

I should state for the record that I do not claim to be an expert in the analysis, or criticism, of Cha’s work, and have only read a few of his in novels in translation. I am sure that there are others who are better qualified to write an essay such as this.  Nor is that admission an artifact of false modesty.  The immense popularity of Cha’s novels have actually sparked the creation of an entire academic subfield (some of which even appears in English) dedicated to the study of his legacy. Still, his influence on the world of actual Chinese martial arts practitioners has been so great that I cannot leave his passing in silence. The complexity of his relationship with this community seems to stretch far beyond the platitudes that we encounter in his many newspaper obituaries.

 

 

Jin Fong reviewing a copy of his own work. Source: BBC

 

 

Making a Hero

Like so many others, Cha first arrived in Hong Kong as a way station as he was headed somewhere else. He was born as Zha Liangyong in 1924 in Zhejiang province.  His family had deep, multigenerational, scholarly credentials and it was only natural that Liang would also find a career in literature. But his pathway was far from straight. He exhibited his trademark penchant for fiery political rhetoric as a youth and was expelled from high school in 1941 after publicly denouncing the KMT’s government as “aristocratic”.  Indeed, he would continue to identify himself as “anti-feudal” and “liberal” throughout his life.

After graduating from (a different) high school in 1943, Cha was accepted at the Department of Foreign Languages at the Central University of Chongqing.  His initial plan was to become a foreign service officer or diplomat.  However, he quickly dropped out of this program, and applied to study international law at Soochow University.

To help finance his studies Cha took a job in journalism with a major British owned paper. Fortuitously his company transferred him to the Hong Kong office in 1947. Things did not go well for all of Cha’s family who stayed behind after the Communist takeover in 1949.  His father was arrested as a counterrevolutionary and executed in the early 1950s. Critics, like John Christopher Hamm (who has written one of the best English language studies of Cha’s work), note that his early novels are marked with a profound awareness of the plight of exile, alienation and loss.  Like so many others who had come to Hong Kong for business or work, it quickly became apparent that there was no going home. Cha would be forced to build a new life in a largely Cantonese city under British colonial rule.

In the early 1950s Cha befriended Chen Wentong, a fellow journalist, who worked at the same paper.  He encouraged Cha’s interest in writing and in 1955 (writing under the pseudonym Jin Yong) he began to produce the first of the serialized wuxia novels that would make him famous.  In English this story’s title is typically rendered The Book and the Sword.

In 1959 Cha and his high school classmate, Shen Baoxin, established the Ming Pao daily newspaper with Cha serving as editor. The small paper started off as a home for “Jin Yong’s” increasingly popular novels, but it has since grown to be on the largest Chinese daily papers.  In its first two decades Cha was responsible for writing not just the serialized novels but also the daily editorials and many small features.  It is reported that at times he was publishing more than 10,000 characters a day.

In total Cha produced 14 novels and a single short story under the Jin Yong pseudonym. Then, in 1972, he retired and announced that he would concentrate on consolidating and editing his already extensive literary legacy.  This was a complex undertaking as these novels had first appeared as serialized newspaper columns, which operated under their own set of literary conventions. In 1979 Cha released the first “complete and definitive” set of novels, many of which had been streamlined or slightly reworked in the editorial process.

The 1970s-1990s were a period of increased political activity in Cha’s life. He had always maintained an interest in politics (often understood through a more traditional Chinese cultural lens focusing on “the national interest”). Initially this led Cha to make many enemies on the left when he forcefully denounced the Cultural Revolution. Still, his reputation as someone capable of bringing together complex competing perspectives led to an invitation to meet with Deng Xiaoping and his subsequent appointment to the committee drafting Hong Kong’s Basic Law.  Cha resigned that position in 1989 in protest over the Tiananmen Square Incident. Yet in 1996 he was once again working on the important Preparatory Committee, prior to the 1997 handover.

Not content to rest on his literary or political laurels, Cha pursued his lifelong fascination with Chinese history by pursuing a Doctorate in Oriental Studies at Cambridge University.  His degree was awarded in 2010 when he deposited his dissertation focusing on imperial succession in the early Tang dynasty.  Cha remained an important public figure throughout his life and his works have remained popular. A highly publicized English language version of his Condor Heroes series released its first installment in 2018. Cha died on October 30th2018, at 94, after a long period of illness.

 

A recent English language translation of one of Louis Cha’s classic Wuxia novels.

