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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Give Me Those Old Time Kung Fu Villains


 

 

Introduction

Antagonists seem to be the critical ingredient that make the martial arts possible. Yet to understand why that is the case we need to start by unpacking a few things.  An immense range of activities fall within the category that we term “martial arts,” so much so that simply defining the term is much more challenging than one might expect.  Still, all of these activities are essentially social pursuits.  The martial arts are really more about the pedagogy and the discussion of violence than its actual performance.  Indeed, the quality of some isolated hermit’s technique cannot make them a martial artist.  At a bare minimum they must be willing to pass that skill along, or perform it for others, before the label really applies.

This raises a few obvious questions.  Why should one desire to be a in a community that practices or passes on these skills?  What is the ultimate utility or meaning of these techniques?  Or to put the question rather crassly, are the varied benefit of practicing a given martial art worth the time, cost and effort necessary to do so?

It should surprise no one that all sorts of martial arts have formulated their own answers to these types of questions.  I sometimes think that indoctrinating students into their unique world view is just as important as the actual transmission of techniques.  Indeed, it is an open question in my mind as to whether the martial arts, as a social and cultural construction, can even exist without some sort of world defining narrative.

Psychologists have noted that telling stories is one of the most basic ways in which humans understand, and attempt to interact, with our world.  In fact, narrative seems to be key to how we as a species understand the process of causation in the world around us.  Sadly, there is less evidence that the physical world that we seek to understand is structured in this way.  Hence our theories and stories about the world, while certainly useful, always reveal some aspect of reality with one hand, as they hide certain things with the other.  To tell stories is human, but it may not be the best way to understand quantum mechanics.

On the other hand, paying close attention to the stories that people tell may be absolutely critical when our goal is understanding the functions of the voluntary communities that individuals create.  This is critical as not all groups, organizations or styles are attempting to do the same thing.  Not all fighting styles claim to do the same work, or provide the same social and personal benefits.

Students of martial arts studies thus require a number of discursive keys capable of opening the door to a more serious and sustained comparative study of these functions.  Sadly, the comparative method is not commonly seen within martial arts studies.  Yet such studies might help us to understand why, at a given point in time, individuals are drawn to one martial art versus another. Or why do some types of martial practice thrive in a given social or economic setting, yet struggle in another?

 

Weapons confiscated in Chinatown, New York City, 1922. This haul shows a remarkable mixture of modern and traditional weapons. Source: NYPD Public Records.

 

Nothing is More Useful than a Bad Guy

This sort of positivist research generally begins when researchers sit down and begin to measure things. Typically, one will start with the martial artists themselves.  You might collect data on their age, race or gender.  Other socio-economic indicators can be gleaned through formal surveys or participant observation.  One might conduct interviews, sample social media posts or examine their physical performance in public demonstrations or fights.  Anything that can be observed can be quantified and fed into a statistical model of human behavior.

That is all great.  Indeed, my earlier research relied quite heavily on data crunching and “large-N” analysis (granted, at the time I was more interested in the behavior of political parties and nation states than martial artists).  Yet some of the things that are most useful for adding nuance to comparative analysis might, at first, be a little less obvious. For instance, when you walk into the average martial arts school, it is highly unlikely that anyone will self-identify as the resident villain. Yet such a figure is critical to understanding how the community functions.

This can often be seen in way that individuals discuss their styles. A good Kung Fu story is mostly a normatively loaded narrative about conflict which tends to identify one set of actors with positive social traits (or traits that are understood to be “good” in this situation) and another set of individuals or forces with negative ones.  John Christopher Hamm has done a wonderful job of exploring the way in which the literary imaginings of these conflicts have evolved in the sorts of Wuxia fiction produced in Southern China. Late 19thcentury novels valorized the sorts of feuding between neighboring clans and villages that characterized much of Southern Chinese life.  In contrast, Jin Yong’s much later novels reflected the larger scale struggle to control the “central plains” in an era when many of his readers had (like his protagonists) fled into exile.

Both folklore (the burning of the Shaolin temple by the Manchus) and film (Bruce Lee’s perpetual struggle against the markers of racial injustice and imperialism), offer a wide range of antagonists for our consideration.  Indeed, film studies scholars are correct in noting that the sorts of villains that films present, from the fear of brainwashing in the Cold War to the distrust of social and political institutions in the wake of Vietnam, can tell us a good deal about a society’s values and preoccupations.

Comparing the sorts of villains that appear in two different genera of martial arts films (say, the current run of John Wick stories, and Hong Kong Wuxia films of the 1960s) would doubtless be an informative, rewarding and enjoyable exercise.  A scaled down version of this might even make a great blog post.  Yet ultimately these films are meant to appeal to a general audience.  While they are certainly watched by some martial artists, they are primarily reflective of larger social trends.

Again, what would be most interesting would be the comparative case study.  How do the smaller scale narratives produced within the martial arts community, for its own exclusive consumption, reflect or contradict these larger sets of social anxieties?  Again, this is where we in martial arts studies might leverage our villains to collect some valuable insights about the varieties of social work performed by different types of martial arts communities.  After all, I am not sure that there is any reason to expect that the stories told in an MMA gym and the children’s Taekwondo gym across the street would share the same sorts of oppositional figures.

 

The Shaolin Temple, home to countless theories on the origins of the Chinese martial arts. Source: Wikimedia.

Construction the Loyal Opposition

In purely methodological terms, how might we identify the sources of rhetorical opposition within a given community? This process will vary depending on a variety of factors, but let us begin by considering something fairly familiar, the Wing Chun community.  What becomes immediately apparent is that there are actually many different sorts of overlapping villains whose image and memory students are forced to struggle with. So let’s start at the beginning.

Every webpage, how-to book and introductory seminar seems to involve some variant of the Wing Chun creation myth which typically revolves around two key antagonists.  First, one must come to terms with the Manchu government which burned the Shaolin Temple, representing a sort of structural, almost metaphysical, evil.  Then there is the question of the marketplace bully whom Yim Wing Chun must fight to preserve her marriage prospects.

Interpreting these stories in an early 20thcentury Cantonese context is not difficult.  The first narrative evokes nationalist themes with the Manchu’s being a stand-in for various other foreign oppressors who are seen as being responsible for the chaos of the Republic period (in practice this was mostly the Japanese and the British).  Meanwhile, the story of the marketplace bully is both a cautionary tale about misdirected internal opposition within the realm of Rivers and Lakes, and an object lesson in the strategic principals that will allow the Wing Chun student to overcome China’s international and structural opponents.

Deciding what it all means when these stories are translated into a Western cultural context, one in which we are not worried about Japanese imperialism in Shanghai and the Manchus have no particular cultural significance, is a much more difficult task. Given the frequency with which these stories are repeated, they must mean something to the global population of Wing Chun students. They certainly seem to serve as shared signifiers of the cultural authenticity of one’s projects.  Yet a variety of listeners have projected feminist interpretations onto Yim Wing Chun’s narrative, or concocted political readings of the conflict with the Qing, which would probably have greatly surprised Kung Fu students in the Pearl River Delta during the 1920s.  One does not need to be a critical theorist to acknowledge that most texts can be interpreted in a varity of different ways.

While these stories are perhaps the most widely told within the Wing Chun community, they are not the only ones that are potentially revealing for the martial arts studies researcher.  We might, for instance, decide to conduct personal interviews.  I will never forget a conversation that I once had with two of my Wing Chun students, both old school karate guys who were a good deal older than me.  Somehow the discussion turned towards the ways that casual social violence (things like barfights) had changed and largely disappeared from America’s public spaces after the 1980s.

Both of these individuals were from a large rustbelt city, and both began to reminisce fondly on the frequent bar fights that they used to get into.  They immediately told a number of stories about how martial arts students from “their neighborhood” would get into fights with African American martial artists from a couple of other local schools.  As the stories progressed it became clear that these were actually narratives about attempting to control a changing neighborhood recast as stereotypical martial arts tales.  It became increasingly clear that when these gentlemen training in either kung fu or karate they were remembering a very specific set of opponents from their youth. Accepting this fact is critical to understanding the very specific social functions that these fighting systems served in a number of American cities during the 1970s and 1980s.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about these conversations was how upfront the two gentlemen were about the sorts of violence that they had perpetrated and also feared.  It was an eye-opening experience for someone who was still relatively new to the field of martial arts studies.  But in thinking about the incident it occurred to me that there are many less obvious ways in which these sorts of tales are told.

The classic “how to” books and articles which sustained the martial arts publishing industry for decades are interesting in that they contained all sorts of visual reenactments of imagined violence.  Often the two fighters are randomly selected students dressed in the same school uniforms. But in a number of other cases greater budgets or imaginations allowed for a more direct visual construction of the imagined villain.  Turn of the century photographs depicting the gentlemanly art of Bartitisu displayed a clear sense of class anxiety by so often portraying attackers as stereotypic muggers, mashers and tramps.  On the other hand, German literature on Wing Chun in the 1970s and 1980s often took as its “loyal opposition” students of the other Asian martial arts (e.g., Karate or Taekwondo).  The anxiety it responded to was not random street crime (or growing income inequality). Rather, the concern was to demonstrate that in a battle between skilled opponents (both of whom would show up wearing the proper uniforms), your arsenal of skills of would prevail.

When thinking of the social conditions that generated these two cases, it is probably significant that the first style persistently pictured its attackers as socio-economic “others,” while the second system constructed a discursive system around a more recreational model of self-defense training.  This was a world in which the fundamentally similar martial artists who inhabited a rather crowded marketplace might fight for honor.  Or barring that, certain sorts of magazine illustrations might help to reinforce one’s belief that their time and money had been invested in the proper sort of martial arts school.

 

Ip Man relaxing in his apartment. Source: Ip Ching’s collection.

 

Conclusion: The Embodied Fear

All of this is helpful, and it makes more of an art’s underlying narrative visible to the researcher. Indeed, the subconscious inflections and biases which emerge out of magazines, postcards, webpages and social media videos may be more helpful to researchers precisely because they are not interviews. The fact that we are so often unaware of how we subtly frame these more technical stories means that the resulting process may more accurately reflect the sort of work that we are actually expecting a given martial art to do.

Still, there is another level of storytelling that occurs within every martial arts system.  It lays even deeper than the popular media, creation myths, or ephemera. It is expressed within the realm of embodied technique itself.

While the human body is always the same, there seems to be no end to the variety of fighting systems that surround us.  This variety is the result of many factors.  At the most basic level not all martial arts have the same goal.  Some Chinese arts are systems of individuals self-defense (Wing Chun) while others may have been developed with an eye toward coordinated small unit military combat (the pole work of General Yu Dayou’s Sword Classic comes to mind.) Sometimes the goal of a public performance is victory in a highly competitive combat sport, while in other cases a practitioner might seek to entertain guests at a wedding or festival.

Yet even these large scale distinctions cannot explain all of the variations in the styles and approaches to combat that we see.  Systems with similar goals might still have different sets of assumptions about how a fight is likely to proceed, and what sorts of skill are most important.  Indeed, I am often struck by the fact that on an abstract level so many southern Chinese martial arts share a wide range of techniques.  Yet they differ markedly in terms of their pedagogy and strategic assumptions.  Taken as a whole, this embodied knowledge also reveals a narrative with its own set of villain(s) which may be quite useful to the practitioner.

Consider the question of grappling within Wing Chun. It is untrue that traditional Wing Chun has no grabs, locks and throws.  Indeed, I was even trained in a minimal amount of ground work.  But rather than attempting to wrestle and submit my opponent almost all of this was directed towards disentangling myself and being able to get back on my feet as quickly as possible.  Indeed, much of the short range fighting in Wing Chun (including the afore mentioned locks and throws) seem focused on maintaining one’s ability to continue to strike and move once someone has attempted to grab you.

