Hawkins Cheung and the Making of Modern Wing Chun History


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



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


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

 

Introduction

Its been over a month since our last news update, which means that there is no better time to get caught up on recent events! For new readers, this is a semi-regular feature here at Kung Fu Tea in which we review media stories that mention or affect the traditional fighting arts.  In addition to discussing important events, this column also considers how the Asian hand combat systems are portrayed in the mainstream media.

While we try to summarize the major stories over the last month, there is always a chance that we may have missed something.  If you are aware of an important news event relating to the TCMA, drop a link in the comments section below.  If you know of a developing story that should be covered in the future feel free to send me an email.

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

 

 

News From All Over

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

 

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here is the money quote:

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

Martial Arts Studies

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

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

 

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

Chinese tea set. Source: Wikimedia.

 

Kung Fu Tea on Facebook

A lot has happened on the Kung Fu Tea Facebook group over the last month.  We discussed a set of antique butterfly swords, reviewed important martial arts manuals and learned that bodily techniques from the traditional Japanese martial arts could help us in daily life. Joining the Facebook group is also a great way of keeping up with everything that is happening here at Kung Fu Tea.

If its been a while since your last visit, head on over and see what you have been missing!

 

 

 



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Individualism, Art and Craft: Reading Bruce Lee by the Numbers


 

 

 

Interpreting Bruce Lee

We may debate lists of the 20th century’s most influential martial artists,* but when it comes to written texts, there is simply no question.  “Liberate Yourself from Classical Karate,”  Bruce Lee’s 1971 manifesto, first appearing in the September issue of Black Belt magazine, has been reprinted, read, criticized and commented upon more than any other English language work.  Like many aspects of Lee’s legacy, it has generated a fair degree of controversy.  But what interests me the most is the scope and character of its audience.

One might suppose that Lee’s essay would have been read primarily by the Karate students that the title hailed, or perhaps by the generations of Kung Fu students who have come to idolize him.  And it is entirely understandable that this text has assumed an important place within the Jeet Kune Do community.  Yet its title notwithstanding, Lee never intended this piece as a narrow argument.  Nor, when we get right down to it, was Lee actually trying to convince anyone to quite Karate in favor of another style.  Such nationalist or partisan concerns were a feature of the earlier phase of his career. By 1971 Lee was concerned with more fundamental issues.

Yet all of these statements are really my own personal readings, and as such they open the door to questions of interpretation. What are the most valid ways to read Lee’s famous essay? And what sorts of interpretations might be unsupportable, what Umberto Eco called “overinterpretations” (See “Interpretation and Overinterpretation: World, History, Texts” (Cambridge University 1990). I have it on good authority that two of my friends are currently preparing a debate on this text, and what it suggests about the validity of various theories of interpretation, which will appear in a future issue of Martial Arts Studies.

With that on the horizon, I am hesitant to venture too far into the same territory.  Yet if he were here, Umberto Eco’s would probably point out that a close reading reveals that Lee seems to have had some well-developed thoughts on how his essay should be read, and what sorts of interpretations of this text (and the Jeet Kune Do project more generally), might be considered valid.  Lee begins his argument with the well known story of the Zen master overflowing a cup of tea precisely to head off responses to his work that might be classified as “arguments from authority.”  Indeed, in the very next paragraph he tells his readers that he has structured his essay like the traditional martial arts classes that they are all so familiar with. First the mental limbering up must happen so that one’s received bodily (or mental) habits can be set aside.  Only then is it possible to see events as they actually are, without resorting to the crutch of style (or perhaps theory) to tell you what you are perceiving.

As a social scientist I am very suspicious of those who claim to be able to put “theory” aside and to simply see a situation for what it really is. As one of my old instructors colorfully declared, no such thing is possibly.  “Theory is hardwired into our eyeballs.”  It is fundamental to how our brains make sense of raw stimulus. We all have so many layers of mental habit, training and predisposition that the notion of setting it aside is fundamentally misguided.  Much the same could be said of our bodily predispositions.  Lee is correct in that one can set aside style.  But the more basic structures that Marcel Mauss called “techniques of the body”, or Bourdieu’s socio-economically defined (and defining) “habitus,” are not things that can ever really be set aside. Seeing the world with no filter at all, dealing with pure objective reality, is not possible, no matter how much enthusiasm Lee generates for the project.

