Wang Ziping and the Early Days of Wushu: Two Important Films

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Introduction

Wang Ziping (1881-1973) was an iconic figure within the world of the Republican martial arts.  Having gained fame through his many feats of strength and public fights, the Muslim martial artist from Heibi province went on to hold important positions in the Central Guoshu Institute.  Indeed, he was one of the few Chinese martial artists ever discussed by name in the New York Times prior to the Kung Fu Craze of the 1970s.  Readers may recall that I recently wrote a brief biographical sketch of this important figure which you can review here.

Every essay must have a focus, and that piece was most concerned with the early years of Wang’s life and his contributions to the Guoshu movement.  Unfortunately, I could only touch on his remarkable “second act.”  While many important teachers fled to Taiwan, Hong Kong or South East Asia in 1949, Wang stayed in mainland China and went on to have a distinguished career both as a traditional Chinese medical practitioner and as an elder stateman of the martial arts. The Communist government would tap Wang for several important appointments and honors, all of which served to call him back into service as a supporter of the newly emerging Wushu program.

I hope to explore this later phase of Wang’s career in some of my future writings. Yet I think all would agree that the greatest honor came in 1960 when Zhou Enlai requested his presence on a state visit to Myanmar.  Here he was once again called upon to demonstrate, and to be the public face of, the Chinese martial arts.

Multiple histories have already noted the significance of this trip.  Less appreciated is the fact that in the years immediately following this expedition Wang was also used to educated English speaking Western audiences about the importance of the Chinese martial arts and their connection to the “New China.” In many respects, Wang’s role as “Kung Fu diplomat” was just getting started in 1949.  His name would appear in publications such as China Reconstructs, one of the few official English language propaganda channels that the PRC sponsored during the period.

Still, I must admit that I have always had questions. When Wang was tapped to go to Myanmar he would have been close to 80 years old.  After a lifetime of fights and punishing strength training (we often forget that in his youth Wang was also famous as a wrestler and professional strongman), what sort of demonstration would he have been able to offer?  Did he undertake this trip primarily as a martial artist, or more as an elder statesman of what Western scholars refer to as “cultural diplomacy”? Short of finding some detailed film footage from the era, I assumed that this would be an impossible question to really answer. Many issues in the field of martial arts history will, by their very nature, remain a mystery.

 

 

Two Views of Wang Ziping

One can only imagine my surprise when I came across not one, but two, pieces of footage, both shot in 1963, that provided a pretty definitive answer to my question.  Not only was Wang still active at the age of 80, he moved fantastically. Better yet, these films compliment the few other clips I had been able to locate on YouTube. Yet they did not come without some questions of their own.

Interested readers can link to these films here and here. Both clips are just under two minutes and offer a clear, well directed, vision of the period’s developing Wushu culture, complete with English language narration.  Ironically, I came across both of these clips on the Getty Image database earlier in the Spring of 2018 when I was looking for newsreel footage of Chinese soldiers with dadao’s during the 1930s.  I realized that both films were quite exciting, but it took a while for my own writing and research to catch up with them.

Sadly, Getty does not provide their properties with the types of citations that are generally required in academic publications, but we do have some information. Their labels make it clear that both clips came from some sort of English language “cultural survey” that the Chinese government completed in 1963.  The actual title of this project, and how it was distributed to the West, are all left to the imaginations of the reader.

I have yet to resolve these questions and would appreciate any input that readers of this blog might have.  Yet as I further explored the archive it became clear that there were many other clips from the same project.  Some of these dealt with other traditional Chinese arts (such as the construction of miniature wood carvings).  But the majority of them reflected the dominant discourses seen in other period propaganda pieces. China was shown as a technologically advanced, wealthy, nation that had already achieved a high degree of industrialization. Indeed, it was getting ready to challenge the West on its own terms.  In one clip Chinese scientists were shown researching new petroleum products.  In another Chinese surgeons successfully reattached a hand that had been severed in an industrial accident.

All of this should help us to properly frame and understand these clips. The view of China which this “cultural survey” set out to construct was overwhelming that of an advanced and industrialized nation. While clearly noting that the Wushu was an aspect of China’s traditional physical culture (or more specifically, a type “traditional calisthenics”), one got the sense that all of this was meant to underline the fundamental modernity that ran throughout the rest of the project. Foreign audiences were not meant to see in these scenes a romantic view of an unchanging China.  Given the film’s avowedly Marxist viewpoint, its fundamental argument was that China had changed, and so had its martial arts.