All of this reflects a single tactical preoccupation within the Wing Chun system.  It is extremely concerned with the likely presence of multiple attackers. In these sorts of situations, one could very easily win a battle on the ground, yet lose the war.  In thinking about the history of the art, it is not difficult to understand where this preoccupation came from.  As a plain-clothes detective in Foshan, Ip Man was likely involved in the arrest of both violent criminal and suspected communists.  During the final years of the Chinese civil war, this later group of individuals were typically tortured and killed at the end of the interrogation process.  The Communist Party did not let these murders go unanswered. Its agents also put together teams that snatched various enemies of the party and treated them in broadly similar ways.  In short, when Ip Man was informed that he had been added to a Communist hitlist in 1949 he probably wouldn’t have had any reason to doubt the assertion.  This was a reality that all of Guangdong’s police and intelligence officers were quite familiar with.

Why then is Ip Man’s Wing Chun so focused on the possibility of multiple attacker scenarios?  I would humbly suggest that the answer might be that the thing which he (and an entire generation of other practitioners) most feared was being abducted by a hit squad comprised of three to four highly trained individuals driving a Packard.  Avoiding being grabbed and thrown into said Packard was the key to not being tortured to death in the back room of a safehouse somewhere in Guangzhou.

Granted, this is a very specific, historically bounded, fear.  It is interesting to speculate as to whether Leung Jan’s Wing Chun had the same tactical emphasis on multiple attackers.  If it did, perhaps he might have been more interested in the sorts of small unit fighting that period militia members were expected to train for, rather than the world of law enforcement and politically motivated killings that had colonized Ip Man’s imagination by 1949.

It is interesting to me how many of these half-forgotten tactical doctrines remain embodied in a wide range of martial arts.  But as we think about the layers of antagonists that each system presents, in its media representations, in its oral folklore, and even in its bodily habits, we may become more conscious of these villains.  Better understanding this imagined opposition can help us to not only understand what these systems were in the past, but to make more informed choices about how we interact with them, and what they might still become in the future.

 

oOo

If you enjoyed this reflection on villainy you might also want to read: Martial Values, Social Transformation and the Tu Village Dragon Dance

oOo



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Play and Learning in the Martial Arts


Three unidentified children practice Kung Fu near the Shaolin Temple. This newswire photo was taken in 1982 and it captures the first moments of the “Golden Age” of Kung Fu in mainland China.

 

The Problem with Play

I have always found TED talks to be a mixed bag. Some are wonderful. Others I find vaguely irritating. But the project itself, which seeks to popularize some of the most important “big ideas,” is deeply interesting.  If nothing else, scrolling through a list of titles on the video platform of your choice is a good way to see which concepts are currently making their way into popular consciousness. That is important as scholars are increasingly being judged by the sorts of “real world” effects that their research generates.

If the “TED Index” has any validity, there is one idea whose time has truly come.  “Play” is back.  After decades of being little more than a term of abuse, a purposeless activity relegated to the realm of childhood, play has recently become an important concept.  While few individuals, other than a handful of psychologists and evolutionary biologists, thought about play a decade ago, today studies are being conducted, grants are being written and (many) books published.

This material seems to have come to a general agreement on a few key facts.  Play is a very important aspect of human (indeed, all mammal) learning and development. Individuals who are artificially deprived of play tend to be less creative, flexible, resilient and have an increased likelihood of psychological disorders.  The rise of anxiety, depression and suicide in the Western world, while typically blamed on cell phones and Facebook, also corresponds with the increasing displacement of all forms of play from the lives of tightly scheduled children and young adults.  It seems that the entire TED circuit speaks with a single voice when they tell us that we are facing a crisis.  As Weber’s iron cage of modern rationality grinds on, play has become an endangered species.  The result is a society filled with less creative, less sociable, and less psychologically resilient individuals, precisely at the moment when we need those sorts of attributes the most.

Nor is this simply a matter of concern for parents and school administrators. While most mammals retain some interest in play, humans are practically unique (or at least right up there with dolphins and sea otters) in that extended periods of play remain necessary for adults as well.  As one of the afore mentioned TED talks noted, the opposite of play isn’t “work.”  Its depression.  And that quip brings us to the heart of our problem.  Play has a branding problem.  Can the martial arts help?

As with so much else, I blame the Puritans for all of this. The advent of the protestant work ethic represented a fundamental break with traditional modes of social organization across large portions of the West. While there is much that we could say on the topic (indeed, entire books and articles have been written on the subject), for the purposes of the current post it is enough to note that frivolous activities came under severe scrutiny in a society where an individual’s personal value became increasingly conflated with their net worth.  After all, the one thing that no society can abide is an individual who fails to take its values seriously.  In short order “play” came to be regarded with suspicion.

Nor has the increasing secularization of society done anything to alleviate this problem.  If anything, it has gotten far worse in recent decades.  School years are longer now than they were two generations ago, and seemingly secondary subjects like music, art and recess have all found themselves on the chopping block.  The sorts of athletic leagues that most children find themselves in today are so tightly supervised and disciplined that they no longer meet even the most basic definitions of play. Indeed, the need for constant resume building has eliminated much of the unsupervised “downtime” in which childhood used to occur in.

 

Naganita Class. Okayama City, 1935. Source: Old Japan Photos.

 

Martial Arts Practice as Play

This is the section of the essay where I typically introduce martial arts practice as the unexpected solution to what ever issue kicked off our discussion.  Unfortunately, the relationship between the martial art and play is complex and multilayered.  On the one hand, these practices have been haunted by the widely held perception that they are not something that “serious” people do.  Spending an hour a day training for your half marathon is fine, even admirable.  But spending that same hour in a kung fu or kickboxing class can elicit sideways glances and nervous laughter.  Paul Bowman tries to unwrap what is going on here in the opening chapters of his volume Mythologies of Martial Arts(2016).  His arguments are well worth reviewing. But in brief, the alien and seemingly pre-modern nature of the Asian martial arts makes it difficult to incorporate them into Western society’s dominant discourses.

The health benefits of jogging are obvious, as are the competitive virtues of winning a 10K race. They require no explanation.  Yet one must always explain that kickboxing is a great workout, or that BJJ “burns a lot of calories.”  Martial artists are constantly, and with only partial success, justifying the resources that they spend on their training.  Yet at the end of the day, for most members of society, this will always be “just playing around.”  Children may get some benefits from martial arts training.  But Master Ken remains a telling image of the overly serious adult student who never managed to grow up. Serious martial arts training remains unavailable to many adults precisely because it is perceived as a type of (delusional) “play.”

The irony is that many, maybe even most, martial arts class rooms are devoid of actual play.  Real play, true play, can be antithetical to the goals of many martial arts schools.  To understand why this is we need to think a little more carefully about play itself. Unfortunately there are lots of definitions floating around and they don’t all agree. Still, I know play when I see it.  For a short essay like this a compete clinical definition probably isn’t necessary.  Luckily there are a few broadly held points of agreement that can guide our thinking.

To begin with, play is not the same thing as inaction or simply a lack of seriousness. It is an independent process in its own right, with both psychological and social aspects.  There are many types of play.  Some are deeply imaginative and others are not, being primarily observational or embodied. True play is an independently chosen activity that happens in the absence of a directing authority.  It is basically a truism to say that no one can force you to play. Play is generally seen as being purposeless.  This does not mean that it has no impact on an individual’s life.  Rather, it happens for its own sake. To summarize, fun activities are “play” only if they are self-controlled and self-directed.

A psychologist or social scientist may look at what happens in the average Taekwondo class and see a highly creative modern ritual. Individuals dress in symbolic clothing and engage in rites of reversal that upend mundane social values (such as don’t hit your friends or choke your siblings). And yet many training environments go out of their way to avoid an air of playfulness.  In its place we find the formality of ritual and the constant supervision (and correction) of concerned teachers.  Indeed, the parents of the children in the class are likely to be found on folding chairs in the school’s lobby, closely monitoring everyone’s progress. This is a type of performance staged for social purposes rather than individual play. Much the same could be said for most school sports.

One may have quite a bit of fun in such a structured martial arts class (I know I always do).  And there is no doubt that students learn and derive all sorts of physical and social benefits from participating in such classes.  And yet all of this is basically the antithesis of play.  The general feeling seems to be that not only would play in a martial environment be unproductive (how can one learn “good habits” without constant correction and oversight?), but that it might also be dangerous.  Just stop to think about the arsenal of weapons that line the walls of the average kung fu school?  Do you really want to turn the students loose for long periods of unstructured play?  Perhaps the opposite of play is actually “liability insurance.”

Luckily my own Sifu didn’t seem to believe that last point.  I can confidentially say that unstructured play was critical to my development as a Wing Chun student. Indeed, it was an important part of the curriculum.

Standard classes, graded by level and each having a well-developed curriculum, were held four nights a week at Wing Chun Hall in Salt Lake City. Yet Jon Nielson, my Sifu, was aware that more was needed when attempting to find your own place in the martial arts community.  So every Friday evening and Saturday morning his school would open for three hours of unsupervised “practice time” for anyone who wanted to come. Students of the Wing Chun Hall were expected to attend these “open sessions” on a semi-regular basis (and there was never any cost for doing so).  Even individuals from other schools were welcome to come by and train with the Wing Chun people if they so desired.  The critical thing, however, was that the one person who was rarely ever there was Sifu. The sessions were instead monitored (but not run) by his junior instructors who were under strict orders to help if asked. Otherwise students were left to train how they saw fit.  If someone wanted to learn some basic dummy exercises, even though they were years away from starting the dummy form, this was their time to do it.

Most people would come to an open session with some sort of goal in mind.  Maybe they wanted to work on a specific form.  Perhaps they were having trouble with ground-work, or one of the paired exercises that had been introduced during the week.  And it goes without saying that everyone wanted to practice Chi Sao with the more senior students (or to touch hands with visitors from different styles).

Yet three hours is a long time.  One would inevitably be drawn into all sorts of other drills, exercises and discussions that you had never envisioned. The second and third hour of any sessions always seemed to evolve organically. One might well come in to work on the dummy and end up with a pole in your hands.  I still have fond memories of one Saturday spent making up a game so that new Siu Lim Tao students could practice their footwork. While these open sessions tended to start out as directed and focused, by about hour two things had become much more fluid.

My sifu instituted these open sessions for a couple of reasons.  To begin with, everyone needs a night off.  And we can all use more hours of practice when it comes to the sorts of sensitivity drills that Wing Chun so loves.  These things are not like riding bike.  Once certainly will forget them, and you are never any better than however many hours of practice you put in the month before.

Beyond that, my Sifu was also a keen student of pedagogy.  He carefully explained to me the importance of unstructured play, free of judgement or overbearing correction, in learning any physical skill.  More specifically, he noted that this was where students would learn to trust their bodies, bodies that were now defined through a new set of skills.  And it was those martially educated bodies that would make judgements about the world. Understanding whether someone was a threat, or whether a technique was working, was an embodied process.  Teaching and drilling this material during the more structured nightly classes was not enough.  It was also a matter of how that knowledge was internalized, localized, modified and rearranged.  Drawing on his background in linguistics he noted that kung fu meant “hard/skillful work” (and it certainly is), but in China the martial arts are often associated with the verb “to play.”  One “plays wushu,” or goes to “play sticky hands.”  Both modes of action, he suggested, exist in a reciprocal relationship. Self-controlled and self-directed play is not disposable or supplemental.  Properly understood, it is a critical aspect of the learning process.