 

 

Contextualizing a Life

John Christopher Hamm has argued that it is impossible to understand Jin Yong’s meaning or social significance without thinking very carefully about the environment that this literary phenomenon emerged in.  Hong Kong’s newspapers were already well acquainted with the notion of serialized martial arts novels well before Cha’s arrival in the city.  Indeed, the region had a rich, well-established, tradition of Kung Fu novels stretching back through the 19th century.  Many of these were firmly rooted in Cantonese colloquialisms and local heroic figures.  While one must be careful not to draw what were always shifting social borders too strictly, these stories typically appealed to the transient workers and merchants who came to Hong Kong to do business before returning (either at the end of a season or a career) to some other location in the Pearl River delta.

With the national upheavals of the late 1930s and 1940s, the city’s complexion began to change quite rapidly. Increasing numbers of displaced persons made their way to Hong Kong in an effort to escape the turmoil elsewhere in China. Since these Northern immigrants had the means to travel, they were often better off financially and more educated than much of the local population. Following the 1949 liberation of China by the Communist Party, they streamed in, effectively overwhelming the Guangdong culture that had dominated Hong Kong since its inceptions. It is interesting to note, parenthetically, that Ip Man and Louis Cha arrived in the city within a year and a half of each other, though they represented different cultural currents.

Like Cha these individuals slowly came to the realization that the 1949 crisis was not a limited event like the others that had marked China’s tumultuous 20thcentury. Rather than a temporary haven, Hong Kong had become their home for the imaginable future.  Cultural clashes were common.  Local Cantonese residents referred to these newcomers as “outlanders.”  For their part the Northern refugees tended to see Hong Kong as a cultural wasteland. Cantonese culture was dismissed as backwards and new radio stations, theater groups and even newspapers quickly sprang up to cater to these northern “outlanders” who brought their own ideas about what modern Chinese life should be.

The Ming Pao daily was one of these institutions. And as Hamm notes, Jin Yong’s novels were a clear departure from the local kung fu tales that had previously dominated Hong Kong story telling. Acutely self-aware, his stories focused not on local heroes, but epic tales of contests for control of the Central Plains during periods of foreign occupation. When the heroes suffered their inevitable defeats, they retreated to the fringes of the empires and went into exile, just as Jin Yong’s readers had.

This is not to say that Jin Yong’s work didn’t have immense appeal, or that it was incapable of reaching a cross-over audience. As so many writers have recently noted, his novels have proved to be culturally enduring precisely because they speak to individuals across the geographic, ideological and economic lines that have traditionally divided the Chinese cultural area. They have managed to do so in large part by advancing an appealing, nuanced, vision of Chinese nationalism.  Self-determination and cultural identity seem to rest at the heart of Cha’s understanding of patriotism.  And in his later works he goes to lengths to praise China’s many ethnic minorities (particularly the ones that have contributed to its martial arts traditions) advancing a more open and liberal vision of what Chinese nationalism might be.

All of this is combined with a reverence for traditional Confucian values, particularly when they order the relationship between teachers and students, family members or leaders and followers.  Yet the feudal past, in which all of his stories are set, is not accepted uncritically.  Cha remained deeply suspicious of the feudal and aristocratic, and so his characters can be seen to wrestle with, and critically examine, practices that no longer work in the “modern” world of the 14thor 15thcenturies.

A lack of Cantonese colloquialisms notwithstanding, these themes were likely to have a broad appeal within Hong Kong society. Cha made sophisticated discussions about identity, belonging and the nation available to those with a variety of educational and cultural backgrounds.  Yet these stories always originated from a specific place, or point of view. Nor can one help but wonder what other vision of martial arts culture they displaced, or pushed to the margins, as Jin Yong attained a sort of hegemonic dominance within the Wuxia genre.  In my own research I frequently run across accounts of martial arts students in the 1960s and 1970s who, while enthusiastic to learn the southern martial arts, carried with them different visions about the values or identities that motivated these systems.  Generational conflict over such matters is not unique to this case. Though as I read one testimonial after another as to how critical Cha was to defining the world view of a generation of Southern martial artists, I cannot help but wonder what he displaced, and to what degree he helped to shape the disjointed expectations of the period.  Indeed, in my own account of Wing Chun’s history during the post-war era, Jing Yong’s novels are more likely to play the role of “loyal opposition” than protagonist.