 

 

These large themes can be seen in both clips. But beyond that, each clip seems to accomplish different goals for its Western audience. The first of these runs for 1:51 seconds.  It opens with an establishing shot of senior citizens preforming Taijiquan in the park. Indeed, the age of the practitioners seems to be an organizing principal of this brief film.  Having hailed the audience with what was already a fairly common trope, the camera then cuts to a shot of Wang Ziping leading a large group of children through a similar type of exercise.  This scene seemed to have its own message.  While “New China” was moving on, the younger generation would not forget their fundamental identity.

Questions of identity come up repeatedly in the narration of this brief clip.  The next shot shows an enthusiastic young boy demonstrating a dynamic dao routine.  The narrator informs the English speaking audience that Wushu was an art with uniquely “Chinese characteristics.” These could be found in its penchant for combining opposed sorts of movement.

As if to illustrate that point the camera then cut to Wang, who was demonstrating a sword set using a long, two handed jian. This is perhaps the best sequence in the film as it clearly establishes the virtuosity of his techniques.  Yet rather than naming the master, the narrator simply informs the audience that such practices are “popular among the broad masses of the working people.”

 

 

 

Even when dealing with foreign audiences, China’s new government sought to define and justify the martial arts at least partially through a class-based narrative.  Yes, this was “traditional” physical culture but, more importantly, it was property of the masses.  Wang’s anonymous performance stood in technical contrast to what was about to come next. It seemed to exemplify the neo-historicism of certain aspects of the Republican period (such as a fascination with the archaic two handed jian) which was in contrast to the streamlined and socially conscious Wushu to come.

Having introduced both the very old, and the very young, the film then cut to the athletic performance of young adults in their prime.  First an individual (who bears at least some resemblance to Wang’s son), dressed in a white silk performance costume, performed a more vigorous Jian set.  The performance was spectacular and kinetic. After that we are introduced to the more acrobatic aspect of Wushu when an unarmed fighter is forced to “defend” himself from a dao wielding opponent. The visual tension was further escalated with a spear vs. double dagger performance. Both exciting and theatrical, such sets had been the mainstay of public demonstrations in the 1920s and 1930s. Finally, the clip ends with a female performing a solo set with the Emei piercers. She was dressed in the same silk uniform as the other university age performers who had come before.

None of the individuals in this clip were named. Rather, everyone was presented as a general cultural type: the group of old people doing Taijiquan in the park, the enthusiastic young students, and (most importantly) the mysterious teacher.  Yet all of them were shown as contributing to the explosion of kinetic vigor seen in the final Wushu demonstrations.  The narration of this film sought, in simple terms, to define this new Wushu for Western audience.  Yet the director’s arrangement of visual images presented an equally compelling argument as to how a resurgent China was reframing and transforming its traditional cultural heritage.

 

 

The second film seeks to tell a very different story. Rather than defining Wushu, it uses traditional martial arts practice to explore the lives of a “typical Chinese family” living in a luxuriously furnished apartment in Shanghai.  Of course, the patriarch of this multi-generational family is Wang Ziping.

If anything, the second clip is even more dramatic.  It begins with a shot of Shanghai in the evening, focusing on the street lights and scenes of vehicles driving by the water. We then see the glowing windows of Wang’s residence as though we were visitors walking up the sidewalk.

As the camera moves inside, a family comes into focus. Whereas all of the figures in the previous clip were anonymous representation of the nation, we are now guests in a home. Introductions are in order.  These begin with Wang himself, who is shown working on a piece of calligraphy. The audience is informed that Wang is a doctor of traditional Chinese medicine, and the camera cuts to a quick shot of his clinic where he can be seen manipulating a patient’s arm.

Next, we meet Wang’s son.  While his father wears traditional clothing, the son, like everyone else, is smartly dressed in western attire.  He plays some type of shuffle board game with a number of other family members.  We learn that he too is a physician.

After that we are introduced to Wang’s daughter and her husband, both of whom are professors.  The camera then pans from a shot of the two speaking with their children, to a framed photograph on the wall in which Mrs. Wang is putting a group of identically dressed Wushu students through their paces.  This would seem to answer any question as to what subject she taught.

Once we have established for the Western audience that this is indeed a “typical” Chinese family, we are then told that the Wang’s do have one unique characteristic.  Despite their many professional commitments, they all gather during their free time to practice various types of Wushu in the park.  A set of traditional weapons are shown leaning against a park bench and one by one a set of hands appears to claim them.  A long continuous shot then weaves through the family group showing everyone involved in their own solo practice.