On a personal level I suspect that while we all strive (and we should strive) to empty our cups, the best we can actually do is to try and be aware of the unique perspectives that each of us bring to an event. For instance, when Lee composed the arguments and images that make up this essay, it was with the intention of constructing what Eco called a “model reader”, someone who would become sympathetic to the arguments that he was trying to make. This was not necessarily a reader who would quit his karate class and put on a JKD shirt (though that might happen).  Again, Lee was pretty explicit about his aims.  He wasn’t trying to make America’s martial artists more like him in a technical sense.  Rather, it was enough if they simply began to “leave behind the burdens of pre-conceived opinions and conclusions,” and base their training strategies on personal observations of what actually happened rather than someone else’s notions of what should happen.  In essence, Lee was not so much proposing that America’s martial artists change styles (something that by definition could only be a pointless, lateral, move). Rather, he wanted them to begin to think seriously about how exactly they knew what they knew.  He wanted them to change epistemologies.

We can say this much with confidence. Yet knowing everything that Lee wanted, or intended, as an author is tricky.  This was not a long essay, and while key points can be teased out (e.g., a surprising degree of faith in the individual and a notable suspicion of all sources of social authority), many lines in the essay remain open to interpretation.  It is the sort of text that rewards a very close, sentence by sentence, reading. Even then, all we can really know is the intention of this essay, a linguistic artifact created at a specific moment in 1971.  It is interesting to speculate as to what a much younger Lee would have made of this text.  And by the end of his life in 1973 his thoughts on the value of Jeet Kune Do seem to have evolved rather dramatically.  While we might fruitfully debate the interpretation of Lee’s text, the interpretation of its author remains a much more difficult task.

Still, Lee attempted to make it clear that certain interpretations of his text were out of bounds. It is that authorial strategy that actually brings Eco’s approach to mind as possible interpretive strategy. He notes that a proper reading would be a humanist one.  For Lee the martial arts are properly a matter of individual human activity rather than the exclusive property of nations or groups.  He notes that his essay should not be seen as a polemic by a Chinese martial artist against the Japanese bushido.  Nor should he be read as proposing a new style or system of martial training.  It also seems clear that Lee himself is the subject of the extended metaphor on page 25.  It is the author himself who in the past “discovered some partial truth” and “resisted the temptation to organize” it.  The whole story is directed towards Lee’s own students who in their enthusiasm to wrench meaning from one part of Lee’s text (or bodily practice) might fall prey to Eco’s process of “overinterpretation.”

All of this is only my interpretation of Lee’s essay, and it goes without saying that I am a type of reader that this text never anticipated.  After all, the academic study of the martial arts did not really exist in 1971, certainly not the way that it does now.

What audience did Lee, as an author, seek? What sort of “model reader” did this text intend to create? And why was there even a need to issue a call for liberation in the first place?  One might suppose that the value of freedom, self-expression and increased fighting prowess would simply be self-evident.  The fact that Lee is extolling their virtue, and calling for a fundamental change in the sources of authority that martial artists are willing to accept, suggests that it was not.

 

While I have never seen a martial arts themed paint by numbers, the “oriental other” was a popular subject between the 1950s and the 1970s.

 

Paint by Numbers

Eco may be correct that it is essentially impossible to divine the true intent of an author simply from the resulting text. Yet the complexity of that task pales in comparison with the challenge of reconstructing how his or her readers responded to that text at a given point in history.  After all, the author had the good sense to leave us with a text (even if his meanings may have been unclear).  The readers, more often than not, left nothing but nods of agreement or groans of frustration deposited within the etheric sphere.  Trying to reconstruct their experience through our own empathic imagination might really be an exercise in “organized despair,” to borrow a phrase from Lee.  Yet it is precisely in those moments, where the expectation of the reader and the intention of a text clash, that brief bursts of light are created.  And this fading conflict can suggest some of the critical features that once defined a historical landscape.  While difficult, it is worthwhile to try and discover something about the “model readers” who struggled with, and were organized by, this text.  Indeed, I actually find the readers of this essay even more interesting (and vastly more sociologically significant) than its author. Yet we know so much less about them.

While few readers took the time to provide contemporaneous documentation of their first reading of this essay (I know of no such record), it would not be correct to say that they left no evidence of their passing.  For one thing, the 1970s produced a rich material and symbolic record which suggests some interesting hypotheses about the sorts of audience that Lee would have encountered.  Two such artifacts are currently hanging on the wall of my living room.