 

Cha, second from left, in 1960, with the cast of the film “Return of the Condor Heroes.” Source: The New Yorker

 

The Journey North

The burgeoning hostility of local Hong Kong residents towards Northern visitors or residents is nothing new. It is easy to find recent newspaper articles and editorials referring to Northerners as “locusts” who sweep in to consume not just cheap goods, but increasingly the best real estate and jobs, pushing long-time residents ever further from the center. In the wake of his death some individuals openly wondered whether a figure like Cha could succeed today given the open hostility to immigrants.  The great irony, of course, is that the majority of Hong Kong’s “legitimate” residents today were once northern transplants themselves, and Cha’s stories helped their parents to negotiate an environment that was not always friendly, familiar or welcoming.

By becoming the quintessential Hong Kong storyteller (a lack of Cantonese roots notwithstanding) Cha is once again acting as a cultural bridge. Amidst all of the anxiety about the death of the Hong Kong film industry, and the future of the Southern Chinese martial arts (which are being priced out of the city by skyrocketing rents), it is easy to forget that in some ways the Cantonese martial arts heroes are now more popular than ever throughout the PRC.  Ip Man has become a household figure (and his art has exploded in popularity) not just because of his association with Bruce Lee. Rather, Wilson Ip’s 2008 film and its many successors have been key in spreading this bit of Southern culture throughout the mainland.

It has been noted (by myself and others) that the vision of Ip Man that these films conjure does not bear a close resemblance to the real life (and rather well documented) figure. In the place of the undeniably mercurial and modernist Ip Man, what do these films present?  A figure that in many ways splits the difference between the traditional Kung Fu genre and one of Cha’s stories.  Yes, the action is still gritty and “realistic” with minimal wire work.  But we now have a hero who exemplifies martial virtue, who demonstrates Confucian values in his relationships, who is a patriot who fights for China, and in defeat he retreats in exile to the edge of the empire. Does that sound familiar?

The flavor of these films is undeniably influenced by the Hong Kong tradition. Yet the mold that shapes the stories bears an uncanny resemblance to the ideal hero (a patriot who endures rather than wins) as laid out in Cha’s many novels.  Where as Ip Man and Louis Cha had once existed as contemporary historical figures, whose lives ran on parallel tracks, their legacies now interact in complex ways.  Rather than simply displacing the Pearl River Delta’s traditional Kung Fu narrative, Cha seems to have provided a pattern by which its heroes can travel North, testing their own fortunes in the Central Plains.

 

oOo

If you enjoyed this essay you might also want to read:  Lives of Chinese Martial Artists (14): Ark Yuey Wong—Envisioning the Future of the Chinese Martial Arts

oOo

 



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Chinese Martial Arts in the News: Oct. 22 2018: Archery, Kung Fu Villages and the Lives of Detective Dee


 

 

Introduction

It has been a busy weekend, so this news update will be brief. Nevertheless, I wanted to comment on some of the more interesting stories that have been floating around. For new readers, this is a semi-regular feature here at Kung Fu Tea in which we review media stories that mention or affect 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.

Its been way too long since our last update so let’s get to the news!

 

 

News From All Over

I recently published an essay on Kung Fu Tea noting the importance of examining martial culture when trying to discern what is really happening in a given art or practice. Our first big news item really drives that point home. It starts off with a brief nod to the near extinction, and then spectacular resurrection, of traditional Chinese archery all within the space of a few decades.  Of course, someone needs to be making all of the bows to supply a new generation of enthusiastic archers, and that too came very close to being lost.

In the 1950s and 60s, when the artisans of Beijing’s last seven bow-making workshops were reassigned to state collectives, a craft that had been practised for more than 3,000 years came to a sudden halt. By the mid-90s, all remaining bowyers had passed away, with the exception of Yang Wentong. Come his death, it was believed, all knowledge of traditional Han Chinese ox-horn bow making would be lost forever.

Obviously, there is a lot more to the story of the revival of China’s traditional archery.  But I was still very happy to see an article (and video segment) like this in the South China Morning Post.

 

 

I was recently reading something by Paul Bowman in which he reviewed the ways that various newspapers in the UK have discussed the martial art over the years.  I think that one of the phrases he applied to articles in the Daily Mail was “perpetual wide-eyed wonder.” That immediately popped into mind as I looked at their latest photo essay titled ‘Everybody was kung fu fighting’: Inside the Chinese village where all residents practise martial arts.