Finally, the viewers gaze is allowed to settle on Wang. He has again resumed his role as teacher and cultural guardian.  We can see his face as he happily instructs one of his grandchildren. The segment ends as the camera pulls back to reveal a family united by practice.

 

 

 

Conclusion

There are many remarkable things about this second film. Perhaps the most basic might be that Communist (and even Republican) authorities tended to treat family/lineage-based practices with a fair degree of suspicion. These were seen as being based on pre-modern modes of social arrangements, and individuals ended up investing their loyalty in the group rather than the party or the nation.

The advent of the Cultural Revolution in 1965 would see a forceful reemergence of these claims, and the subsequent suppression of much traditional martial arts practice.  This film shows a very different vision of family practice, one in which there are no doubts as to anyone’s loyalties, or their equal value to the group. Indeed, Wushu has been adopted as a means to tell Western viewers something important about the modern Chinese family.  Under the guiding hand of the CCP, practices that might have been harmful to individuals or the nation have been rectified and made socially useful. If this is true for the martial arts, we can also rest assured that it is true for gender and family relations.

Nor was the first clip actually content to simply define Wushu.  If the second film sought to use a visual portrayal of these practices to explain the family, it appears that the first’s real subject is the Chinese nation.  The intergenerational portrayal of the Wushu was not a coincidence.  Indeed, it can be read as an argument about transmission.  What exactly does the narrator mean when he notes that Wushu possesses “Chinese characteristics?”  The virtuosity of the anonymous teacher, and the explosive potential of his adult students, suggest that the stabilization of these traits was not a random or automatic process.  Rather it was one of refinement and discernment, the creation of something essential by those who worked under the authority of a benevolent state.

These clips are remarkable not just because of the technical prowess that Wang and his family display.  They also indicate that even prior to the advent of the Cultural Revolution the Chinese government was seriously investigating the use of the martial arts as a soft power resource.  More specifically, in these clips they sought to use visual representations of Wushu to convey basic principles about the nature of the new Chinese state and the reformed (yet still reassuring traditional) family.  Wang himself can be seen not just as a leading figure within the traditional Chinese martial arts community, but as a pioneer of the basic Kung Fu Diplomacy strategy which would come to define much of the global view of these practices in the current era.

 

 

oOo

If you enjoyed this discussion you might also want to read: Lives of Chinese Martial Artists (22): Wang Ziping and the Strength of the Nation

oOo

 

 

 

Play and Learning in the Martial Arts

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

 

The Problem with Play

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

Martial Arts Practice as Play

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

A Common Sentiment

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

oOo

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

oOo

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

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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.

 

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

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The Martial Arts Studies Reader: 2018’s Essential Book

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An Essential Book

 

This is a time of year to sit back and reflect on our achievements and struggles.  I suspect that within the broader historical record 2018 will be remembered for its calamities.  Yet it has been a remarkable year for Martial Arts Studies.  And that is where my trouble begins. It is one thing to make lists of important events or news stories. It is quite another to name the most significant achievements within a quickly growing academic field.

In the past Kung Fu Tea’s New Year’s post has honored either the best blog or scholarly book on the martial arts. Given the avalanche of new publications, one suspects that this would be a good year to once again focus our attention on the best books.  And I have read quite a few excellent works.  I am even tempted to simply give the honor to Lauren Miller Griffith and Jonathan Marion’s Apprentice Pilgrimages: Developing Expertise Through Travel and Training (Lexington, 2018) as it provided a great ethnographic examination of the role of travel in martial arts practice. On a more personal note, it was also a fascinating explanation of why I seem to spend so much time in airports even though I am not particularly fond of flying.

Unfortunately, there are still several books that I have not read, and some that I am really looking forward to. I will try do better on that front in 2019 but, as it stands now, naming a “best book” seems a bit presumptuous.  Still, there was one publication that deserves special consideration. I can, without hesitation, name The Martial Arts Studies Reader (Cardiff UP) 2018’s most “essential” book. If you only read a single new book within the field, it should be this one.

Even that more limited pronouncement may raise suspicion.  Edited collections have never commanded the same prestige as single-authored monographs. They tend to tell the reader a great deal about where a field is at, but they typically do not to advance the high-stakes theoretical arguments that can actually shape a research area going forward. Some might accuse me of choosing an edited volume, which includes excellent chapters by many of my friends and colleagues, so that I would not have to go out on a limb and favor just one. And they would be absolutely correct! At least partially.