They appear in the form of pair of paint by number landscapes, illustrating a wintery New England day so picturesque that one is quite certain that it never happened.  These paintings were completed by a woman in 1971, the same year that Lee’s essay first appeared.  One suspects that if he had taken an interest in art criticism Lee would have had much to say about my paintings. With a few choice substitutions his famous essay could easily be retitled “Liberate Yourself from the Paint by Number Kit” and it would read almost as well.

That, seemingly flippant, observation reveals an important clue about the sorts of readers (and martial artists) that Lee was addressing.  We don’t have a large body of informed martial arts criticism dating from the 1970s, but we do have a vast literature on the criticism of the visual arts.  And several critics explicitly addressed the paint by numbers fad.  The sorts of arguments that they made sound, at least to my ear, uncannily like the points that Lee was trying to make.

By 1971 the paint by number phenomenon was already a well-established part of American middle class landscape (much like the neighborhood judo club).  These kits were originally conceived of by an artist named Dan Robbins and Max S. Klein, the owner of the Palmer Paint Company.  After the end of WWII Americans leveraged their increased rights in the workplace, and a period of unprecedented economic growth, to create a new golden age of the leisure economy.  The forty-hour work week meant that workers had more free time than ever before, and they had enough income to fill those hours with an ever expanding range of activities. The visual arts were increasingly popular, but for most people doing their own paintings remained an aspirational dream.  Robbins and Klein decided that simple kits, which required only an ability to color within the lines, would provide Americans with many hours of relaxation while selling an unprecedented amount of paint. Their initial run of kits, which attempted to educate consumers about the latest trends in serious modern art, did not sell particularly well.  But when more nostalgic images of the countryside, animals, dancers and the “exotic East” were introduced, it was clear that a cultural phenomenon had been born.

This did not please most of the art critics of the day. The lack of creativity, indeed, the process of near mechanical reproduction, involved in these “paintings” came to symbolize the worst aspects of 1950s social conformity. [Note also that cover of the 1971 Black Belt issues has Lee  hyperbolically warning America’s martial artists that they are being transformed into machines].  In the view these critics, individuals were drawn to art because they wanted to experience creativity. Yet these kits promised them basic results only by foreswearing any degree of individual expression.  When the critics imaged millions of (near identical) Mona Lisas hanging on the walls of the millions of (near identical) tiny homes which populated America’s postwar landscape, they found themselves drowning in a nightmare of suburban mediocrity.

This was precisely the cultural milieu that inspired Umberto Eco to undertake his cross-continental road-trip, explicitly focusing on the question of simulation in the American imagination of fine art, which would result in his essay “Travels in Hyperreality.”   This is a work that has proved important to my own understanding of the role of cultural desire within the martial arts.  Still, the judgement of the contemporary critics was clear.  Art was the product of individual inspiration and struggle with a constantly changing world.  These paintings were not art.  At best they were a mechanically reproduced “craft.”

Yet there has always been a strain of American popular culture within which such an assertion does not work as an invective. The entire turn of the century “arts and crafts” movement (seen in architecture, furniture, and the graphic arts) explicitly rejected the elitism of high art and instead asked what sort of social benefit could be derived from the support of, and participation in, wholesome crafts in which people enriched and beautified their environments while supporting local craftsmen. Nor do most of the post-war individuals who spent their afternoons with these kits seem to have aspired to be “artists.”  While such questions may have been critical to the critics, these were not categories that structured the lives of these consumers.

Paint by numbers was popular because the process was enjoyable.  People found these kits to be relaxing. Further, the idea that one could make an object suitable for display in their own homes was intrinsically rewarding. In light of this, the critic’s emphasis on individual creativity and authenticity seems to have been misplaced.  No one bought a Mona Lisa kit because they wanted to express their authentic “inner vision.” Rather, they wanted to enter into a dialogue with that specific piece of art.  They sought to understand someone else’s vision, and to be part of a community that appreciated that.

The entire genera of paint by numbers is marked with an almost overwhelming air of nostalgia.  This was an exercise in cultivating (and satisfying) a desire for preexisting categories of meaning.  Through the reproduction of different types of art (religious images, Italian masters, American landscapes, dancing figures, Paris cityscapes, etc….) individuals sought to align themselves with, and appropriate, some specific aspect of pre-existing social authority.  Make no mistake, the creation of real art is hard work.  Yet paint by numbers succeeded as a popular medium because it took seriously the notion of leisure. The physical artifacts that it generated were, in many ways, secondary to the social and psychological benefits created.