If memory serves we have heard about this village in Guangxi before.  They seem to have some sort of communal (early morning and evening) martial arts training, but sadly this article never actually states the style.  What we do get it is yet another variant of the burning of the Shaolin Temple myth, complete with a wandering survivor who takes up residence in the village, founding its current martial arts tradition.  Good stuff!

 

A Chinese Kung Fu teacher visiting a school in Africa.

 

At first glance our next article appeared to be a boilerplate account of the sort of educational exchange program that governments frequently sponsor.  Basically, a few dozen Chinese physical education instructors were sent to the USA to visit and observe how teaching was conducted in local classes.  And of course they also taught some Kung Fu to the American kids.  I was surprised that the style they introduced was Five Ancestors Fist, a very important southern school.  Suddenly I want to hear more!

 

Senior woman doing Tai Chi exercise to keep her joints flexible, isolated.

 

Taijiquan was one of the big winners of the last news cycle.  A couple of studies had come out on the practice’s ability to build strength in older students, and this unleashed a torrent of near identical articles in several outlets. My favorite was titled “Building Strength Through Tai Chi” in the Seattle Times.

Watching a group of people doing tai chi, an exercise often called “meditation in motion,” it may be hard to imagine that its slow, gentle, choreographed movements could actually make people stronger. Not only stronger mentally but stronger physically and healthier as well.

I certainly was surprised by its effects on strength, but good research — and there’s been a fair amount of it by now — doesn’t lie.

What caught my eye about this one is that the author is actually something of a skeptic.  Rather than seeing Taijiquan as a progressive exercise that can be done at many levels of intensity, the assumption seems to be that it is useful only as a sort of remedial rehabilitation program for senior citizens who are looking to build the physical capital necessary for a more “strenuous” (western style) workout. Taijiquan gets a lot of good medical press these days, but this article made me stop and wonder how common these attitudes might be in certain corners of the medical profession. Not actually understanding much about the art in question, it would be difficult for such experts to visualize what it might do for a wider range of patients.

 

 

Speaking of senior citizens doing taijiquan, Netshark had a fun video of an “Auntie” who decided to release stress during an epic two hour Golden Week traffic jam by exiting her car and practicing her solo set. Can’t find time to train?  Seriously kids, no excuses.

 

 

I wasn’t quite sure how to classify the next story.  It touches on a number of topics including contemporary film, ancient Chinese history and 20th century crime novels. It turns out that Detective Dee has had many careers through the ages.  This is a really good article to read if you are interested in the interplay between history and popular culture. And somehow it all ends up as a series of kung fu films. I personally found this to be one of the more surprising and enjoyable articles in this month’s review.

 

 

Quick, what is your favorite martial arts film?  Now what are your top 50?  If you are still working on that second question Newsweek has some suggestions.  Incidentally Ip Man (2008) comes in at 35.  If you want to find out what they chose as #1 you will need to read the article. In addition to the list, this piece also provides a capsule overview of the genre.  It should be noted that they employ a rather loose definition of what counts as a “martial arts film.”

 

Collin Chou as Seraph in Matrix Reloaded.

 

Do you remember watching the the fight with Seraph (Collin Chou) in the first Matrix sequel? I do. It might have been my favorite fight sequence in that film. And it turns out that the film’s creator originally intended for it to be carried out by Jet Li, who was very interested in the part.  But in a recent interview he went into more detail as to why he ultimately turned it down. It seems that the film’s producers were interested in capturing more than just his on screen performance.  They were looking to use motion capture technology to digitally record Jet Li’s movements and build some sort of database.

 “I realized the Americans wanted me to film for three months but be with the crew for nine,” Li recently mentioned during a Chinese talk show appearance. “And for six months, they wanted to record and copy all my moves into a digital library. By the end of the recording, the right to these moves would go to them.”

I thought this story was interesting as there are many projects (in the commercial, scholarly and non-profit sectors) that are digitally cataloging the movements of various martial arts masters. Some of these archives are used to produce films and video games, and other go into cultural institutions.  Jet Li’s story is revealing as it illustrates some issues with what happens to all of this intellectual property.  Are we simply recording for posterity something that is communally owned (an unchanging folk tradition)? Or are we instead attempting to capture a effervescent moment of performance by an individual artist who holds a unique IP claim to their own interpretation of the work.  Li seems to have decided that the situation was more the latter and, in his case, walked away from the film.  This story is all just a footnote in the history of the Matrix, but it raises interesting ethical and theoretical questions for students of martial arts studies.