Fields are advanced when top scholars put out the sorts of books that tenure committees love.  But they also progress when a community of readers takes a long and reflective look at where we stand now.  What type of work are we producing in our field?  How did we even become a research field?  What set of needs or desires is Martial Arts Studies fulfilling within both the academy and the larger social discussion of these fighting systems?  And, most importantly, how do we ensure that a desire for this sort of work continues to grow in the future?

The Martial Arts Studies Reader can claim two great accomplishments. The first is that it provides a comprehensive collection of brief articles ideal for class room use. As Bowman and Morris observe in their concluding dialog, the desire for some activity (even the scholarly study of the martial arts) does not necessarily exist in some platonic state prior to anyone actually doing it.  Rather, we typically only develop a desire for something once we have been exposed to it, seen other people do it, and been asked to take part in it ourselves.  In fact, the story of Martial Arts Studies, as a field, is very much the story of how an ever-wider circle of readers and scholars have been drawn into a dialog with each other, catalyzed by a mutual attraction to these fighting systems.

Discussions of the state of our field often focus on theoretical discourses, conferences or important publications.  Yet the desire for any sort of academic discussion is typically born and nurtured in the classroom.  It was in the lecture hall that most of us chose our disciplines and research fields. And it will likely be in the class room that a new generation of undergraduates will be exposed to Martial Arts Studies and decide to pursue their own research on these topics in graduate school.  The creation of resources that can spark a desire for more scholarly investigations of the martial arts is in no way secondary, or “supplemental,” to the development of the field.  It is something that we should all strive to do.

Yet for readers who have already found a home within Martial Arts Studies, Paul Bowman’s edited volume does something else.  Through a broad survey that touches on many critical trends in the field, he asks us to consider what sort of field MAS has become?  What sort of academic and social work is it doing? Do we like the current direction? Indeed, his collection holds a remarkably clear and incisive mirror to the field’s face.

Each of these questions is important enough that it deserves an in-depth response of its own.  Yet rather than writing several separate posts, I think that a turn to the comparative method may begin to address these issues.  As important as this reader is, it is not the first edited volume on the academic study of the martial arts.  There have been quite a few important collections on this subject over the decades, probably due to the lack of journal outlets for research of the martial arts between the 1980s and 2000s.  One might even say that the desire for a larger, more independent, field of martial arts studies was born out of edited volumes which, by choice or necessity, brought together scholars from many disciplines, as well as independent researchers that who often approached these questions without any disciplinary commitments at all.

If we really wish to understand the significance of the Martial Arts Studies Reader, and what it suggests about the current state of the field, we need to place it side by side with these other collections and subject them all to a focused comparison.  In the interests of time I will restrict my own investigation to three other volumes. While hardly comprehensive, I have selected these works as I suspect that anyone who will buy the Martial Arts Studies Readerlikely owns them as well, suggesting that a meaningful exercise in comparative reading really is possible.

 

 

Honest question, what could be more masculine that Donn F. Draeger and Sean Connery together on the set of “You only Live Twice.” Lets call this Martial Arts Studies mark 1.

 

 

The Comparative Context

 

There is one critical, yet paradoxically unaddressed, question which haunts the modern field of Martial Arts Studies. At what point, and in what ways, has this exercise diverged from the older approaches to Hoplology, pioneered by William Burton, Donn F. Draeger and others?  Why has this effort (so far) succeeded when so many others failed to launch?

I am aware of a few researchers who refuse to admit that such a split has taken place and simply use the terms ‘Hoplology’ and ‘Martial Arts Studies’ interchangeably.  Yet if I had to note one specific instance that signaled the rise of something fresh and new it would be Green and Svinth’s 2003 edited collection, Martial Arts in the Modern World (Praeger).  Released a few years after Wile’s pioneering work on Taijiquan (SUNY, 1996) and Hurst’s efforts on the Armed Martial Arts of Japan (Yale UP, 1998), this collection signaled to readers both the vitality of these early efforts and the ability of scholarly discussions of the martial arts to move beyond traditional disciplinary and geographic boundaries.  Anthropological discussions were most meaningful when they were placed next to historical studies of events on a different continent, or sociological investigations of community formation.

It is somewhat telling that this volume was dedicated to “John F. Gilbey, who inadvertently showed us the way.”  Of course, Gilbey was the literary creation of Donn F. Draeger and R. W. Smith, the early pioneers of Hoplology. Frustrated by the seemingly endless gullibility (or perhaps orientalist longing) of North American readers who could not distinguish reliable truths from fantasy, these early researchers decided to get in on the act by publishing pseudo-biographical accounts of a fictional martial arts adventurer that read like an early draft for “the most interesting man in the world” advertisements mashed up with the spy-cartoon Archer.  Exactly what “direction” Gilbey showed anyone is left open to speculation, but he certainly fanned the same flames of cultural desire which had given him birth.