 

Chad Eisner (left) sparring with one of his students.

 

A Common Sentiment

I had not thought about my teacher’s open sessions (and how much fun they were) in a while.  But earlier this week I bumped into an old friend at the grocery store who had recently returned to the US after living abroad. She asked how my martial arts training was going and, while mentioning my various projects, I noted an upcoming workshop with a guest instructor that I would be hosting for the lightsaber combat group here in Ithaca.

My friend already considers my Chinese martial arts practice to be strange enough.  But apparently she had been gone long enough that she didn’t know about the lightsaber project.  It elicited a laugh hinting at something other than delight.  Still, laughter from the uninitiated comes with the territory when one is holding a lightsaber (or, if we are being totally honest, any other type of sword).  I noted that, if nothing else, it is easier to fill a class with lightsaber students than, say, the traditional Wing Chun swords.  She immediately noted that she would be much more likely to come to the later, “but to each their own.”

This was not the first time I have heard something like this.  When explaining to curious passersby that our lightsaber system is based, in large part, on traditional Chinese swordsmanship, this is actually a pretty common response. Everyone it seems, is more interested in “serious” fencing or maybe Wudang sword practice.  And yet we all know that the vast majority of these individuals would never actually show up for that class.  Ithaca is full of highly skilled traditional martial arts teachers that struggle to find more than a handful of students. The sad truth is, to an outside observer, anyone who voluntarily spends that much time with a sword isn’t being “serious.” How could they be?  Isn’t it all just for fun?  You might call it training, but for most people it will always be “just playing around.”

One of the challenges facing the modern martial arts is not to internalize this common critique.  It is all too easy to respond to these questions by reframing all of our activities as investments and “hard work.”  Indeed, the nationalist turn taken by the Japanese and Chinese arts in the 1930s explicitly argued that the goals of hand combat practice were fundamentally a continuation of modernist project.  The martial arts of the era demanded (and received) state support precisely because they argued that they had moved beyond childish things and become a means of “strengthening the nation.”

Such rhetoric was intoxicatingly effective in the 1930s and 1940s.  Yet these arguments work less well in the consumer driven spaces that define the modern West.  Few people want to pay $100 a month to be part of a nationalist indoctrination program.

Nor, given our increased understanding of the importance of play as an aspect of mental health, as well as its critical importance to the learning process, a move back to the “seriousness” of the 1930s would not be wise.  Sadly the martial arts sector lacks the visibility to create a widespread desire for play in the West.  I suppose that is the job of public intellectuals, morning talk show appearances, NY Times best sellers and (if all else fails) TED talks. Yet what we can do is to provide spaces for less-structured play in our classes, organizations and training structures.  My Sifu did that for me, and it was immensely valuable. After speaking with my friend I realized that my lightsaber classes might need something similar. It is not enough that an activity is imaginative or fun. We all learn fastest when given opportunities for truly independent play.

 

oOo

If you enjoyed this essay you might also want to read: Red Boats and the Nautical Origins of the Wooden Dummy

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Local Resistance and Guoshu: The Foshan Zhong Yi Martial Arts Athletic Association


The images in this post are taken from Daniel Mak and Alex Jung’s excellent documentary “The Origins of Macau Wing Chun.” Its well worth watching and you can read more about it here.

 

 

 

Guoshu in the Pearl River Delta

In a recent post I attempted to move away from the triumphalist rhetoric that accompanies many popular discussions of the Guoshu movement and ask how its institutional limitations (rather than its strengths) shaped the spread of Northern martial arts styles in the Pearl River Delta region during the 1920s and 1930s. That essay addressed events in one small region as in my research I have found that to really understand any social movement it is often necessary to move away from national level narratives. While helpful in understanding a movement’s goals, such discussion can obscure the reality of how reforms were actually implemented (and co-opted) at the local level. That can, in turn, lead to the uncritical acceptance of politically inflected historical narratives and a bad case of selective memory.

For instance, while investigating attempts to establish “official” Guoshu chapters in the Guangzhou area, we discovered that the success of these efforts were very much dependent on the support of the governor’s office. Yet in an era characterized by unstable and quickly shifting politics, such political alliances often proved to be a liability.  Ambitious efforts to rebuild Guangdong’s martial arts culture through legislative fiat were doomed by the KMT’s constant internal upheavals. Northern masters found considerably more success in spreading their styles once they were freed (partially) from political patronage structures and able to establish commercial schools that could compete in the economic marketplace.

This essay expands on that discussion by asking two additional questions.  First, Andrew Morris has noted that all sorts of modernizing groups (New Wushu, Jingwu, Guoshu), while typically successful in China’s major cities, tended to have trouble penetrating the countryside.  That was a significant problem as the vast majority of China’s martial artists lived far from the large cities. Given the geographic limitations of the Republic era’s hand combat reform movements, what do we see in the Guangdong case?  Was the Guoshu movement able to establish branches outside of the sophisticated and well-connected provincial capital of Guangzhou?  If so, how did these organizations function?

Our second question is closely related to the first.  Given that Guangdong had a vibrant martial arts subculture prior to the importation of the Guoshu movement in the late 1920s, in what ways did local martial arts groups attempt to resist or co-opt this new expression of Chinese identity through martial practice?  Elite reformers saw the Guoshu movement not just as a way to promote mundane public health goals. They sought to use a single, centrally controlled, program of physical training and competition to increase nationalism, militarism and loyalty to the party.  Yet the Chinese martial arts had traditionally been a vehicle for the expression of much more local and regional identities. How were local groups able to capitalize on the weakness of the Chinese state to use such centrally sponsored reform efforts for their own ends?

The following essay begins by shifting our focus away from Guangzhou to Foshan, a nearby market town and manufacturing center.  It examines the rise of the Zhong Yi Martial Arts Athletic Association. Perhaps the second most important regional martial arts organization between the 1920s and the 1940s, a close examination of developments in Foshan suggests that while the Guoshu movement looked quite strong on paper, in actual fact its unifying and centralizing agenda faced stiff opposition.  Ironically, the Guoshu label was even used to empower the sorts of local, traditional, secretive and sectarian identities which its national level rhetoric vocally opposed and claimed to have supplanted.

 

 

 

Foshan

Given Guangzhou’s status as the political capital and cultural center of Guangdong Province, it is only natural that the Central Guoshu Institute would concentrate their reform efforts there.  But how far out into the countryside did these measures penetrate?  The case of Foshan, an economically vibrant market town only a short distance from the capital, suggests the level of complexity that may have been encountered. Still, given Foshan’s wealth, rapid economic modernization and long history as a center for hand combat development, one would think that if the Guoshu movement could succeed anywhere, it would surely find a foothold here.

The development of Foshan’s “Guoshu” related efforts (and we must use that term carefully) began shortly after the failure of the Liangguang Guoshu Institute in Guangzhou (discussed here) in the 1929-1930 period. Yet rather than importing a group of distinguished Northern instructors, as the Governor did in Guangzhou, Foshan moved in a radically different direction.  Instead of creating a new organization, the locally prominent network of “Yi” schools, whose teaching curriculum focused almost entirely on Hung Gar and Wing Chun, were reorganized into something more official with closer ties to the local KMT party structure.

While much has been written about the history of both Wing Chun and Hung Gar, the social significance of the Yi network has been largely neglected in favor of more traditional lineage and instructor specific biographies. That sort of rhetoric is historically problematic as it both lends itself to hagiography and obscures the ways in which martial arts groups interacted with the larger community. In fact, even before their formalization at the end of the 1920s, the Yi network of martial arts schools were an important force in the local community and the increasingly violent debates that accompanied the emergence of an independent labor movement.

Still, it was not the largest alliance of schools and instructors in Foshan at the time.  That honor was held by the various Choy Li Fut schools organized through the Hung Sing Association.  We previously discussed the creation and significance of this group at length in our volume on the history of the Southern Chinese martial arts. For the purposes of the current argument it is enough to note that by the 1920s the Hung Sing Association was recruiting much of its membership from the ranks of Foshan’s handicraft sector and the newly emerging industrial working class. In addition to hand combat training Hung Sing also provided a means for workers to network, organize and look for employment. All of this quickly drew the association into relationships with more radical elements of the local labor movement including trade unions and organizers from the Community Party.

In contrast, the Hung Gar and Wing Chun schools organized by the Yi network often (though not always) recruited their membership from the ranks of skilled local workers or small business owners. Such individuals were better positioned to benefit from the global shifts in trade, investment and economic structure that typically threatened the livelihoods of less skilled workers. It should not be surprising to discover that many of the Yi schools were financially backed by the region’s more conservative “yellow trade unions” who opposed the types of the demands that the more radical (“red”) labor movement was making.  Indeed, the Yi Schools and the Hung Sing Association clashed (sometimes violently) throughout the 1920s. Much of what has been preserved in lineage histories as “ancient rivalries” between competing martial arts styles should probably be reframed as local expressions of the sorts of class conflict that gripped the entire industrialized world during the 1930s.  But how did the Yi Schools first emerge?

That question has proved difficult to answer as, after 1949, the Communist government classified the Zhong Yi Martial Arts Athletic Association as a violent right wing group with a “special historical background.”  As such local society went to some lengths to suppress not just the membership of the group but its historical memory as well.  Nevertheless, two local historians, Xiao Hai Ming and Zou Wen Ping, have been able to reconstruct some key facts about the organization.

During the final years of the Qing dynasty a resident of Zhangcha Village (now a part of Foshan’s urban sprawl) named Zhao Xi organized the “Xing Yi” martial arts school.  Sadly, Xiao and Zou were not able to discover much about Zhao’s background.  But it is clear that he was a Hung Gar instructor and his schools were the first in the Foshan area to bear the “Yi” suffix.  We might also surmise that Zhao was a talented businessman and he found ways to franchise and leverage his personal reputation.  Eventually six schools appeared (Yong Yi, Xiong Yi, Qun Yi, Ju Yi, and Ying Yi) all associated with the initial Xing Yi location.  This set of schools is said to have constituted the core of the larger “Yi” martial arts system.  Xiao and Zou noted that both Hung Gar and Wing Chun were taught within this network, though they were not able to reconstruct a full list of instructors.

 

 

As is typically the case, things are most opaque during the early years of the Yi network.  We have more information on events which occurred in the 1920s and 1930s.  But our best information stems from the 1940s, just prior to the victory of the CCP. As we review this period Wing Chun students may even begin to spot some familiar names. Jiu Chao (1902-1972) taught Wing Chun at the Zhong Yi Association branch located at Kuai Zi Lane after 1945.  Like Ip Man, he came from a wealthy local family.  He learned Wing Chun from Chan Yiu Min, the son of Chan Wah Shun (Ip Man’s first instructor).  Jiu also opened another martial arts school in Zhongshan and is said to have had over 100 students between his two schools.  Perhaps his best-known disciple was Pan Nam.

Jiu’s career might also offer us some insight into the relationship between Wing Chun and Hung Gar within the Yi network.  While an acknowledged Wing Chun master, Jiu appears to have been most famous within the local community for his excellence with a wide variety of weapons that are more typically associated with Hung Gar.  These included the multiple varieties of iron chains, single and double swords, sabers and the eyebrow staff.  That certainly suggests a degree of cross-training.

Cheung Bo (1899-1956) may also have taught for the Zhong Yi Association. Rene Ritchie notes that Cheung Bo’s lineage is not totally clear and that he likely learned both Wing Chun and bone setting from Wai Yuk Sang, who was a doctor employed by the Nationalist Army.  Cheung became a chef at the Foshan Tien Hoi Restaurant and was close friends with Yuen Kay San. In addition to his “restaurant class” he may also have taught at the “Hui Yi” martial arts school.  Cheung was responsible for the early training of Sum Num who he later introduced to Yuen Kay San.