 

 

So long as we are on the subject of film, I should mention that there is one upcoming movie that I very much want to see.  The central premise of the “Kung Fu League” is a fantasy team-up between some of the genera’s greatest characters, Wong Fei Hung, Huo Yuan Jia, Ip Man and Chen Zhen. Clearly its a gimmick, but I am genuinely interested to see how figures from different eras and niches within the kung fu universe are made to address each other.  This seems like the perfect time for some inter-textual comedy and reflection on the development of the genre.  It will be interesting to see what the director ultimately does with it.

 

Alexander Bennett in Kendo gear.

 

The next couple of stories step back from an exclusive focus on the Chinese martial arts.  Our first piece is a discussion in the Japan Times of Alexander Bennett’s latest book, Japan: The Ultimate Samurai Guide. Or maybe it should really be titled “an insider’s guide to surviving in the world of the Japanese martial arts.”

You’d be hard-pressed to find someone who hasn’t, at least momentarily, considered joining a martial arts club upon moving to Japan. However, comparatively few actually take the plunge. One of the biggest hurdles is that clubs can seem to be worlds unto themselves, inaccessible to non-Japanese, even those with fluency in the language. Knowing where to start, especially if you have no previous martial arts experience also puts up barriers: Which is the right martial art for you? What should you look for in a teacher? How can you hope to compete when everyone in the club already seems to have a black belt?

This is where “Japan The Ultimate Samurai Guide,” authored by longtime kendo practitioner Alexander Bennett, hopes to step in, providing answers to some of these questions from the perspective of an insider. The book is part encyclopedia of martial arts — a historical resource tracking the evolution of Japanese martial arts over the last millennium — and part present-day guide to surviving in the world of budō and, more generally, in Japan.

This all sounds very interesting.  I really enjoyed Bennett’s work on the history of Kendo, and he is well positioned to write a popular yet highly informed guide to the wider world of Japanese martial arts.  I suspect that this one will end up on my Christmas list.

 

Me leading a break out group of students through a lightsaber set at Ithaca Sabers.

 

And now for a few stories touching on one of my personal research areas which seems to be getting a lot more exposure in the news lately. First off, a local TV channel visited the lightsaber class that I run here in Ithaca. You never know how these things will go, but I thought that the final story came out quite nicely. Are you interested in what lightsaber combat might look like if approached as a traditional martial art?  If so you can check out the full story here.

Of course, that is not the only version of lightsaber combat that you will find.  Lots of people get into the practice because they are looking for a fast paced combat sport where they don’t have to invest years in martial arts training to do something that they enjoy.  This recent report on the Nerdist followed one individual’s journey to a “full contact” saber tournament held in Las Vegas (where else). Its actually quite an interesting piece as it visits a few different corners of the “combat sport” side of the lightsaber community.

 

An assortment of Chinese teas. Source: Wikimedia.

 

Kung Fu Tea on Facebook

A lot has happened on the Kung Fu Tea Facebook group over the last month.  We looked at antique weapons, pontificated about the value of seminars, and learned what happens when Capoeira meets Kung Fu! 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!



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Political Extremism, Violence and Martial Arts


 

A Preamble

Everyone knew that the situation was deteriorating, and recent events had sensitized government officials to the growing threat of extremist groups within the area’s largest martial arts networks. Local immigration and a shift in the neighborhood’s religious complexion had brought tensions in one community to a boiling point.  Groups of previously reliable citizens were protesting outside of a newly constructed place of worship shouting both racial and religious epitaphs.

Law enforcement wasn’t sure whether to move against the protesters or to just try and keep the groups separated until their anger burnt itself out. From their perspective it was difficult to know if either side actually deserved any sympathy at all.  The supposed “victims” of these violent abuses had been filling the local courts with petty crimes and nuisance lawsuits for years.

Still, the public safety officials all agreed that it was a bad sign when a group of aggressive martial artists appeared right at epicenter of trouble just to conduct some “public workouts.” The group had recruited a new leader, a regionally famous fighter with a reputation for protecting “the people.” They claimed it was all necessary. Someone had to protect the community from these “outsiders.”  That is when the torches were lit.

