At the moment I am working on a guest editorial project examining Afro-Caribbean and New World martial arts. It will pose a number of interesting questions and I hope to discuss some of these practices in greater depth. Unfortunately, the issues’ deadlines have turned out to be a bit tighter that we first thought, and it is monopolizing quite a bit of my time for the next few days.
Nevertheless, I recently came across a fascinating newspaper article that I wanted to share with the readers of Kung Fu Tea. My discussion of this piece must be brief, but the article’s contents are interesting enough that it can stand on its own.
Still, just a bit of framing may be helpful. Almost every national-level discussion of the Jingwu Association within the historical literature on the Chinese martial arts ends rather abruptly with the bankruptcy of its founding members in 1924. Authors like Morris and Kennedy note, quite correctly, that the organization ceased to play a central role in the promotion of the Chinese martial arts at that point. The Jingwu brand is often assumed to have been broken and, in any case, the stage has already been set for the emergence of the Guoshu movement with the completion of the KMT’s Northern Campaign.
Again, this is all correct so far as it goes. Yet it also seems that most readers go on to assume that Jingwu simply vanished after this point and ceased to be any sort of force within the Chinese martial arts. That was most certainly not the case. To say that a group no longer (and almost single handedly) set the agenda for the reform of the Chinese martial arts is not the same as saying it ceased to play any role in that struggle.
While Jingwu’s founders and national structure took a punishing financial hit in 1924, many of its individual branches continued normal operations, and even made headlines with important events, right up until the eve of WWII. In The Creation of Wing Chun: A Social History of the Southern Chinese Martial Arts, Jon Nielson and I provide an extensive discussion of the later history of the Jingwu Association in both Foshan and Guangzhou, two cities where it continued to have a major impact on the martial landscape. Andrew Morris has also noted that the group continued to exhibit quite a bit of social clout in various South East Asian communities up until the present time.
The following article, first published in The China Press in August of 1928, reminds us that Jingwu also continued to function as an important force in Shanghai. Indeed, a month before the Central Guoshu Institute’s now famous first national martial arts exhibition, the Jingwu Association was commemorating an anniversary of its own in front of an assembled crowd of over a thousand guests.
While press accounts of Jingwu demonstrations are not uncommon, this one is interesting as it reviews the sorts of political, social and cultural presentations that framed the martial arts exhibits in great detail. It seems that even in 1928 the Association was presenting a face designed to appeal to an educated and upwardly mobile middle class. This particular account is also interesting in that it lays out so many names for future investigation.
Beyond that, I was struck by the unnamed reporter’s frequent use of the term “sword playing” in an apparent description of taolu. Many press accounts from the period refer to these solo-forms simply as “sword dancing” or “gymnastics.” However, the English language vocabulary used to describe Chinese martial arts practice was far from standardized in the 1920s, and tends to shift from one newspaper to the next. We can now add “sword playing” to the ever-growing list of key words to be used when conducting electronic searches.
Still, for all of the pretense at educational theory and middle-class respectability, it is important to note that The China Press continued report all of this as an athletic event, rather than as cultural or political gathering. In fact, it was placed directly besides an item of boxing news titled “British Lightweight, Jack Berg, Defeated by ‘Fargo Express.’” Even after its ostensible fall, the Jingwu Association was still being invoked in the local press as a uniquely Chinese answer to Western athletics and physical culture.
Physical Exhibition Held Last Night by Chinese Athletes
Speeches, Chinese gymnastics consisting of wrestling, boxing, fencing, sword playing, dances and Chinese music were featured [in] the 33rd physical exhibition of the Chin Woo Athletic Association which was successfully held last night at the Central Hall, North Szechuen, with more than a thousand guests in attendance. The Association was established 19 years ago, and is one of the oldest athletic associations in existence, whose main object is to promote the art of Chinese boxing. The exhibition is arranged to be held monthly and last nights was the most brilliant carried out.
The program began with the reading of the monthly report of the Association by Dr. Jackson Cheng, the Chairman of the Association, and was followed with a short speech by Mr. C. N. Shen, who is famous in educational circles. His speech mainly deals with the question of how to promote education in China, the service of the Association to the public in [the] athletic world being greatly praised and urged. After a concert which was appreciated by all, gymnastic exercises consisting of boxing, fencing, [and] sword playing were exhibited.
Mr. Woo Chien-chuan, of boxing fame displayed a classic in boxing to the delight of the audience. A number of guests, who are experts in the art, were also invited to play Mr. K. C. Chee’s sword-playing, Mr. V. M. Chen’s boxing, and Mr. Yeh’s sword-playing, [and] a duel were most favorably appreciated by the audience.
Boxing and sword-playing were also exhibited by girl members whose efficiency in the art surpasses all present.
The program was then concluded with a musical program.
“Physical Exhibition Held Last Night by Chinese Athletes.” The China Press. Aug. 26, 1928. p. A2
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 TimesNew 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….
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.”
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.
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?
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.
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.