A traditional class within the Japanese martial arts might seem quite different than a paint by number kit.  Ideally the later generates very little sweating and yelling, while the former practically demands it. Yet it is no coincidence that these pursuits both exploded into America popular culture in the 1950s, driven by the growth of the post-war leisure economy. Both sought to simplify complex elite activities and present them to the masses in such a way that they could be easily mastered. Indeed, the standardized kata and training methods seen in Meiji and Showa era martial arts schools seem to have appealed to the same social sensibilities that Robbins and Klein sought to capitalize on.

Nor do questions of individuals or individual expression figure that prominently into the early post-war martial arts discourse.  We should hedge this last point as, while they were more visible, the Asian martial arts remained outside of the hegemonic aspects of Western culture (Bowman 2017).  To practice Judo in the 1950s was an expression of individual choice and values in a way that would not have been true of Japanese school children taking a Judo class in 1937.  And it is certainly true that when many returning GI’s (and later Korean and Vietnam veterans), took up these pursuits. Some sought solace, while others were looking for a source of martial excellence.    For instance, Donn F. Draeger’s letters to R. W. Smith make it clear that he was quite interested in the Japanese koryu, but had no interest in contemporary Chinese martial arts, because Japan had performed well on the battle field, and Chinese troops, by in large, had not (Miracle 2016).

Yet I doubt that Draeger was expecting to find real, unfiltered, free-style violence within the traditional dojo. One suspects that most of these vets, at least the ones who had actually seen combat, would have had enough of that on the beaches of the Pacific. What seems to have motivated many of these early students was not so much the search for “realism,” as it was the search for a “cultural essence.” Knowing the reality of warfare, one wonders whether they were freed from petty debates about the “reality of the octagon” (or its post-war equivalents).

Draeger threw himself into highly ritualized styles of Japanese swordsmanship not because he believed this was what a “scientific street fight” actually looked like.  He seems to have been looking for a deeper set of answers as to how men had achieved victory in combat in the past.  The answers were partially technical, but they also included more. Rightly or wrongly, it was clear to Draeger that (some) Japanese martial artists had the answers, while the Chinese did not. His friend and fellow researcher, R. W. Smith, came to a different set of conclusions after his own experiences with Chinese martial artist while living in Japan and Taiwan. Their martial arts research was not so much about expressing individualism in the abstract (though Draeger’s interests in body building did eventually take him in that direction), but understanding systems of social authority that had allowed individuals to do amazing things.

 

Bruce Lee Graffiti. Source: Wikimedia.

 

Conclusion: A Debate Between Readers

These duel excursus into the graphic arts and the early days of hoplology suggests how one group of readers may have approached Lee’s classic essay.  In larger cultural terms, Lee’s essay may be less daring than it first appears. While such discussions were novel in the small world of Western martial arts practice, art and culture critics had been making points very similar to Lee’s for decades. They had been doing that because activities that were structurally similar to the practice of the traditional martial arts had become increasingly common within American society since the early 1950s.  Lee is often portrayed as a radical or iconoclastic thinker, but when placed next to these critics his calls for individual expression and authenticity within the arts actually replicate the era’s elite social values. More radical, in some senses, were the voices that argued for primacy of craftmanship over art, or for a turn towards a foreign (even colonial) set of cultural values as a way of dealing with the malaise of modern life.

The issues being debated by the martial artists of the 1970s (and still today) are so fundamental that Lee’s essay was bound to generate disagreement.  The editors of Black Belt anticipated this. It may be worth reading Lee’s essay in comparison with the issue’s opening editorial on the importance of bowing and traditional etiquette, as well as its final article titled “The Legacy of the Dojo” by David Krieger (50). The first piece contains a quote by an anonymous Chinese martial artist (who may well be Bruce Lee himself as he often haunted the magazine’s offices) praising the efforts of Japanese martial artists to bring morality into their training halls while noting the often-disrespectful ways that Chinese students discussed their own teachers.  The two pieces, which both make oblique arguments for the acceptance of traditional modes of social authority within the Asian martial arts, seem to offer an intentional counterpoint to some of Lee’s more individualistic notes.