Yet what interests me the most about this collection is what does not appear within it.  A single pseudonymous dedication is the closest that Smith and Draeger come to substantive inclusion in this volume.  Smith’s unfortunate publication on the Secrets of Shaolin Temple Boxing gets a mention by Stanley Henning, who otherwise enjoyed his work with the caveats that one had to consider the “limitations” that the author was working under at the time.  Neither Smith nor Draeger are even listed in the index.  Nor does their highly empirical vision of hoplology, one based on the recovery, recording and comparison of technique, appear at all in the historically and socially focused volume curated by Green and Svinth.  The authors included in this collection came from both academic backgrounds and the more practical worlds of martial arts practice. Yet while acknowledging a debt of gratitude to Hoplology (or more precisely, it’s fantastic doppelganger), already by 2003 the desires of these authors was moving in a substantially different direction.

“Desire” may be the critical term when thinking about this volume’s place in evolution of our current field.  It spoke to, and fanned the flames of, a certain type of desire for community and communication.  And yet with the possible exception of a few articles this was not the desire for a new “interdisciplinary disciplinary academic field.”  Not exactly.  This was a book that appears to have been produced more for “the love of the game” than any sort of professional obligation. Only a couple of these authors had even came out of traditional university departments. In no way do I seek to impugn the quality of the work that was produced by pointing that out.  Scholarly investigations of the martial arts was clearly something that people desired, but it still remained secondary to disciplinary concerns, or the more serious business of actual practice.  Much like the afore mentioned Gilby, current readers might view this volume as a promise that pointed the way.

The situation seems to have been quite different in 2011 when Farrer and Whalen-Bridge published Martial Arts as Embodied Knowledge: Asian Traditions in a Transnational World (SUNY Press). It is striking to consider how differently scholarly studies of the martial arts are socially positioned within their volume. The introduction begins with the editors laying out the case for the existence of a new approach to Martial Arts Studies.  They explicitly address the contributions of Burton and Draeger (as well as modern students of Hoplology) before arguing that if progress is to be made in this new field we must de-centralize “how-to” studies in favor of “a more theoretically informed strategy grounded in serious contemporary scholarship that questions the practice of martial arts in their social, cultural, aesthetic, ideological, and transnational embodiment.” (p. 8) If one were to look for a simple constitution outlining the intellectual mandate and responsibilities of Martial Arts Studies, this paragraph would be an critical place to start.

Martial Arts as Embodied Knowledge remains among the better organized collections within the field of martial arts studies. The move towards a sustained engagement with academic theory meant that there was much less room for those without extensive scholarly training and a continual engagement with these discourses. As one reads through the list of contributors to this volume (all of whom were professional academics) one can only note that the professionalism that Draeger had hoped to achieve had finally arrived but, ironically, shut the door on Hoplology’s hopes of ever being the primary vehicle for the academic study of the martial arts.

Professionalization also brings with it the possibility of increasingly fruitful specialization.  This was reflected in the scope of Farrer and Whallen-Bridges collection.  Arranged in three sections the article sought to address “Embodied [and media] Fantasy,” ways in which the “Social Body Trains” and finally “Transnational Self-Construction.”  Each topic was approached from a variety of perspectives yielding one of the first truly interdisciplinary conversations within Martial Arts Studies. And all of these categories of investigating have remained central to martial arts studies today.

Garcia and Spencer’s 2013 Fighting Scholars: Habitus and Ethnographies of Martial Arts and Combat Sports (Anthem Press),demonstrated progress in different ways.  Rather than broadly surveying the sorts of work that could be done within an interdisciplinary field, it chose a single conceptual framework, the notions of habitus and carnal sociology as developed by Wacquant in his groundbreaking Body & Soul: Notebooks of an Apprentice Boxer. By design this was a narrower collection, but it was one that demonstrated that Martial Arts Studies was capable of engaging with (and in turn being engaged by) some of the most seminal thinkers of the day.

Where as Farrer and Whalen-Bridge had emphasized the professionalization of the field, Garcia and Spencer’s promoted the work of many younger and up and coming scholars. This choice illustrated the explosion of interest that had taken place in the decade since Green and Svinth’s 2003 volume, and foreshadowed the publishing boom that we see now.