It was during the 1920s that the Yi schools more closely aligned themselves with local business interests, “yellow” trade unions and the rightwing of the provincial KMT leadership. They clashed repeatedly with the more radical Hung Sing Association over the various strikes and pickets promoted by the leftist organization.  It appears that at times they may even have been used as strikebreakers.

As Guoshu activity began to accelerate in Guangzhou, only a short distance away, the Yi schools decided to formally unite and organize themselves as the Zhong Yi Martial Arts Athletic Association.  The new group had about a dozen branches (all in Foshan) during the early 1930s.  Its official membership has been estimated at about 1000 individuals, making it about one third the size of Hung Sing at its 1927 peak. It should be remembered that this later organization was closed by the KMT during the crackdown on Communists that followed the Northern Expedition and the Shanghai Massacre in the same year.

Of the many ways of expressing “martial arts,” the Zhong Yi Association adopted the term “Guoshu.” Still, it remains unclear what sort of relationship (if any) the group had with the Central Guoshu Institute. There is no evidence that they adopted the standardized Nanjing curriculum meant to unify the Chinese people behind a single set of (mostly Northern) practices. Nor did this group attempt to pursue the sorts of radical ideological reforms of the martial arts sectors that the short lived Liangguang Guoshu Institute had demanded. Indeed, the Zhong Yi Association was composed of exactly the sorts of regional, traditional, sectarian and secretive styles that national Guoshu reformers so desperately sought to eliminate. It is thus reasonable to ask whether, or how, this group functioned as an extension of the Guoshu movement.

Perhaps the clearest answer to this comes when we look at the organization’s leadership flowchart. The first thing that we see is that its president was none other than Zhang Qi Duan, the KMT Party Secretary for Nanhai County.  Indeed, prominent local citizens and KMT functionaries filled all of these leadership roles.  While there is no evidence that the Yi schools adopted any of the substance of the national Guoshu reform movement, it does appear that local elites consciously decided that they were more interested in having political control over the local martial arts community (particularly at a time when it was embroiled in frequent violent clashes with the labor movement) than the details of what styles were to be taught.  It was easier and more efficient for local leadership to co-opt a preexisting group, rebranding it as part of the Guoshu movement, than to create yet another competing school staffed with imported martial artists.

If this interpretation of the historical facts is correct, the choice to simply work with the Zhong Yi Association represents a telling concession to the realities of the local martial arts marketplace.  Given the intensely local nature of most schools, it seems that the top-down, state centric, model of martial arts reform promoted by the Central Guoshu Institute during the 1930s was doomed to fail. Even a few miles outside of a provincial capital it proved almost impossible for the state to assert its control over the vast networks of private schools and associations that had grown up since the end of the Boxer Uprising.  Such an undertaking was only possible when the local political and military leadership was strongly committed to the project.  But in Foshan it was precisely these officials who instead decided to rebrand a preexisting network that they already depended on and exercised some control over.  Rather than the Guoshu banner being one that united a common (and progressive) national culture, in Foshan it was a tool for local martial artists to express an entirely different (and more conservative) vision of how modern China should function.

 

 

Conclusion

One lesson to be drawn from this is that historians must approach the written sources (policy statements, manuals, yearly reports, newspaper articles, etc…) generated by reformist groups with a fair degree of caution. This material is relatively easily accessible to us today as one aspect of the Republic era modernizing agenda was to establish a robust written record, thereby combating the popular perception that the martial arts were practiced only by rustic illiterates.  Yet the substantive claims made by these organizations about the state of the Chinese martial arts were often deeply misleading.

In their public statement during the 1920s and 1930s they constantly claimed that the Chinese martial arts were dying, that they had become irrelevant, corrupted or ignored. They proposed various schemes for the resurrection of these arts through a process of purification, modernization and state sponsorship.  The irony was that the local martial arts were not dying, certainly not in Guangdong, and probably not in most other areas of the country.  New commercial schools and organizations were growing at a dizzying rate, so much so that outside regulatory efforts found it essentially impossible to control the local supply of martial arts instructors.  While there were starts and stops, the interwar years saw a steady rise in interest in the martial arts.

Newspapers in Guangzhou, Foshan and Hong Kong all began to carry serialized novels glorifying local martial artists from the recent past.  New radio programs, and later early films, hyped martial strength. Urban individuals became involved in these traditions in record numbers. The simple reality is that the Chinese martial arts were more popular, and practiced by a wider range of groups, in the 1920s and 1930s than ever before.  The Guoshu movement was never going to “save” the Chinese martial arts as, in reality, these arts and the social structures that supported them, were doing quite well on their own.  Rather, the various reform movements of the 1920s and 1930s are better understood as attempts to get out in front of trends that were already highly developed and threatening to pass by a relatively small group of elite activists and their backers in the government.

The situation in Foshan is instructive as it suggests two issues which probably slowed the substantive spread of the Guoshu movement.  While there was an immense demand for martial arts training in this period, local martial artists expressed little enthusiasm for the centralized reforms, training regimes and tournament structures that a handfull of national level reformers sought to promote.  Instead martial arts groups continued to focus on local issues, identities, power structures and conflicts.

Secondly, with the help of local government officials, the Guoshu name and framework could be appropriated to promote exactly the sorts of parochial, traditional and sectarian martial arts practices that the national reform movement was actively preaching against. Rather than weakening these groups, the expansion of the Guoshu program actually provided them with a platform from which to promote their own, radically different, vision of what “New China” should be.  While Foshan’s Zhongyi Martial Arts Athletic Association has been all but forgotten by modern Hung Gar and Wing Chun practitioners, this short discussion suggests that it still has much to teach students of martial arts studies.

 

oOo

A note on sources:  Anyone interested in a fuller account of this period (as well as the relevant footnotes and citations) should check out chapter 3 of The Creation of Wing Chun: A Social History of the Southern Chinese Martial Arts.

oOo



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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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2018 Christmas Shopping List: Martial Arts Equipment and Long Reads to Get You Through the Winter Months


Bernard the Kung Fu Elf riding Shotgun with Santa. (Source: Vintage American Postcard, authors personal collection.)

 

I am not going to lie. The annual Christmas list is my favorite post of the year. So welcome to Kung Fu Tea’s seventh annual holiday shopping list!  Not only are we going to find some cool gift ideas, but hopefully this post will inspire you to make time for martial arts practice during the festive season.  Training is a great way to deal with the various stresses that holidays always bring.  And Christmas is the perfect excuse to stock up on that gear that you have been needing all year.

This year’s shopping list is split into four categories: books, training equipment, weapons, and (for the first time) “gifts for the martial artist who has everything”. This last category will focus on experiences rather than objects. I have tried to select items at a variety of price points for each category. Some of the gift ideas are quite reasonable while others are admittedly aspirational. After all, Christmas is a time for dreams, so why not dream big!

Given the emphasis of this blog, many of these ideas pertain to the Chinese martial arts, but I do try to branch out in places. I have also put at least one Wing Chun related item in each category. Nevertheless, with a little work many of these ideas could be adapted to fit the interests of just about any martial artist.

As a disclaimer I should point out that I have no financial relationship with any of the firms listed below (except for the part where I plug my own book). This is simply a list of gift ideas that I thought were interesting. It is not an endorsement or a formal product review. Lastly, I would like to thank my friend Bernard the “Kung Fu Elf” (see above) for helping me to brainstorm this list.

 

 

 

 

Books to Feed You Head

This has been a good year for books. Nowhere is the growth of martial arts studies more evident than in the explosion of new publications.  Things have been so busy this year that I have been forced to restrict myself to new releases. Still, the first item on this list is both reasonably priced and outstanding reading….

 

Martial Arts Studies Reader. Edited by Paul Bowman ($38 USD)

The Martial Arts Studies Reader answers this need, by bringing together pioneers of the field and scholars at its cutting edges to offer authoritative and accessible insights into its key concerns and areas. Each chapter introduces and sets out an approach to and a route through a key issue in a specific area of martial arts studies. Taken together or in isolation, the chapters offer stimulating and exciting insights into this fascinating research area. In this way, The Martial Arts Studies Reader offers the first authoritative field-defining overview of the global and multidisciplinary phenomena of martial arts and martial arts studies.

 

Politics and Identity in Chinese Martial Arts by Lu Zhouxiang ($78 USD HC Routledge)

Chinese martial arts is considered by many to symbolise the strength of the Chinese and their pride in their history, and has long been regarded as an important element of Chinese culture and national identity. Politics and Identity in Chinese Martial Arts comprehensively examines the development of Chinese martial arts in the context of history and politics, and highlights its role in nation building and identity construction over the past two centuries. ?

This book explores how the development of Chinese martial arts was influenced by the ruling regimes’ political and military policies, as well as the social and economic environment. It also discusses the transformation of Chinese martial arts into its modern form as a competitive sport, a sport for all and a performing art, considering the effect of the rapid transformation of Chinese society in the 20th century and the influence of Western sports. The text concludes by examining the current prominence of Chinese martial arts on a global scale and the bright future of the sport as a unique cultural icon and national symbol of China in an era of globalisation.

You can find my review of this book here.  While I am a bit disappointed that the author failed to engage with the recent English language scholarship on the Chinese martial arts, this book is sure to show up in many future bibliographies.

 

 

Now for something a little lighter (err, easier to read…at 500 pages this book is actually quite heavy…)

Bruce Lee: A Life by Matthew Polly (paperback $18 USD)

The most authoritative biography—featuring dozens of rarely seen photographs—of film legend Bruce Lee, who made martial arts a global phenomenon, bridged the divide between Eastern and Western cultures, and smashed long-held stereotypes of Asians and Asian-Americans.

Forty-five years after Bruce Lee’s sudden death at age thirty-two, journalist and bestselling author Matthew Polly has written the definitive account of Lee’s life. It’s also one of the only accounts; incredibly, there has never been an authoritative biography of Lee. Following a decade of research that included conducting more than one hundred interviews with Lee’s family, friends, business associates, and even the actress in whose bed Lee died, Polly has constructed a complex, humane portrait of the icon.

Polly explores Lee’s early years as a child star in Hong Kong cinema; his actor father’s struggles with opium addiction and how that turned Bruce into a troublemaking teenager who was kicked out of high school and eventually sent to America to shape up; his beginnings as a martial arts teacher, eventually becoming personal instructor to movie stars like James Coburn and Steve McQueen; his struggles as an Asian-American actor in Hollywood and frustration seeing role after role he auditioned for go to a white actors in eye makeup; his eventual triumph as a leading man; his challenges juggling a sky-rocketing career with his duties as a father and husband; and his shocking end that to this day is still shrouded in mystery.

Polly breaks down the myths surrounding Bruce Lee and argues that, contrary to popular belief, he was an ambitious actor who was obsessed with the martial arts—not a kung-fu guru who just so happened to make a couple of movies. This is an honest, revealing look at an impressive yet imperfect man whose personal story was even more entertaining and inspiring than any fictional role he played onscreen.

You can find my interview with Polly where he got into a more detailed discussion about researching a book like this one here.

 

 

 

The Historical Sociology of Japanese Martial Arts  by Raul Sanchez Garcia ($43 USD Kindle)

 

This is the first long-term analysis of the development of Japanese martial arts, connecting ancient martial traditions with the martial arts practised today. The Historical Sociology of Japanese Martial Arts captures the complexity of the emergence and development of martial traditions within the broader Japanese Civilising Process.