 

 

The Problem of Violence

 

The still fledgling field of martial arts studies has recently turned its attention to the problem of extremist political violence and its potential connections to the martial arts. Given that so many groups train explicitly to deal with the reality of violence (either to prevent it, or to enact it more efficiently), its odd that this topic is only now gaining visibility.  In the 2017 Martial Arts Studies meetings in Cardiff my good friend Sixt Wetzler delivered a paper laying out a carefully constructed framework for considering the intersection of these issues.  And pointing to the rising prominence of public groups training for violent street battles within the West’s increasingly polarized political atmosphere, I ended my own keynote with a plea for more scholars to take up these issues.

That is not to say that this is easy subject matter. In many cases our research reflects our personal interests and backgrounds. People write papers about embodied training in their favored styles, or address discursive issues in popular films or TV programs. And it is generally good advice to “write what you know.” Yet in moments of social upheaval that advice can lead to a strange myopia.  Few of us are members of extremist organizations, on either the right or the left. And only a handful of martial arts studies scholars have any direct experience in law enforcement or intelligence work. I suspect that (with a few notable exceptions) studies of the intersection of martial arts training and social violence in the modern world lagged behind as it was a research topic without a sizable audience within the field.

It was the appearance of multiple news stories linking the spread of white nationalist hate groups and certain MMA training facilities, fashion labels and fight promotion companies which finally broke this stalemate. Little of what these outlets printed was actually “breaking news.” In February of 2018 Mother Jones published an article titled “The Terrifying Rise of Alt-Right Fight Clubs.” So as to not undersell the story the editor helpfully subtitled the piece (authored by Bryan Schatz) “White nationalists are learning martial arts to prepare for race war.” Much of the same material would later appear in an extended piece in The Guardian titled “Fascist Fight Clubs: How white nationalists use MMA as a recruiting tool.

The implication of elements of the ever growing MMA community in these recruitment efforts inspired some sustained engagement. This unfolded on Facebook groups and blogs, and Paul Bowman has provided a nice summary of these debates here and here. Following the lead of the reporters in these pieces, much of the discussion has so far focused on how we should conceptualize the mixed martial arts and their connection to these efforts.  Are they truly violent sports?  Is there something about them that makes them particularly useful to extremist groups at this moment in history? And perhaps most intriguingly, is there an inherent conceptual connection between the sorts of “violence” that one sees in the octagon, and that which has appeared on the streets.

These are all interesting questions.  Yet in this essay I would like to outline another set of concerns that is likely to take this discussion in several different directions.  And that leads us back to the account of a single violent encounter in the preamble to this essay.  When and where did this happen?  And in what respects is knowing the answer to that question important? What aspects of community violence are historically and culturally bounded, and when do we cross over into the realm of institutionally or structurally determined behaviors?

 

 

 

It would not be hard to come up with several historical incidents that fit the events I outlined above. Some could be as old as the classical world, while others might appear in the headlines of a contemporary European paper. In point of fact, the “regionally famous martial arts teacher” in my account is none other than Zhao San-duo, a late 19thcentury Plum Blossom master who, while not directly involved in the Boxer Uprising, helped to light the fuse of anti-foreign and anti-Christian violence that would bring Imperial China to its knees.

This is not to say that the sort of xenophobia that was seen in late 19th century China, and the Western ideology of racial supremacy seen within groups like the California based Rise Above Movement (RAM, a violent extremist group profiled in both of the previously cited newspaper articles) are in any way identical. While both sets of ideas focused on the need to “protect” a community from perceived racial or religious threats, the historical, cultural and social framing of these ideologies are quite distinct. That is critical to remember, especially as government or local communities seek to address the spread of violent ideologies.

Yet the ease with which one might fit this outline to several cases suggests that there may also be structural and institutional issues that need to be taken into account. The association of martial art training with political or social extremism is not a new phenomenon.  Nor is it restricted to only one side of the political spectrum. For every alt-right MMA club that one finds in California, I suspect that one will be able to locate a Marxist boxing gym in France or Italy.

Nor, when examined in historical terms, does there seem to be a very strong correlation between the sort of martial art being practiced and the probability that it will be radicalized by an anti-systemic group. In Japan it has always been the traditional Budos, with their strong associations with a (mostly imagined) Samurai past, that are the most likely to appeal to both violent ultra-nationalist groups and organized crime syndicates. Yet I doubt that many American MMA practitioners would look at these judo, kendo or aikido schools and find their practices to be notably “violent” by the standards of televised UFC bouts.

One challenge that we face is that since many of us are directly involved in the practice of the martial arts, it can be difficult to see beyond the boundaries of our own experiences and communities. In effect, we have a difficult time perceiving our communities as an outsider with different goals might. This is a distinct disadvantage when it comes to understanding why a particular extremist group might be interested in infiltrating a practice or what their goals might actually be.