Within our survey this volume is unique in its focus on a single conceptual framework and debate.  In that way it helped to establish the discourse on habitus and embodiment that has come to dominate much of the Martial Arts Studies literature.  Yet I have always felt that it also (often inadvertently) demonstrated the limits of this approach.  That was a point that Bowman would explicitly return to in the concluding discussion of the Martial Arts Studies Reader.  Fields are constructed just as much by debates over key concepts as agreements. Even the ability to identify weaknesses in certain contributions marks an important point of progress.

All of which returns us to Bowman’s own effort. The Martial Arts Studies Readeris, in many ways, a natural culmination of what has come before.  It is the fully realized fruit of the desire for community signaled by Martial Arts in the Modern World.  Like Martial Arts as Embodied Knowledgeit is a fully professionalized volume, and one that explicitly seeks a broad engagement with critical trends in recent scholarship.  Yet it also shows increasing sophistication in that its contributors seek not just to borrow from the disciplines, but to either contribute to their critical debates, or to move beyond them all together.  All of this is organized and curated in a collection ideally suited for survey courses on the growing field of Martial Arts Studies.

 

Martial arts studies conference group photograph (taken the closing day), July 1017 at Cardiff University. Martial Arts Studies Mark 2?

 

Concluding Thoughts

 

Comparing this work against the collections which have come before also allows us to ask some critical questions about the direction that martial arts studies is headed. To address one of Bowman’s earlier questions, this collection suggests that a research field emerges when a group of authors decide that it is more desirable to ask question of, and address their work to, scholars who write on the same subject from different disciplinary perspectives, as opposed to their colleagues in their own departments.  This is always a difficult move as it requires energy and creativity. Nor do our interdisciplinary interlocuters sit on our tenure, promotion or hiring committees.  Still, at some point either theoretical necessity or the search for intellectual community may inspire such a move.  Thus, a research field exists first and foremost as a social fact.  It is created when a certain density of communication is achieved, and it exists for as long as that is seen as desirable.

If we were to view the health of the field through this sort of lens, what does the Martial Arts Studies Readersuggest? As I reviewed the various chapters and read footnotes it became apparent to me that we are united not just through the magnetism of the martial arts, but by a general agreement upon (or at least a mutual interest in) certain approaches to them.  The essays in this volume are marked with an interest in identity, desire, media, community, communication and interpretation. What is shared between any set of chapters is often a reliance on a shared set of theorists who have addressed one or more of these topics, and thus provided a common conceptual or methodological lens.

What remains much less common is direct engagement, debate, or even creative borrowing between martial arts studies scholars. Bowman wonders in his concluding remarks if perhaps people give lip service to the importance of media-discourses and the like in their analysis before reverting back to their entrenched disciplinary habits.  It is an interesting point, but it may well be worth extending that question to include the entire social construct that is “Martial Arts Studies.”  To what degree are we reallygetting the most out of the contributions of our fellow scholars? Have we reached a point where we can build off of debates (or discoveries) that have already happened in the field?  Or is a core of shared concepts and methods being used to power a wide range of forever idiosyncratic research questions?

Put another way, if Martial Arts Studies is an independent research area, can we agree on what sorts of questions are important, or even how we might discover important questions in the field?  How do we see this reflected in the sorts of communications that authors have with each other?

These are difficult questions to answer.  I chose this collection as 2018’s essential volume as it represents perhaps the best image of the current state of the field that we are likely to get.  Yet an image can never be mistaken for the original thing. Simple editorial choices can skew the way that conversations appear.  Broad field surveys (such as this) are less likely to encourage meaningful dialogue between pieces than much more focused volumes (such as the one produced by Garcia and Spencer) precisely because we have asked scholars to show us the breadth of what might be done.

Then there is the issue of the medium.  Most scholarly monographs have a “theory chapter” which encourages both the author and the reader to explicitly consider the ways that a new work builds upon, is indebted to, and challenges its predecessors. Journal articles might get a few paragraphs to do the same thing.

The even tighter word-limits found in edited volumes require authors to get to their point even more quickly. That can certainly obscure much of the background that goes into any research project. In my own contribution to this volume I had to drop an extended engagement with the work of Meaghan Morris who had also addressed Victor Turner’s notion of liminoid symbols and transformation in the modern world.  Yet regardless of their limitations, field surveys always present us with an opportunity to assess where we personally have failed to engage with the literature, and what we might stand to gain by doing so.