The book traces the structured process in which warriors’ practices became systematised and expanded to the Japanese population and the world. Using the theoretical framework of Norbert Elias’s process-sociology and drawing on rich empirical data, the book also compares the development of combat practices in Japan, England, France and Germany, making a new contribution to our understanding of the socio-cultural dynamics of state formation. Throughout this analysis light is shed onto a gender blind spot, taking into account the neglected role of women in martial arts.

The Historical Sociology of Japanese Martial Arts is important reading for students of Socio-Cultural Perspectives in Sport, Sociology of Physical Activity, Historical Development of Sport in Society, Asian Studies, Sociology and Philosophy of Sport, and Sports History and Culture. It is also a fascinating resource for scholars, researchers and practitioners interested in the historical and socio-cultural aspects of combat sport and martial arts.

Sound interesting?  You can read the first chapter of this book here.

 

 

Embodying Brazil: An ethnography of diasporic capoeira ($ 49.95 USD Paperback) by Sara Delamont, Neil Stephens, Claudio Campos.

The practice of capoeira, the Brazilian dance-fight-game, has grown rapidly in recent years. It has become a popular leisure activity in many cultures, as well as a career for Brazilians in countries across the world including the US, the UK, Canada and Australia. This original ethnographic study draws on the latest research conducted on capoeira in the UK to understand this global phenomenon. It not only presents an in-depth investigation of the martial art, but also provides a wealth of data on masculinities, performativity, embodiment, globalisation and rites of passage.

Centred in cultural sociology, while drawing on anthropology and the sociology of sport and dance, the book explores the experiences of those learning and teaching capoeira at a variety of levels. From beginners’ first encounters with this martial art to the perspectives of more advanced students, it also sheds light on how teachers experience their own re-enculturation as they embody the exotic ‘other’.

Embodying Brazil: An Ethnography of Diasporic Capoeira is fascinating reading for all capoeira enthusiasts, as well as for anyone interested in the sociology of sport, sport and social theory, sport, race and ethnicity, or Latin-American Studies.

 

Still don’t see what you are looking for?  I have heard about this great book on the history of Wing Chun and the Southern Chinese martial arts (now out in paperback, $25 USD)….

 

 

 

 

Training Gear

Five Photos Brand Dit Da Jow ($20 for 7.5 ounces)

You don’t need very much gear to practice the Chinese martial arts.  But that doesn’t mean it isn’t nice to have a couple of things on hand, particularly when you start to get bruised up from partner work or dummy drills.  While researching the history of a prominent family of martial arts practicing pharmacists in Foshan I came across the story of this particular brand of Dit Da Jow.  I should probably dig some of that research out of my notes and turn it into an essay. But ever since then, I have kept a bottle of it around.  You can usually find this brand at your local Chinese pharmacy, or even a good sized grocery story.  Barring that, you can always just order it from Amazon.

 

 

 

Flexzion Kicking Strike Shield ($18 USD)

This style of striking pad that was popularized in Muay Thai training, but I use it all the time in my Wing Chun practice.  Honestly, I can’t think of the (striking) school that couldn’t use a few more pairs of these.  Best of all, the size is always right!  The perfect inexpensive gift for the Sifu in your life.

 

 

The perfect sword/HEMA gear bag ($150 USD)

Having the right gear is good.  But having the perfect bag to haul it all around in is (as they say) priceless.  That is particularly true if the gear you are hauling is heavy, awkwardly shaped, or likely to freak people out if you were just walk down the sidewalk with it on your shoulder. These bags can be pricey at $150.  But after having destroyed a few lower quality, non-purpose built bags over the last year, I am gaining a renewed appreciation for how easy a good gear bag can make life. Particularly when swords and lightsabers are involved.

 

 

Hayabusa T3 Kanpeki 7oz Hybrid Kickboxing MMA Gloves ($129 USD)

Everyone seems to be talking about bringing more competitive style sparring into traditional Chinese martial arts training.  And that means thinking about the right gear.  I like my Hayabusa boxing gloves, but something like this might be great for those who want a little more dexterity for grabs, laups and paks.

 

 

A set of wooden dummy arms and legs ($333 USD, but totally worth it)

And now for some “affordable” luxury.  In the last couple of years a number of my kung fu brothers have bought (or switched to) iron body training dummies. These are a lot cheaper than nicely made wooden dummies, and they can easily be stuck in the corner of room that might not otherwise accommodate a hanging dummy (which I still think is the way to go if you have a chance).  But while the quality of the Jong’s body and base is often great, I have noticed several (and I mean lots) of complaints about broken legs and rough workmanship on the arms.  Lets face it, these are the parts of the dummy that we actually come into contact with the most frequently.  So why not upgrade that part of your Jong to something a little more reliable and nicer to the touch?

 

 

 

 

 

Weapons

Hanwei Practical Tai Chi Sword ($120 USD)

At $120, is this the perfect jian for basic skills training and forms work?  I have had a couple of longtime practitioners make that argument recently, based not just on the price point but the weight of this sword.  Given my continuing exploration of Wudang Jian, I have a feeling that this is one item that might be making its way onto my personal shopping list.

 

 

 

Purpleheart Armory Dadao Trainer ($45.99 USD)

There is no denying that the dadao is hot.  I am seeing lots of interest in this weapon.  The social scientist in me thinks that we need to take a step back and ponder what this all means.  But my more practical side just wants to grab one of these trainers and work on some sword vs. bayonet drills. This particular trainer is available with either a disk or “S” guard.  Also check out Purpleheart’s nylon jian trainers.

 

 

 

Kris Cutlery Wood Training Knives ($25 USD)

Yeah, rubber is always a safer option for partner drills, but these trainers, made of ebony are really beautiful. At $25 I just can’t say no.

 

 

Antique late 19th(early 20th) century Nepalese Kukri ($99 USD)

If you would prefer a sharper (and more historically/ethnographically significant) knife at a decent price point, why not consider an antique Nepalese military kukri. I have been collecting these for years, and have always found it ironic that the originals are so cheap compared to the latter British and Indian copies that were mass produced during the World Wars.  Once you get your kukri be sure to check out this guide and discover your knife’s history.

 

 

Handmade, traditional style, butterfly sword from the Philippines. ($350 USD).

There are lots of high quality butterfly swords out there, but I have been partial to these as their slim construction is much closer to most of the antiques that have survived than the sorts of “chopping” swords which became more popular after the early 20th century. And lets be honest, nothing say’s “Christmas” to the Wing Chun student/instructor in your life more than discovering a set of these in their stocking.

 

 

 

 

 

For the Martial Artist Who Has Everything….

 

I have long believed that many people are attracted to the martial arts as a type of virtual tourism. By practicing these arts we find a way to visit, contemplate and experience aspects of a time or place that we might not otherwise be able to visit.  That is an important point to stress as survey data suggest that increasingly consumers value unique experiences more than the acquisition of objects.  As such, the last section of our holiday list provides a different take on what the martial arts have to offer.

Lets begin with a destination that one can only visit through martial arts training. Have you (or the Star Wars fan in your life) ever wanted to learn to wield an elegant weapon from a more civilized age?  If so, consider joining the Terra Prime Light Armory.  Its a free, open-source, lightsaber academy run by experienced martial artists (mostly Kung Fu/Taijiaqan guys, but you will find some other stuff in there as well).  If there is a brick and mortar club in your area they will be more than happy to point you in the right direction, and if not they offer an extensive database of on-line learning tools with individualized feedback mechanisms.  Best of all, a voyage with the “Learners in Exile Corps” will not cost you a thing as these guys are in it for the love of the game.  Sometimes the best things in life really are free!

 

 

 

No matter what aspect of the martial arts, and their interaction with popular culture, you are interested in, you are likely to find it at Combat Con.  Held annually in Las Vegas (August 1-4, 2019), this event is unique in that it brings together a wide range of armed and unarmed martial arts instructors, while also hosting a variety of tournaments, performances, workshops for writers and game developers, cosplay contests and yes, even a full contact lightsaber tournament ($15 entrance feee).  So if you are a social scientist who studies the martial arts in the modern world, the only question you have to ask yourself is why aren’t you already planning on going?

Its hard to estimate the cost of this one.  Obviously you will need to fly to Vegas in August (which, in all honesty, is not the best time of year to visit this desert oasis).  The public can visit the event for free, but if you want to do all of the workshops, tournaments and events you will probably end up paying in the $200-$300 range.

 

 

Left to Right: Doug Farrer, Scott Phillips, Paul Bowman at the Farewell Dinner of the 2015 Martial Arts Studies Conference in Cardiff.

 

 

For the more academically inclined, why not give the gift of a conference registration to the inaugural North American session of the annual Martial Arts Studies meetings?  These will be held May 23-24, 2019, at Chapman University in sunny California.  Best of all, the registration is free if you email the conference organizers in advance and ask for tickets (click the link for details).

Its not hard to find cheap plane tickets to LA, and this is the premier event of the Martial Arts Studies community.  I can’t say enough about how much I have enjoyed these meetings over the years. The sense of community is really unlike anything I have ever seen at a conference before. An advanced registration would make the perfect gift for either yourself or the erudite warrior/scholar in your life.

 

A still from Come Drink With Me. Classic martial arts cinema at its best.

 

How about visiting a martial arts film festival in a destination city in 2019?  Most major cities host one or more Asian film festivals a year. These are often a great place to see new and classic martial arts films, and if you are lucky you might find a festival dedicated just to classic Kung Fu films.  We are still a little early in the year to have confirmed dates (these events are generally announced a month or two in advance), but New York City is a great destination for these sorts of festivals.  And if you are going to be in Manhattan in June or July, there is an excellent chance you will find something you are interested in at the 2019 Asian Film Festival hosted by the Film Society of Lincoln Center.  But keep an eye out as you can often find smaller film festivals in a city near you!

 

 

Study with Master Li Quan (teaching Emei Style Southern Kung Fu and Wing Chun) in Chengdu, one of the most beautiful cities in China.

This is the part of the list where we dream big.  It goes without saying that China is full of places where you can spend a few months studying the martial art of your choice (including Wing Chun).  I selected this school as Chengdu is on my bucket list of places to stay for a few months, and one of my friends studied with Master Li for years when he lived in the area as a journalist.  This would be a very authentic/rustic experience, rather than the sort of school catering to the “glampers” out there.  And Chengdu has a great martial arts history that needs more exploration in the English language literature.

Prices for extended live-in training start at just under $1000 USD (not including airfare).  Of course the real cost of this this sort of “Kung Fu Pilgrimage” is taking a few months off from work.  But this is the stuff that dreams are made of!

That is it for this year’s Christmas shopping list.  If you have other suggestions for items that might be of interest to the Kung Fu Tea  community tell us in the comments!

 

oOo

Need more gift recommendations?  Why not check out some of the previous lists?

oOo



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2018 Christmas Shopping List: Martial Arts Equipment and Long Reads to Get You Through the Winter Months


Bernard the Kung Fu Elf riding Shotgun with Santa. (Source: Vintage American Postcard, authors personal collection.)

 

I am not going to lie. The annual Christmas list is my favorite post of the year. So welcome to Kung Fu Tea’s seventh annual holiday shopping list!  Not only are we going to find some cool gift ideas, but hopefully this post will inspire you to make time for martial arts practice during the festive season.  Training is a great way to deal with the various stresses that holidays always bring.  And Christmas is the perfect excuse to stock up on that gear that you have been needing all year.

This year’s shopping list is split into four categories: books, training equipment, weapons, and (for the first time) “gifts for the martial artist who has everything”. This last category will focus on experiences rather than objects. I have tried to select items at a variety of price points for each category. Some of the gift ideas are quite reasonable while others are admittedly aspirational. After all, Christmas is a time for dreams, so why not dream big!