When we consider the larger social trends in post-war America, and read Lee’s essay in conjunction with the pieces that bookend the September 1971 issue, the parameters of the debate become clearer.  Then, as now, the martial arts could be seen either as a vehicle for understanding traditional modes of social authority, or as a means of breaking them down. Readers split on this issue, just as they still do today.  It is precisely this ongoing dialectic that allows the ostensibly “traditional” Asian martial arts to fill so many social roles in the modern Western world. This essay’s genius lies not in its ability to convince one side or the other, but in its ability to draw successive generations into the discussion.

 

*For the record, Kano Jigoro has my vote for the 20th century’s most influential martial artist.

 

oOo

If you enjoyed this post you might also want to read: Explaining “Openness” and “Closure” in Kung Fu, Lightsaber Combat and Modern Martial Arts

oOo



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Events and Trends that Shaped the Chinese Martial Arts in 2018


 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

 

Xu Xiaodong Strikes again!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

 

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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



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Events and Trends that Shaped the Chinese Martial Arts in 2018


 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

 

Xu Xiaodong Strikes again!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

 

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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



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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

oOo



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Chinese Martial Arts in the News: September 24th, 2018: Shaolin, Bull Fights, and So Many New Books….


 

 

Introduction

Welcome to “Chinese Martial Arts in the News.”  I recently finished the heavy lifting on my draft chapter, so I am now returning to a normal posting schedule. Thanks for your collective patience! A (long overdue) news update seems like the perfect way to ease back into things.

For new readers, this is a semi-regular feature here at Kung Fu Tea in which we review media stories that mention or affect the traditional fighting arts.  In addition to discussing important events, this column also considers how the Asian hand combat systems are portrayed in the mainstream media.

While we try to summarize the major stories over the last month, there is always a chance that we may have missed something.  If you are aware of an important news event relating to the TCMA, drop a link in the comments section below.  If you know of a developing story that should be covered in the future feel free to send me an email.

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

 

 

 

News from all Over

A number of this month’s news items highlight the varied intersections between the martial arts and politics.  As such, it seems appropriate to lead off with recent developments at the Shaolin temple.  The venerable Buddhist monastery (and spiritual home of the Chinese martial arts) has once again found itself at the center of controversy. Seeking to get ahead of new government policy directives designed to limit the independence of Chinese religious movements from the state and Communist Party, the temple’s leadership have decided to take a much more visible and proactive role in promoting “patriotism” (rather than simply Buddhism) in the monks’ public performance.  This is actually a somewhat nuanced topic as Chinese Buddhist monasteries have never been truly independent of the state and Shaolin, in particular, already carries a patriotic reputation.  Still, the move has inspired some controversy and much discussion.  A good overview of all this can be found in the South China Morning Post article titled: “Red flag for Buddhists? Shaolin Temple ‘takes the lead’ in Chinese patriotism push.

Here is a sample of the sort of pushback that has been encountered:

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

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

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

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

 

 

From questions of patriotism and political interference, we now turn to controversies over animal welfare.  Certain martial artists in Jiaxing, in the eastern province of Zhejiang, have recently been making waves with their own brand of “bull fighting.” While various types of bull sacrifices and worship can be found across the ancient world, this particular practice seems to be a mix of the old and new.  Discursively attributed to the Hui Muslim minority, the practice (which actually resembles steer wrestling minus the horses) was first demonstrated nationally in the 1984 Ethnic Minority Games, and was recognized as a martial art only in 2008. As with so many other “rediscovered” martial arts, the hope seems to be that the practice will increase tourism in the region.

While a seemingly odd story, the more I think about this one the more important it becomes. On a purely theoretical level, it raises questions about the boundaries of what we might consider the “martial arts,” and how they are constructed and negotiated. I suspect that in the West common sense would dictate that the martial arts are a social activity between humans, rather than humans and animals.  And yet this story also reminds me that countless Chinese language books and articles on the martial arts (even scholarly one’s) start off with a straight faced assertion that the Chinese martial arts were created in the distant past so that people could defend themselves from wild animals. I always dismissed these lines as boilerplate, but now I am starting to wonder what their relationship to the Chinese cultural vision of the martial arts actually is.

Of course, no one is actually being called upon to defend themselves from these bulls.  The animals seem to be very tame and have been trained to tolerate humans throwing them to the ground without putting up much of a fight.  While no bulls are killed in the practice of this “martial art,” it would seem to be open to all of the same ethical questions as North American rodeos.  And yet Western readers are assured that any appearance of cruelty is simply a result of their inability to grasp the “deep cultural significance” of the activity.

If you are wondering what all of this looks like in practice, check out this video.