To gain some clarity on these issues we might begin by taking a step back from the martial arts themselves and considering what we know about the ways that violent extremist groups typically operate. This is a subject that has been studied extensively by both social scientists and law enforcement personal. While students of martial arts studies have a unique perspective to bring to the table, we should note that there is already a well developed body of empirical observation and theoretical literature that we can draw from.

One of the first things that a student of terrorism might point out, for instance, is that we should carefully consider both halves of the phrase “extremist organization.” While we tend to put a lot of mental emphasis on a group’s views or ideology (often because they are horrifying), if we wish to understand what they actually do on a day to day basis we must remember that they are basically a voluntary social organization.  To survive in the short run they must solve immediate problems like generating a funding stream, recruiting personal, managing their public image and coordinating with other actors. Any extremist organization that fails at these tasks will not be a problem for every long.

To better accomplish these basic goals radical organizations occasionally insert themselves into a wide range of social movements, many of which do not appear to have anything to do with violence.  Sports organizations, on-line communities, new religious movements, musical sub-cultures and international charity organizations have all proved to popular targets for ideologically motivated violent groups. Each of these provides opportunities for extremist organizations to craft communities in which they can radicalize members.  In some cases these cover organizations also help to raise money, operate across international borders or improve the group’s “brand.”

When seen in this light it is not at all surprising that violent organizations, either in the current era or in 19thcentury China, would be interested in hand combat schools. Yet I suspect that the actual martial arts skills gained are not the most critical aspect of their organizational calculus. In modern society martial arts clubs are ubiquitous to the point of being almost invisible. Whether an ultranationalist judo club in Japan, or an MMA school in the United States, both organizations provide groups with a chance to cultivate marginal and dissatisfied individuals in an environment that is likely to generate little suspicion.

From a social scientific perspective these recruitment drives are actually quite enlightening. As martial artists we tend to mentally divide our actives into the serious business of physical training and “everything else” that goes along with being a member of an organization. This second category might include such banal interactions as chatting in the locker room, carpooling to a local tournament or meeting up at the gym for strength training.  The friendships we create, the on-line media we consume, the social community that we build, all of these things are typically seen as “secondary” to the serious business of physical training.

Yet when trying to understand the function and social value of a martial arts school, we need to be willing to reverse this way of thinking.  In actual fact, it is within the realm of the secondary where we find these practices’ greatest value. As any martial arts teacher can attest, it is the friendships that are made in a training hall that keep many students coming back week after week. It is there that they are exposed to the media that their fellow classmates consume. And it is largely through these “secondary” social channels that martial arts communities articulate what their practices mean, and hence what their identity actually is.  Embodied experience is never self-interpreting, which is precisely why so many political, national and social groups have found the martial arts to be useful over the last hundred years or so.

Again, trends within the Boxer Rebellion help to illustrate this basic relationship between a group’s seeming primary purpose (to impart individual skills) and its actual social utility (to reinforce group bonding). Historical and eyewitness accounts suggest that relatively few Chinese Christian were killed with the sorts of hand to hand combat techniques that were taught by the local martial arts communities that the Yihi Boxers drew from. Instead we find accounts of execution squads rounding up local Christians, locking them in their own churches, setting the building on fire and shooting anyone who tried to leap out. Paul Cohen noted that fire, rather than Kung Fu, was the Boxer’s weapon of mass destruction. While we tend to fixate on their claims to magical invulnerability in hand to hand combat, it is often forgotten that much of their magic dealt with the control of fire as they sought to burn entire neighborhoods to the ground.

Does this then indicate that their martial arts training was useless on the battlefield?  Not at all. It was on the boxing grounds of Shandong that the Boxers who would terrorize Beijing were welded together into a somewhat cohesive, radicalized, social unit. It was these “secondary” aspects their martial arts training that laid the necessary social foundation for the tragedy of 1900.

Likewise, when reviewing the footage of recent riots that can be found online, it seems unlikely that a few months of BJJ or MMA (or HEMA) training is going to make the average skinhead that much more effective in a messy brawl with Antifa or law enforcement.  I am as much an advocate of martial arts training as anyone, but the most important function that these clubs serve is likely to organize their members into a somewhat disciplined unit, to coordinate with other likeminded cells, and then to get their guys onto the streets. Certainly strength training and a basic familiarity with fighting might help.  But at the end of the day individuals are motived to fight for communities, not training styles.