Given the emphasis of this blog, many of these ideas pertain to the Chinese martial arts, but I do try to branch out in places. I have also put at least one Wing Chun related item in each category. Nevertheless, with a little work many of these ideas could be adapted to fit the interests of just about any martial artist.

As a disclaimer I should point out that I have no financial relationship with any of the firms listed below (except for the part where I plug my own book). This is simply a list of gift ideas that I thought were interesting. It is not an endorsement or a formal product review. Lastly, I would like to thank my friend Bernard the “Kung Fu Elf” (see above) for helping me to brainstorm this list.

 

 

 

 

Books to Feed You Head

This has been a good year for books. Nowhere is the growth of martial arts studies more evident than in the explosion of new publications.  Things have been so busy this year that I have been forced to restrict myself to new releases. Still, the first item on this list is both reasonably priced and outstanding reading….

 

Martial Arts Studies Reader. Edited by Paul Bowman ($38 USD)

The Martial Arts Studies Reader answers this need, by bringing together pioneers of the field and scholars at its cutting edges to offer authoritative and accessible insights into its key concerns and areas. Each chapter introduces and sets out an approach to and a route through a key issue in a specific area of martial arts studies. Taken together or in isolation, the chapters offer stimulating and exciting insights into this fascinating research area. In this way, The Martial Arts Studies Reader offers the first authoritative field-defining overview of the global and multidisciplinary phenomena of martial arts and martial arts studies.

 

Politics and Identity in Chinese Martial Arts by Lu Zhouxiang ($78 USD HC Routledge)

Chinese martial arts is considered by many to symbolise the strength of the Chinese and their pride in their history, and has long been regarded as an important element of Chinese culture and national identity. Politics and Identity in Chinese Martial Arts comprehensively examines the development of Chinese martial arts in the context of history and politics, and highlights its role in nation building and identity construction over the past two centuries. ?

This book explores how the development of Chinese martial arts was influenced by the ruling regimes’ political and military policies, as well as the social and economic environment. It also discusses the transformation of Chinese martial arts into its modern form as a competitive sport, a sport for all and a performing art, considering the effect of the rapid transformation of Chinese society in the 20th century and the influence of Western sports. The text concludes by examining the current prominence of Chinese martial arts on a global scale and the bright future of the sport as a unique cultural icon and national symbol of China in an era of globalisation.

You can find my review of this book here.  While I am a bit disappointed that the author failed to engage with the recent English language scholarship on the Chinese martial arts, this book is sure to show up in many future bibliographies.

 

 

Now for something a little lighter (err, easier to read…at 500 pages this book is actually quite heavy…)

Bruce Lee: A Life by Matthew Polly (paperback $18 USD)

The most authoritative biography—featuring dozens of rarely seen photographs—of film legend Bruce Lee, who made martial arts a global phenomenon, bridged the divide between Eastern and Western cultures, and smashed long-held stereotypes of Asians and Asian-Americans.

Forty-five years after Bruce Lee’s sudden death at age thirty-two, journalist and bestselling author Matthew Polly has written the definitive account of Lee’s life. It’s also one of the only accounts; incredibly, there has never been an authoritative biography of Lee. Following a decade of research that included conducting more than one hundred interviews with Lee’s family, friends, business associates, and even the actress in whose bed Lee died, Polly has constructed a complex, humane portrait of the icon.

Polly explores Lee’s early years as a child star in Hong Kong cinema; his actor father’s struggles with opium addiction and how that turned Bruce into a troublemaking teenager who was kicked out of high school and eventually sent to America to shape up; his beginnings as a martial arts teacher, eventually becoming personal instructor to movie stars like James Coburn and Steve McQueen; his struggles as an Asian-American actor in Hollywood and frustration seeing role after role he auditioned for go to a white actors in eye makeup; his eventual triumph as a leading man; his challenges juggling a sky-rocketing career with his duties as a father and husband; and his shocking end that to this day is still shrouded in mystery.

Polly breaks down the myths surrounding Bruce Lee and argues that, contrary to popular belief, he was an ambitious actor who was obsessed with the martial arts—not a kung-fu guru who just so happened to make a couple of movies. This is an honest, revealing look at an impressive yet imperfect man whose personal story was even more entertaining and inspiring than any fictional role he played onscreen.

You can find my interview with Polly where he got into a more detailed discussion about researching a book like this one here.

 

 

 

The Historical Sociology of Japanese Martial Arts  by Raul Sanchez Garcia ($43 USD Kindle)

 

This is the first long-term analysis of the development of Japanese martial arts, connecting ancient martial traditions with the martial arts practised today. The Historical Sociology of Japanese Martial Arts captures the complexity of the emergence and development of martial traditions within the broader Japanese Civilising Process.

The book traces the structured process in which warriors’ practices became systematised and expanded to the Japanese population and the world. Using the theoretical framework of Norbert Elias’s process-sociology and drawing on rich empirical data, the book also compares the development of combat practices in Japan, England, France and Germany, making a new contribution to our understanding of the socio-cultural dynamics of state formation. Throughout this analysis light is shed onto a gender blind spot, taking into account the neglected role of women in martial arts.

The Historical Sociology of Japanese Martial Arts is important reading for students of Socio-Cultural Perspectives in Sport, Sociology of Physical Activity, Historical Development of Sport in Society, Asian Studies, Sociology and Philosophy of Sport, and Sports History and Culture. It is also a fascinating resource for scholars, researchers and practitioners interested in the historical and socio-cultural aspects of combat sport and martial arts.

Sound interesting?  You can read the first chapter of this book here.

 

 

Embodying Brazil: An ethnography of diasporic capoeira ($ 49.95 USD Paperback) by Sara Delamont, Neil Stephens, Claudio Campos.

The practice of capoeira, the Brazilian dance-fight-game, has grown rapidly in recent years. It has become a popular leisure activity in many cultures, as well as a career for Brazilians in countries across the world including the US, the UK, Canada and Australia. This original ethnographic study draws on the latest research conducted on capoeira in the UK to understand this global phenomenon. It not only presents an in-depth investigation of the martial art, but also provides a wealth of data on masculinities, performativity, embodiment, globalisation and rites of passage.

Centred in cultural sociology, while drawing on anthropology and the sociology of sport and dance, the book explores the experiences of those learning and teaching capoeira at a variety of levels. From beginners’ first encounters with this martial art to the perspectives of more advanced students, it also sheds light on how teachers experience their own re-enculturation as they embody the exotic ‘other’.

Embodying Brazil: An Ethnography of Diasporic Capoeira is fascinating reading for all capoeira enthusiasts, as well as for anyone interested in the sociology of sport, sport and social theory, sport, race and ethnicity, or Latin-American Studies.

 

Still don’t see what you are looking for?  I have heard about this great book on the history of Wing Chun and the Southern Chinese martial arts (now out in paperback, $25 USD)….

 

 

 

 

Training Gear

Five Photos Brand Dit Da Jow ($20 for 7.5 ounces)

You don’t need very much gear to practice the Chinese martial arts.  But that doesn’t mean it isn’t nice to have a couple of things on hand, particularly when you start to get bruised up from partner work or dummy drills.  While researching the history of a prominent family of martial arts practicing pharmacists in Foshan I came across the story of this particular brand of Dit Da Jow.  I should probably dig some of that research out of my notes and turn it into an essay. But ever since then, I have kept a bottle of it around.  You can usually find this brand at your local Chinese pharmacy, or even a good sized grocery story.  Barring that, you can always just order it from Amazon.

 

 

 

Flexzion Kicking Strike Shield ($18 USD)

This style of striking pad that was popularized in Muay Thai training, but I use it all the time in my Wing Chun practice.  Honestly, I can’t think of the (striking) school that couldn’t use a few more pairs of these.  Best of all, the size is always right!  The perfect inexpensive gift for the Sifu in your life.

 

 

The perfect sword/HEMA gear bag ($150 USD)

Having the right gear is good.  But having the perfect bag to haul it all around in is (as they say) priceless.  That is particularly true if the gear you are hauling is heavy, awkwardly shaped, or likely to freak people out if you were just walk down the sidewalk with it on your shoulder. These bags can be pricey at $150.  But after having destroyed a few lower quality, non-purpose built bags over the last year, I am gaining a renewed appreciation for how easy a good gear bag can make life. Particularly when swords and lightsabers are involved.

 

 

Hayabusa T3 Kanpeki 7oz Hybrid Kickboxing MMA Gloves ($129 USD)

Everyone seems to be talking about bringing more competitive style sparring into traditional Chinese martial arts training.  And that means thinking about the right gear.  I like my Hayabusa boxing gloves, but something like this might be great for those who want a little more dexterity for grabs, laups and paks.

 

 

A set of wooden dummy arms and legs ($333 USD, but totally worth it)

And now for some “affordable” luxury.  In the last couple of years a number of my kung fu brothers have bought (or switched to) iron body training dummies. These are a lot cheaper than nicely made wooden dummies, and they can easily be stuck in the corner of room that might not otherwise accommodate a hanging dummy (which I still think is the way to go if you have a chance).  But while the quality of the Jong’s body and base is often great, I have noticed several (and I mean lots) of complaints about broken legs and rough workmanship on the arms.  Lets face it, these are the parts of the dummy that we actually come into contact with the most frequently.  So why not upgrade that part of your Jong to something a little more reliable and nicer to the touch?

 

 

 

 

 

Weapons

Hanwei Practical Tai Chi Sword ($120 USD)

At $120, is this the perfect jian for basic skills training and forms work?  I have had a couple of longtime practitioners make that argument recently, based not just on the price point but the weight of this sword.  Given my continuing exploration of Wudang Jian, I have a feeling that this is one item that might be making its way onto my personal shopping list.

 

 

 

Purpleheart Armory Dadao Trainer ($45.99 USD)

There is no denying that the dadao is hot.  I am seeing lots of interest in this weapon.  The social scientist in me thinks that we need to take a step back and ponder what this all means.  But my more practical side just wants to grab one of these trainers and work on some sword vs. bayonet drills. This particular trainer is available with either a disk or “S” guard.  Also check out Purpleheart’s nylon jian trainers.

 

 

 

Kris Cutlery Wood Training Knives ($25 USD)

Yeah, rubber is always a safer option for partner drills, but these trainers, made of ebony are really beautiful. At $25 I just can’t say no.

 

 

Antique late 19th(early 20th) century Nepalese Kukri ($99 USD)

If you would prefer a sharper (and more historically/ethnographically significant) knife at a decent price point, why not consider an antique Nepalese military kukri. I have been collecting these for years, and have always found it ironic that the originals are so cheap compared to the latter British and Indian copies that were mass produced during the World Wars.  Once you get your kukri be sure to check out this guide and discover your knife’s history.

 

 

Handmade, traditional style, butterfly sword from the Philippines. ($350 USD).

There are lots of high quality butterfly swords out there, but I have been partial to these as their slim construction is much closer to most of the antiques that have survived than the sorts of “chopping” swords which became more popular after the early 20th century. And lets be honest, nothing say’s “Christmas” to the Wing Chun student/instructor in your life more than discovering a set of these in their stocking.

 

 

 

 

 

For the Martial Artist Who Has Everything….

 

I have long believed that many people are attracted to the martial arts as a type of virtual tourism. By practicing these arts we find a way to visit, contemplate and experience aspects of a time or place that we might not otherwise be able to visit.  That is an important point to stress as survey data suggest that increasingly consumers value unique experiences more than the acquisition of objects.  As such, the last section of our holiday list provides a different take on what the martial arts have to offer.