 

 

 

Our next article, from the English language version of a Chinese tabloid, is more mainstream.  It provides an account of all the ways that a Wushu performance has managed to “Wow US Audiences.” Being a press release by a provincial government’s information office, the most interesting aspect of this article is its total transparency about the organization and purpose of shows like this.

“We hope that our show will serve as a bridge for martial arts lovers overseas to learn more about Chinese culture and appreciate the beauty of China,” said Huang Jing, director of the international communication department of China Intercontinental Communication Center.

The center presented the event, together with the Chinese Wushu Association and the Information Office of Henan Provincial People’s Government.

Over 400 people including representatives of members and students from Chin Woo athletic federation branches at home and abroad as well as members of other martial arts groups participated in the worship ceremony. (PRNewsfoto/Publicity Department of Xiqing)

 

From Virginia we jump back across the Pacific to Tianjin.  While Huo Yuanjia (the titular founder of the Jingwu Association) is often remembered for the phase of his career that occurred in Shanghai, his hometown roots have also made him a popular figure in Tianjin.  The city just marked his 150th birthday with a major event.

Established on June 30, 1990, the Tianjin Chin Woo Athletic Federation has over 70 branches worldwide. The event aims to leverage the global influence of Huo Yuanjia and the club to strengthen local town’s leading role as the birthplace of the Chin Woo culture. It will help display the city’s profound history and culture as well as carrying forward the Chin Woo spirit to promote solidarity.

 

 

Kung fu helps build road to success, strength.” So claims an article in the English language edition of the China Daily. The story provides an overview of a network of Shaolin associated schools in the United States.  It tends to focus on adolescent students and the benefits that they derive from dedicated martial arts training. As always, its all about the discipline.

 

 

What happens when Brazilian capoeira meets Chinese Kung Fu? This is the fascinating premise behind a new documentary which I need to locate a copy of.

What would happen when Chinese kung fu meets Brazilian martial art capoeira?

As a part of the Open Digital Library on Traditional Games, the documentary Capoeira meets Chinese Martial Arts was screened on Monday in Beijing and showed the sparks between the two traditional cultures.

The 10-minute film, co-produced by the embassy of Brazil and Flow Creative Content, in partnership with UNESCO and Tencent, presents the meeting of Brazilian capoeira masters with Chinese martial arts masters in Beijing and Hangzhou.

 

One part “interesting,” one part “cringeworthy,” all heuristically useful. Vice magazine decided to let its readers ask a Kung Fu master ten questions. Find out what they came up with here.

 

 

Are you looking for your next Bruce Lee fix?  If so, check out this interview with on Radio West.

Through his legendary films, Bruce Lee bridged cultural barriers, upended stereotypes and made martial arts a global phenomenon. Biographer Matthew Polly joins us to explore the life of this ambitious actor who grew obsessed with martial arts.

 

Its been a while since we discussed a martial arts film, but there is a new project on the horizon that looks interesting.  I like Ip Man films, and I like Michelle Yeah, so its good to hear that she is going to star in an Ip Man spinoff.  In addition to the typical movie Wing Chun, this also looks like its going to be a sword/gun-fu movie.  I don’t see any butterfly swords in the trailer, but I think I spotted a couple of kukri.  I have no idea how those knives show up in the storyline, but as a long time kukri collector, I approve.

 

 

Finally, an update from the lightsaber combat community.  Ludosport (originally an Italian group which has since expanded globally) recently held their first US National Championship in Elmira NY, not far from Cornell. They were kind enough to let me hang out and do some fieldwork with them for couple days.  And there was even some nice press coverage of the event by the local news.  Check it out. Hopefully I will be blogging about this event in the near future.

 

 

 

 

Martial Arts Studies

Summer is typically a slow time for academic news, but a lot has been happening in the Martial Arts Studies community.  We have conferences, journals and even facebook discussions to talk about.  But I am afraid that we aren’t going to get to any of that in this update as we have to deal with a deluge of new books.

The first item of business is Prof. Janet O’Shea’s new publication Risk, Failure, Play: What Dance Reveals about Martial Arts Training (Oxford UP, 2018).  Wondering what it is all about?  Check out this interview in which she discusses her latest project.

Or, if you have decided to order a copy, you can do so here.