So long as we are contemplating absences (always a tricky task as an infinite number of things could be said to be missing from any work), I would like to close this post with a final thought on Hoplology. If Green and Svinth’s 2003 volume marked a definitive turning away from the “how-to” salvage expeditions of an earlier era, and a move towards a vision of Martial Arts Studies that put their social and cultural functions first, where do we stand today?  Reading through this latest volume I think it is safe to say that the mandate that Farrer and Whalen-Bridge outlined in 2011 has now been fully realized.  Indeed, the older works of Draeger and Smith seem to have left no trace on this volume. While Bowman acknowledges that things like Martial Arts Studies have existed in different forms in the past, he provides no hint of what they might have been, or why they might have failed.

Still, my personal feeling is that many of the strongest chapters in this volume are those that are the most steeped in the empirical record.  I am drawn to instances where authors went out into the world and actually wrestled with the technical “how-to” questions because that was often where new puzzles, unimagined by prior theoretical debates, emerged.  The modern incarnation of Martial Arts Studies never seems to have time to discuss the details of what was actually done, and how it was actually learned.  Yet that is precisely the soil that many of the most interesting discussions emerge from.

So I am left to close this essay where I started it. What is the relationship between Martial Arts Studies and Hoplology?  As a truly academic field, the later no longer exists.  Yet on a deeper level, what is our personal debt to the “how-to” question?  Is there theoretical value in the seemingly simple act of documenting a system of practice? If the best minds of the modern Martial Arts Studies era were to recreate Hoplology, what would it be?

Martial Arts Studies can only grow as fast it replicates a desire for communication between its students.  A greater degree of engagement with the existing literature is always desirable.  But its growth is also linked to our ability to identify powerful and paradoxical questions that reflect the reality of our lived experience.  A fully realized “New Hoplology” might not be necessary to generate these questions, as fascinating as that project might be. Yet placing as much emphasis on the quality and documentation of our empirical research as we do on our theoretical analysis probably is.

 

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If you enjoyed this review you might also want to read: Striking Distance: Charles Russo Recounts the Rise of the Chinese Martial Arts in America

oOo

Events and Trends that Shaped the Chinese Martial Arts in 2018

No Comments

 

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.

Events and Trends that Shaped the Chinese Martial Arts in 2018

No Comments

 

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.

Seasons Greetings!

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When not collecting images of the traditional Chinese martial arts, I occasionally hunt for vintage Christmas cards.

 

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to all of Kung Fu Tea’s  readers!  Thanks so much for your support and feedback over the last seven years.  I think that Santa left me one or two martial arts related items under the tree.  Hopefully he did the same for you.

We will be returning to our normal posting schedule after the first week of January, but I might have one or two short articles to go up before then, so check back often.  If, however, you find yourself looking for some long-reads over the holidays, consider checking out one of these classic posts:

 

2012: Lives of Chinese Martial Artists (2): Cheung Lai Chuen (Part I).

2013: The Story of Ip Man’s Wooden Dummy

2014: 1928: The Danger of Telling a Single Story about the Chinese Martial Arts

2015: Five Moments that Transformed Kung Fu

2016: James Yimm Lee and T. Y. Wong: A Rivalry that Shaped the Chinese Martial Arts in America

2017: By Popular Demand: “Tradition” vs. Modernity in the Chinese Martial Arts

2018: Who “Killed” Kung Fu: Habermas and the Legitimization Crisis within Traditional Martial Arts

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

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

 

 

 

Guoshu in the Pearl River Delta

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

Foshan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

 

oOo

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

oOo

Bringing Northern Styles South: A Brief History of the Lianguang Guoshu Institute

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Transforming Southern Martial Culture

 

How did Taijiquan, now ubiquitous, establish itself in Southern China?  What about the other northern Shaolin systems? I would think that the lion’s share of the credit must go to the Jingwu Association which introduced and popularized several systems throughout the 1920s.  Still, the institutional structure of the modernist Jingwu Association tended to absorb sets from various arts rather than presenting them as distinct, self-contained, lineages.  The other actor, frequently noted in this equation, is the Guoshu (National Arts) movement.

Guangdong province established its own branch of this national organization relatively early on. I recently heard the assertion that all of the “traditional” practices of southern China could be classified into three categories.  First, one had the local Cantonese arts (Hung Gar, Choy Li Fut, etc..), next there were the Hakka styles (White Eyebrow, Dragon) and finally there are the northern arts (Taijiquan, Northern Shaolin). The argument went that it was ultimately the Central Guoshu Association, and their program to promote national unity through martial arts training, that should receive the credit for disseminating these styles to the south.