Lets begin with a destination that one can only visit through martial arts training. Have you (or the Star Wars fan in your life) ever wanted to learn to wield an elegant weapon from a more civilized age?  If so, consider joining the Terra Prime Light Armory.  Its a free, open-source, lightsaber academy run by experienced martial artists (mostly Kung Fu/Taijiaqan guys, but you will find some other stuff in there as well).  If there is a brick and mortar club in your area they will be more than happy to point you in the right direction, and if not they offer an extensive database of on-line learning tools with individualized feedback mechanisms.  Best of all, a voyage with the “Learners in Exile Corps” will not cost you a thing as these guys are in it for the love of the game.  Sometimes the best things in life really are free!

 

 

 

No matter what aspect of the martial arts, and their interaction with popular culture, you are interested in, you are likely to find it at Combat Con.  Held annually in Las Vegas (August 1-4, 2019), this event is unique in that it brings together a wide range of armed and unarmed martial arts instructors, while also hosting a variety of tournaments, performances, workshops for writers and game developers, cosplay contests and yes, even a full contact lightsaber tournament ($15 entrance feee).  So if you are a social scientist who studies the martial arts in the modern world, the only question you have to ask yourself is why aren’t you already planning on going?

Its hard to estimate the cost of this one.  Obviously you will need to fly to Vegas in August (which, in all honesty, is not the best time of year to visit this desert oasis).  The public can visit the event for free, but if you want to do all of the workshops, tournaments and events you will probably end up paying in the $200-$300 range.

 

 

Left to Right: Doug Farrer, Scott Phillips, Paul Bowman at the Farewell Dinner of the 2015 Martial Arts Studies Conference in Cardiff.

 

 

For the more academically inclined, why not give the gift of a conference registration to the inaugural North American session of the annual Martial Arts Studies meetings?  These will be held May 23-24, 2019, at Chapman University in sunny California.  Best of all, the registration is free if you email the conference organizers in advance and ask for tickets (click the link for details).

Its not hard to find cheap plane tickets to LA, and this is the premier event of the Martial Arts Studies community.  I can’t say enough about how much I have enjoyed these meetings over the years. The sense of community is really unlike anything I have ever seen at a conference before. An advanced registration would make the perfect gift for either yourself or the erudite warrior/scholar in your life.

 

A still from Come Drink With Me. Classic martial arts cinema at its best.

 

How about visiting a martial arts film festival in a destination city in 2019?  Most major cities host one or more Asian film festivals a year. These are often a great place to see new and classic martial arts films, and if you are lucky you might find a festival dedicated just to classic Kung Fu films.  We are still a little early in the year to have confirmed dates (these events are generally announced a month or two in advance), but New York City is a great destination for these sorts of festivals.  And if you are going to be in Manhattan in June or July, there is an excellent chance you will find something you are interested in at the 2019 Asian Film Festival hosted by the Film Society of Lincoln Center.  But keep an eye out as you can often find smaller film festivals in a city near you!

 

 

Study with Master Li Quan (teaching Emei Style Southern Kung Fu and Wing Chun) in Chengdu, one of the most beautiful cities in China.

This is the part of the list where we dream big.  It goes without saying that China is full of places where you can spend a few months studying the martial art of your choice (including Wing Chun).  I selected this school as Chengdu is on my bucket list of places to stay for a few months, and one of my friends studied with Master Li for years when he lived in the area as a journalist.  This would be a very authentic/rustic experience, rather than the sort of school catering to the “glampers” out there.  And Chengdu has a great martial arts history that needs more exploration in the English language literature.

Prices for extended live-in training start at just under $1000 USD (not including airfare).  Of course the real cost of this this sort of “Kung Fu Pilgrimage” is taking a few months off from work.  But this is the stuff that dreams are made of!

That is it for this year’s Christmas shopping list.  If you have other suggestions for items that might be of interest to the Kung Fu Tea  community tell us in the comments!

 

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Need more gift recommendations?  Why not check out some of the previous lists?

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The Modern Roots of ‘Ancient’ Martial Arts


I have just arrived back in Ithaca after spending Sunday driving rather than typing.  Still, I have two items that I want to share. The first is a short interview I did with the Rochester Review after The Creation of Wing Chun was released by SUNY Press.  I thought it came out rather well, so enjoy!

Second, have you submitted your proposal for the upcoming Martial Arts Studies meetings in California?  If not, time is running out fast.  Lets get those proposals sent in before Friday.  Abstracts are easy to write, all you need is 200 words and a dream!

Click here for all of the details

 

 

Click here for a link to the web version (hopefully easier to read).

 



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Bruce Lee: Memory, Philosophy and the Tao of Gung Fu


Bruce Lee with his favorite onscreen weapon.
Bruce Lee with his favorite onscreen weapon.

 

***I am off visiting family over the holiday weekend, so we are headed back to the archives. Since our (American) readers have just celebrated Thanksgiving, I though it would be appropriate to revisit an essay that asks what we should be grateful for as martial artists and students of martial arts studies.  Spoiler alert, the answer is Bruce Lee.***


Introduction: Bruce Lee at 75

Yesterday I celebrated Thanksgiving with my family. As is customary on this day of remembrance I took a few moments to think about the last year and review the many things that I had to be grateful for. The year has been an eventful one.

In the professional realm I had a book published on the social history of the southern Chinese martial arts. I also delivered a keynote address at the first annual martial arts studies conference in the UK and, just recently, saw the publication of the first issue of our new journal on that same topic. I have had opportunities to meet and share my interests with all sorts of fascinating people from all over the world, and have started a number of other projects that should be bearing fruit months and years down the road. As the old Chinese saying goes, a wise man thinks of the source of the water that he drinks, and as I did so it occurred to me that I owe a profound debt of gratitude to Bruce Lee.

Today is the 75th anniversary of Lee’s birth in San Francisco. Born in California and raised in Hong Kong before returning to the West Coast at the end of the 1950s, Lee had a profound effect on the worlds of film, popular culture and the martial arts. While many claims about his career are exaggerated (one should treat with a certain degree of suspicion any assertion that someone was the “first” to do anything) there can be no doubt as to his ultimate impact on the public perception of the martial arts in America, as well as their rapid spread and popularization in the post-1970 era.

For anyone wondering what the point of Kung Fu was, Lee had a very specific answer. It combined a laser like focus on the problems of practical self-defense with a need to find personal and philosophical meaning in practice.

Like others who came before him, Lee argued that the martial arts were ultimately a means of self-creation. Yet drawing on the counter-cultural currents of the time he freed this discourse from the ideological chains that had linked such quests with ethno-nationalist projects for much of the 20th century. He instead placed the individual student at the center of the process. For Lee the martial arts went beyond the normal paradigms of personal security and self improvement and became a means of self actualization.

His own image on the silver screen promised that through these disciplines and their philosophies one could craft a “new self,” one that was fully fit for the challenges of an age of global competition and strife. It was promised that this “new self” would grow out of the process of self expression which the martial arts facilitated. Of course one had to first understand the true nature of these systems to free oneself from their stultifying structures. Individuals might agree or disagree (sometimes violently) with Lee’s assertions, but its hard to underestimate the impact that he had on the ways in which the martial arts are discussed in the West today.

Does this mean that in the absence of Bruce Lee I would not have written my book, or that we would not currently be reading a blog about martial arts studies? Ultimately those sorts of counterfactuals are impossible to answer, and they may cause more confusion than light. Japanese teachers had been promoting their arts in the West since the dawn of the 20th century. Sophia Delza knew nothing of Bruce Lee when she introduced Wu style Taijiquan to New York City. And the Korean government’s heavy support and promotion of Taekwondo had more to do with their own post-colonial struggles with the memory of the Japanese occupation than anything that came out of China.

I suspect that even in a world in which Lee had never existed the martial arts would still have found a respectable foothold in the West. A demand for these systems existed as part of larger cultural trends following WWII, Korea and the Vietnam War. Lee’s genius lay in his ability to understand and speak powerfully to the historical moment that existed.

Following his own advice he bent with the flow of history rather than fighting against it. Certainly some things would remain the same. That seems to follow from the structural nature of 20th century modernization and globalization. Ultimately our theories about the history of the martial arts are very much stories about these two forces (among others).

Yet would I be a student of Wing Chun, a somewhat obscure fighting system from the Pearl River delta region, without Bruce Lee’s rise to fame? Would I have had an opportunity to convince a university press to publish a book whose central historical case was built around a detailed, multi-chapter, biography of Ip Man, Bruce Lee’s teacher? And what of those individuals who study the martial arts? Would this body be as diverse (and sometimes radical) in the absence of Lee’s striking ability to speak to African and Latin-American martial artists (as well as many women and Asians) in the volatile 1970s?

Anthropological studies of the martial arts and social marginality remind us that people who are the most attracted to messages of resistance and individual empowerment are precisely those who have also been disempowered by the dominant social systems of the day. While the globalization of the East Asian martial arts would have come in one guise or another, its clear that I do have a lot to be grateful for when thinking about Lee’s contributions as a film maker, teacher and popularizer of the Chinese martial arts.

Birthdays are also important times for looking to the future. There can be no doubt that Lee’s image has retained a remarkable grip on the public imagination. Decades after his death he still frequently appears on magazine covers and in video games. Books bearing his name (either as an author or in their title) are found in every bookstore with a martial arts section. And Lee’s impact on the realm of martial art films can still be detected with ease. Countless allusions to his more iconic fight sequences can be seen on both the big and small screen. Ninjas may come and go, but even in the age of MMA it seems that Bruce will always have a home on the cover of Black Beltmagazine.

Still, one wonders if we are not starting to see changes in some aspects of how Lee is remembered and discussed. AMC recently aired a new series titled “Into the Badlands.” I have been following the advertising efforts around this project with great interest. The show’s creators have prided themselves in their extensive use of the martial arts. In fact, much of their advertising copy focuses on the fact that they are bringing “real” martial arts to the American small screen for the first time. Of course to make this claim with a straight face it is first necessary to seriously downplay, explain away or “forget” quite a bit of equally revolutionary TV that has come before, from Bruce Lee in the Green Hornet to Chuck Norris in Walker Texas Ranger.

A lot of discussion has also focused on Daniel Wu, the lead actor of this project. The show’s promoters have discussed the supposedly revolutionary nature of his role and the many ways in which he is changing the portrayal of Asian males in the entertainment industry. Yet if one drills down into this rhetoric very far what quickly becomes apparent is that Wu is seen as revolutionary in many of the exact same ways that Lee was seen as exceptional in his own era. The one real difference that stands out is that Wu’s character has the potential to develop a truly romantic story-line, where as this was something that was usually not seen with Lee’s films.

While the blame for this is often put on Hollywood (and there is no doubt that much of that is justified) one must also remember that Lee’s heroes came out of a genera of Cantonese storytelling and filmmaking in which romantic and martial leads tended to be somewhat segregated for important cultural reasons (see Avron Bortez for an extensive discussion of the construction of masculinity in the world of Kung Fu). While I applaud Wu for being able to pursue the sorts of roles that he finds interesting, I worry that his revolution is simultaneously erasing some of the traditional conventions of Chinese film and literature rather than challenging Western audiences with something unfamiliar. This is essentially the same discussion of hybrid borrowing vs. hegemony that seems to emerge in so many discussions of the globalization of popular culture. But whatever the ultimate resolution to this debate, it seems that there is an effort on the part of certain advertisers to retool and downplay Bruce Lee’s achievements in an effort to create a new moment of “revolution” in the current era.