 

 

Janet O’Shea. 2018. Risk, Failure, Play: What Dance Reveals about Martial Arts Training. Oxford UP. 284 pages. $35 USD. Release Date: Nov. 1

Risk, Failure, Play illuminates the many ways in which competitive martial arts differentiate themselves from violence. Presented from the perspective of a dancer and writer, this book takes readers through the politics of everyday life as experienced through training in a range of martial arts practices such as jeet kune do, Brazilian jiu jitsu, kickboxing, Filipino martial arts, and empowerment self-defense. Author Janet OâShea shows how play gives us the ability to manage difficult realities with intelligence and demonstrates that physical play, with its immediacy and heightened risk, is particularly effective at accomplishing this task. Risk, Failure, Play also demonstrates the many ways in which physical recreation allows us to manage the complexities of our current social reality. Risk, Failure, Playintertwines personal experience with phenomenology, social psychology, dance studies, performance studies, as well as theories of play and competition in order to produce insights on pleasure, mastery, vulnerability, pain, agency, individual identity, and society. Ultimately, this book suggests that play allows us to rehearse other ways to live than the ones we see before us and challenges us to reimagine our social reality.

 

Fuhua Huang and Fan Hong (Eds). 2018. A History of Chinese Martial Arts. Routledge. 256 pages. $133 HC. Release Date: October 3.

Chinese martial arts have a long, meaningful history and deep cultural roots. They blend the physical components of combat with strategy, philosophy and tradition, distinguishing them from Western sports.

A History of Chinese Martial Arts is the most authoritative study ever written on this topic, featuring contributions from leading Chinese scholars and practitioners. The book provides a comprehensive overview of all types of Chinese martial arts, from the Pre-Qin Period (before 222 BC) right up to the present day in the People’s Republic of China, with each chapter covering a different period in Chinese history. Including numerous illustrations of artefacts, weaponry and historical drawings and documents, this book offers unparalleled insight into the origins, development and contemporary significance of martial arts in China.

 

 

Tim Trash. 2018. Chinese Martial Arts and Media Culture: Global Perspectives (Martial Arts Studies). Rowman & Littlefield. 306 pages. $128 Hard Cover. Release Date: October 16

Signs and images of Chinese martial arts increasingly circulate through global media cultures. As tropes of martial arts are not restricted to what is considered one medium, one region, or one (sub)genre, the essays in this collection are looking across and beyond these alleged borders. From 1920s wuxia cinema to the computer game cultures of the information age, they trace the continuities and transformations of martial arts and media culture across time, space, and multiple media platforms.

 

Paul Bowman (ed). 2018. The Martial Arts Studies Reader. Rowman & Littlefield. 244 Pages. $44 Paper Back. Release Date: Nov. 15

Today we are witnessing the global emergence and rapid proliferation of Martial Arts Studies – an exciting and dynamic new field that studies all aspects of martial arts in culture, history, and society. In recent years there have been a proliferation of studies of martial arts and race, gender, class, nation, ethnicity, identity, culture, politics, history, economics, film, media, art, philosophy, gaming, education, embodiment, performance, technology and many other matters. Given the diversity of topics and approaches, the question for new students and researchers is one of how to orientate oneself and gain awareness of the richness and diversity of the field, make sense of different styles of academic approach, and organise one’s own study, research and writing.

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.

 

Raul Sanchez Garcia. 2018. The Historical Sociology of Japanese Martial Arts. Routledge. Out Now. $54 for 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.

Raúl Sánchez García is Lecturer in sociology of sport at the School of Sports Science, Universidad Europea Madrid, Spain and President of the Sociology of Sport working group within the Spanish Federation of Sociology (FES). He has practiced diverse combat sports and martial arts and holds a shōdan in Aikikai aikidō.

 

I should note that Professor Garcia published the first chapter his book as an article in the latest issue of the journal.  Read it here for free.

 

 

Lu Zhouxiang. 2018. Politics and Identity in Chinese Martial Arts. Routledge. $45 kindle. Out now!

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.

Politics and Identity in Chinese Martial Arts is important reading for researchers, students and scholars working in the areas of Chinese studies, Chinese history, political science and sports studies. It is also a valuable read for anyone with a special interest in Chinese martial arts.

You can read my review of Politics and Identity in Chinese Martial Arts here.

 

Chinese tea utensil. Source: Wikimedia.

 

Kung Fu Tea on Facebook

A lot has happened on the Kung Fu Tea Facebook group over the last month.  We watched vintage guoshu performances from the 1930s, read about new exhibits in Hong Kong, and discussed the problem of extremist political groups in the martial arts! 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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