 

Diverse students at a kickboxing seminar held in Ithaca NY.

 

Implications

 

All of this may seem obvious.  I hope that it does. Yet approaching extremist groups from an institutional perspective reveals important strategies for understanding and deterring their spread. Perhaps the first of these is that there need not be any direct ideological correlation between the types of venues that groups use for recruitment and their ultimate political or social goals.  For instance, modern MMA, 19thcentury Plum Blossom and traditional European Longsword are three very different martial arts both in terms of cultural background, social structure and patterns of imagined violence. Yet each has proved to be an attractive target for radical groups looking to recruit members and coordinate their agendas.

We commit a grave error by treating MMA as some sort of “gateway” to the world of social extremism due to its inherently “violent” or competitive nature. While conceptually interesting, debates as to whether we might legitimately call what happens in the octagon “violence” in the same ways as a deadly political street fight misses a critical point.  There is little violence in Scandinavian new religious movements, yet they too have become, at times, a site of extremist recruitment.  There are good reasons why groups might want to recruit members from charities or other organizations that have no visible connection to violence at all. I am sure that if we looked closely enough we would also find some level recruitment happening at Wing Chun training halls, karate dojos and Kali schools. What is critical is the way these activities can be discursively framed and deployed, and not necessarily anything inherent in their embodied practice.

At the current moment MMA is probably attractive to extremist groups simply because it is so popular with young males generally and is aligned with several trends in popular culture. Its most important assets may not be the brutality of its practice, but the fact that it has crafted a fashionable pop culture aesthetic. Indeed, it may simply be the practice’s “soft power” that make it an attractive target for subversion.  Its highly networked structure also make it both commercially flexible and a decent platform for the sorts of networking that extremist groups may seek to engage in.

If these social characteristics make martial arts organizations attractive to extremist groups (on both the left and right), they also suggest some options for deterring their spread. Consider, for instance, the role of social capital in this type of institutional framework.  “Social capital” refers to the decentralized bonds of trust and reciprocity that are created within small communities that can then be applied to larger networks.

All group interactions create social capital to one degree or another.  Yet they do not always create equal amounts of trust, (bonding capital) nor are they equally good at extending this radius of community (bridging capital). When we look at the specific MMA schools and fight promotions implicated in the news articles cited earlier, it becomes apparent that they are in many ways pretty marginal cases.  This makes sense as, once created, communities rich in social capital tend to be somewhat conservative in character (even if very supportive of their members). My prior research looking at religion and terrorism suggested that communities which were rich in social capital were more resistant to radicalization attempts. Relatively disconnected and marginal groups tended to be low hanging fruit for extremist organizations both because they had less to lose, and less ability to resist corrosive social discourses.

This suggests that one important strategy for containing the spread of extremist ideologies in the martial arts is to focus more attention of building healthy communities with many points of intersection, both with other hand combat groups and the community at large.  Such organizations are much harder targets for radicalization. However, containment strategies that focus on state surveillance, or anything else that corrodes trust (and therefore social capital) within the community, might backfire in unexpected ways.  If we weaken the bonds of reciprocity either within martial arts groups or between them, social capital theory suggest that we might actually increase the probability that these movements are captured by anti-systemic actors. [Incidentally, efforts by the late Qing dynasty to monitor and suppress its own hand combat schools seems to support this hypothesis, but that is an argument for a different post.]

The modern martial arts function as a type of social machinery. Like any machine they perform work, the normative implications of which have more to do with the hand at the controls than any inherent property of the practice itself. It is the fundamental amorality of the martial arts that allows them to be co-opted by both nationalist forces and advocates of regional identity, often at the same time.  Likewise, the same embodied experience of kickboxing or rolling might be used to support discursive structures that emphasize a sense of the profound human equality in some circles, or radical hierarchies of difference in others.  What really matters is the supplementary forces that construct and give meaning to these experiences.

An institutional approach to the problem of extremism not only suggests viable strategies for containing these movements (a topic that I hope to return to in a future essay), but it also reveals something critical about modern hand combat groups. It is often the secondary and seemingly supplementary aspects of our practice that have the most profound impact on the community around us.  We neglect them at our peril, both as scholars and concerned martial artists.

 

oOo

If you enjoyed this essay you might also want to see: Government Subsidization of the Martial Arts and the Question of “Established Churches”

oOo



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