Readers interested in looking at this specific discussion can see a number of the links that were included both in the most recent news update and on the Facebook group (in particular the Slate article titled “Daniel Wu is the Asian Action Hero that Bruce Lee Should have Been.”) Actually resolving the specific questions raised by all of this might take some time and far exceeds the space available in this post. Yet reviewing it led me to ask whether Bruce Lee is still the revolutionary figure that he once was. In our current moment do we still need Bruce Lee and his message of radical self-creation through the martial arts? Can he still act as a force for the popularization and spread of these fighting systems? Or is he becoming too culturally remote from modern students, readers and audiences? Is it likely that the public will remember his 100th birthday with the same enthusiasm that is greeting his 75th?

 

Ip Man and his best known student, Bruce Lee.
Ip Man and his best known student, Bruce Lee.

 

Bruce Lee and the Tao of Gung Fu

As I thought about these questions over the last couple of days I found myself turning to Lee’s unpublished “manuscript” The Tao of Gung Fu. In some respects this may seem like an odd choice. This book was never published in Lee’s lifetime, and as such most of this material had a rather limited impact on the way that people discussed either him or the martial arts in the 1970s and 1980s.

Nor is it always clear to me the degree to which this collection of chapters can be considered a true “book.” From the editor’s (John Little) description it appears that Lee abandoned the project before a complete manuscript was pulled together. A number of the early chapters were in place (they even make internal references to each other) but after that there may only have been an outline. This has been flushed out with notes, drawings and other pieces that Lee wrote over the years. Some pieces are in a more finished state than others, but none of it was ever intended to be made public during Lee’s life. In fact, it must be remembered that he made the rather conscious decision to walk away from the project. As such we can only speculate as to what would have made it into the final version had Bruce decided to actually pursue publication.

One of the things that bothers me about this particular book, as it was posthumously published by Tuttle and the Lee estate, is that it attempts to seamlessly weave this mass of material together into a coherent whole rather than letting the individual pieces, written over a range of years, stand on their own. Nor does it attempt to label what the original documentary sources of the various “chapters” actually were and how they fit into the larger body of Lee’s papers.

Obviously this is an annoyance for other historians working on Lee. And it is especially problematic when one realizes that a number of these essays were originally composed as papers for Lee’s classes at the University of Washington. While clearly bright and interested in philosophy (as well as its application to the martial arts) Lee is the sort of student who likely gave his teachers heart burn. As multiple other scholars (including John Little and James Bishop) have pointed out, Lee was guilty of plagiarizing a number of passages and key ideas throughout these essays.

In a few cases he simply borrowed text while dropping the quotes and footnotes, while in others he followed his sources much too closely (a problem known as “patchwriting”). In a number of other cases he appropriates ideas or insights without proper citation, or plays fast and loose with his sources. For a student of philosophy a surprising number of very detailed arguments are simply attributed to “Taoism” with no further support.

Worst of all, some of Lee’s best known personal stories, such as his exchange with his teacher Ip Man about the problem of relaxation, turn out to have been lifted from other sources (in that particular case the important popularizer of Zen, Allen Watts who had a striking similar exchange with his Judo teacher). James Bishop seems to be the best source currently available on the extent of Lee’s plagiarism and the sources that he was actually drawing on. Of course Lee never intended that these essays be published, let alone to be printed on t-shirts.

Given this list of problems and cautions, one might wonder why I would even discuss such a book. Simply put, the Tao of Gung Fu is a critical work not because the material in it is in any way original, but because it does a great job of clarifying the issues that were being discussed among a certain type of Chinese martial artist at a specific moment in time, and the sorts of sources that they had available to them (both in terms of technical manuals, but also cultural and philosophical resources) to make sense of all of it. While fans might be crushed by some of the instances of Lee’s patchwriting and plagiarism (which varied from unintentional to egregious) the transparent nature of these problems is actually a great blessing to cultural historians and students of martial arts studies.

Lee often starts by outlining questions that a wide variety of readers in his era would have found interesting, and with only a few minutes of googling you can figure out exactly what resources a young, somewhat educated martial artist would have had access to in both the Chinese and English language literatures. In short, for anyone interested in the specific steps by which the Chinese martial arts were culturally appropriated by the West, this book is a remarkable resource.

If you want to better acquaint yourself with the sources of Lee’s philosophy on the martial arts, this is the book that I would recommend. And for Wing Chun students it has the additional bonus of providing critical insight into how (at least some) individuals were discussing that system during the late 1950s and 1960s.

What then is the ultimate root of Lee’s philosophy of the martial arts? What ideas did he turn to in order to both make sense of these fighting traditions and to provide them with increased social meaning (and status) against the backdrop of Chinese culture and thought?

The Tao of Gung Fu provides an embarrassment of riches on these sorts of questions. Students of Wing Chun will likely find Lee’s discussions of Chi Sao (some of which is quite philosophical) to be the most interesting. And readers of history will no doubt want to pay close attention to Lee’s understanding of the subject as discussed in the book’s closing chapters.

Yet perhaps one of the most important themes in Lee’s thinking is set down in the very first chapter before being expanded upon throughout the rest of the manuscript. Here we see Lee outlining a three step process (one that he attributes to Daoism) in which something progresses from 1) the “primitive” stage 2) the stage of “art” 3) the stage of “artlessness.”

Most often this progression is applied to the martial arts themselves. Lee sees in this pattern the meta-history of the Chinese martial arts as a whole. They progressed from a simple, but natural, system to a more sophisticated but stultifying understanding. Finally, after years of hard work Chinese martial artists practiced, experimented and realized what non-essential material could be stripped away, leaving a set of systems what was both sophisticated but once again natural in its execution.

In other places Lee appears to apply this same process to the life history of individual styles. It can also be viewed as the stages that any given martial artist must progress through. In fact, Lee’s iconic “Liberate Yourself from Classical Karate” article is premised on this idea, as well as Lee’s contention that most Western martial artists at the time were stuck in stage two.

Yet Lee’s use of this basic framework extended far beyond the martial arts. At times he seems to have seen it as a more general lens by which we could examine the struggle of humans with both the natural and social worlds. Note for instance that Lee attempts to explain this teleology to his readers by using it as an explanation of the evolution of Chinese grammar between the classical and modern periods. And grasping its logic seems to be a precondition for the introduction of his later discussion of the nature of Yin and Yang in both the martial arts and Asian philosophy.

Given the centrality of this idea to Lee’s thought, it might be useful to ask where it originates. Lee himself claims that the idea is indigenous to Daoism and, at other points, Zen. This later claim may be bolstered by the observation of some Japanese stylists that their own systems suggest a similar progressive understanding of katas (or forms) in three progressive stages.

At the same time it must be remembered that Lee was a philosophy student when much of this material was written, and the resonances with some of the western thinkers he would have been introduced to is noteworthy. The system Lee is proposing seems to be somewhat in debt to Hegel and his progression from “thesis,” to “anti-thesis” and ultimately “synthesis.” We have already seen that Lee was very familiar with the works of Allen Watts, and its possible that this idea may have found its genesis in his writings. Indeed, this might be why Lee sometimes claims that he was outlining a “Zen” theory of progress.

While I suspect that this element of Lee’s thought reflects his study of Western writers and sources, once established it is the sort of thing that you can begin to see everywhere. We know, for instance, that Lee was influenced by the ideas of the mystic and writer Krishnamurti. While I have yet to find an exact statement of this idea in his writings, once it has been established in your mind it’s the sort of thing that will find easy parallels and support in some of Krishnamurti’s statements. Much the same goes for the Dao De Jing. I suspect that this theory of “becoming” struck Lee with such force, and became a cornerstone of his thought in this period, precisely because it seemed to find support in so many sources. The ease with which both Eastern and Western (and possibly even Marxist) sources could be used to illustrate aspects of this theory must have made it seem both universal and self-evident.

I suspect that this idea was also critical to Lee because while it facilitated a rejection of stultifying forms, it also argued that these things could only be overcome through study, experimentation and exhaustive practice. When we look at Lee’s workouts in this period (also provided by John Little) we see that Lee was drilling himself in basic techniques at the same time that he was advocating empirical verification and freedom from pointless tradition. There has always appeared to be a fundamental tension here, between what is necessary to learn a technique, and the desire to transcend it in the search of something more natural or personal. This three step teleology spoke directly to that dilemma, and claimed that the way forward was not a return to a primitive state that rejected scientific advances, but rather through a long and arduous process of additional practice, refinement and (most importantly) experimentation.

Bruce Lee sketching on the set for Game of Death. Photograph: Bruce Lee Estate. Source: The Guardian.
Bruce Lee sketching on the set for Game of Death. Photograph: Bruce Lee Estate. Source: The Guardian.

 

Conclusion: Walking On

While interesting on a technical level, its also important to think about the social implications of all of this. The claim that the only true knowledge which is possible is self-knowledge, gained through extensive practice and experimentation, is most likely to be attractive to individuals who feel themselves to be alienated from other sources of social power or meaning. Indeed, the basic ideas about self-actualization that Lee draws on have their origins in China’s martial arts sub-cultures which often acted as an alternate means of self-creation for marginal individuals within Chinese society.

As I have argued at length elsewhere, this would have been the context in which Lee first saw the martial arts being taught in Ip Man’s school to a generation of often angry, surprisingly alienated, young men in the Hong Kong of the 1950s. Lee’s contribution was to take this basic pattern and to combine it with the philosophical and counterculture currents of his own day in such a way that westerners could access this same technology of self-creation.

The 1970s, when the Chinese martial arts first exploded into popular consciousness, was a volatile decade. Globalization in trade markets was causing economic pain and increased income inequality at home at the same time that some western nations faced both security challenges and open conflict abroad. Nor did the gains of the civil rights movement in the US ensure the spread of racial harmony. Everywhere one looked traditional social institutions seemed to be under attack and society was struggling to produce new ways of understanding and coping with these challenges. Given these structural factors, it is not surprising that Lee’s onscreen presence and martial arts philosophy (to the extent that it was known at the time) had a profound effect on a generation of seekers looking for a new set of tools in their quest for self-production.

In many respects we seem to be entering a similar era. Clearly the situation today is not identical. The Cold War is gone, and an information and service based economy has replaced the manufacturing one (at least in the West). Yet many of the more fundamental concerns remain the same. Economic insecurity, militarism abroad and social conflict at home are once again challenging basic notions of what our nations stand for. Levels of public trust in a wide range of institutions has reached an all time low, and social organizations that once supported vibrant communities in past eras are struggling to survive.

Indeed, many of these factors are directly challenging the economic health and social relevance of the traditional martial arts today. Yet where large schools might falter one wonder’s if we are not seeing a renewed opportunity for the expansion of Lee’s ethos of individual struggle, experimentation and practice. If nothing else the recent discussion of Daniel Wu by the advertisers at AMC could be seen as evidence that there is a hunger for the renewal (and expansion) of the sort of revolution that Lee originally introduced to the West in the 1970s.

As the needs of students and audiences change I fully expect that the ways in which we see Bruce Lee will continue to evolve. That is the sign of a healthy discourse, and it suggests that Lee might be just as important for understanding the current situation within the martial arts community as its mid-twentieth century history. Given the cultural moment that we now find ourselves in, Lee’s promise of self-creation and his basic philosophy seem more important than ever. And as long as his achievements continue to be the yardstick by which each new “revolution” in the martial arts is measured, it seems likely that the memory of the Little Dragon will indeed live to see its 100th Birthday.

 

oOo

If you enjoyed this post you might also want to read: Two Encounters with Bruce Lee: Finding Reality in the Life of the Little Dragon

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