This particular assertion was made much too quickly, and the author was speedily on to other topics. Still, I think it would be worth our time to go back and parse these events more carefully. Guoshu, as both a term, idea and a historical movement, seems to be enjoying a mini-renaissance at the moment.  Speculation as to why this is, and what it ultimately suggests about contemporary Chinese martial arts culture, will need to wait for a separate blog post. Yet, at least in the case of Southern China, it is interesting to note that many of the organization’s greatest contributions to martial culture are rooted in its institutional failures, rather than success.  The following meditation on these questions is based largely on research conducted for my co-authored volume (with Jon Nielson) on the social history of the Southern Chinese martial arts. If you are interested in chasing down a more complete account of Guoshu in the Pearl River Delta (or my footnotes) take a look at chapter three.

In a certain sense the prior assertion by the unnamed author is absolutely correct.  Even if the Jingwu Association whetted the public’s appetite, the Guoshu movement was directly responsible for the export of many important styles and lineages to the south. Still, if we succumb to a type of easy romanticism about this process, we risk misunderstanding both the nature of the Southern Chinese martial culture and the severity of the challenge that it posed to a program consciously designed to displace regional traditions with a more universal set of practices and identities. Yes, national reformers were able to use the martial arts to shape debates about what the “New China” should be.  Yet local society could also turn to these practices in launching their own broadsides against outside forces.

 

 

 

A group photo of organizers and athletes at the 1928 National Guoshu Examination.

 

A Governor Goes North

The first common misconception that casual readers might have is that the Guoshu organization was truly national in scope. Andrew Morris has noted that the movement’s pretensions to universality and sectoral dominance never materialized in real life.  Indeed, it would have been practically impossible for any organization to fully integrate itself into Chinese life, in both the city and the countryside, in only a few years during the turbulent 1930s. China was just too large and complex for this to happen.  Further, many of the specific challenges that Guoshu faced stemmed from the group’s unapologetically partisan nature.

Unlike the Jingwu Association, the Central Guoshu Institute was not dedicated to vague notions of Chinese nationalism.  Its goals were much more statist in orientation. While encouraging patriotism was important, the group received enthusiastic government backing as it also sought to indoctrinate its practitioners with loyalty to the KMT, and to Chiang Kai-shek in particular. This became an issue as, his victory in the Northern Campaign notwithstanding, not all of the KMT’s notoriously independent cliques and generals were equally enthusiastic about aligning themselves with Chiang and his program.  As such, many regions of China actually resisted the spread of the Guoshu.  Or, to be more precise, while they may have enthusiastically embraced the name Guoshu, and certain philosophical notions about national strengthening through the reform of the martial arts, they were not about to turn local “paramilitary” assets over to Chiang and his allies.

Morris asks us to consider the case of Shanxi Province in the 1930s.  Long a stronghold of traditional boxing, readers may be surprised to learn that it had no official Guoshu chapter.  This fact may not at first be evident.  The province actually boasted over 500 registered martial arts societies in the 1930s, and many of them using the term Guoshu in their names (evidence of the fashionable nature of the word).  Yet the entire area was administered by the independent warlord Yan Xishan who carefully avoided any contact with a program that was (quite correctly) perceived as a tool of Chaing Kai-shek’s close backers.

A very similar pattern could be seen in Fujian and Guangdong.  Both provinces were formally administered by the KMT, yet in the post-1927 era their leadership was sometimes protective of their local autonomy.  This institutional weakness within the KMT impeded the expansive vision of the Guoshu Institute.

That is not to say that the new movement didn’t have important allies.  In October of 1928, General Li Jinshen (governor of Guangdong and an important military figure at the time) visited the first national martial arts examination hosted by the newly organized Central Guoshu Institute in Nanjing. He was so impressed with what he saw that he decided to commit substantial resources to promoting the Guoshu program in Guangxi and Guangdong.  He invited Wan Lai Sheng (a Six Harmonies and Shaolin Master) and Li Xian Wu (Taijiquan and a native of Guangdong), to return with him to Guangzhou.

Li quickly drew up plans that were approved by the local government. Wan Lai Sheng was formally appointed the head of the new provincial organization by General Li’s Eighth Army. Given the ambitious nature of Li’s plans, Wan then went about recruiting a number of high-profile instructors.  These included Fu Zhensong, Li Xian Wu, Wan Laimin and Gu Ru Zhang (who many readers will already be familiar with).  Gu would go on to become the central figure in the promotion of Bak Shaolin (Northern Shaolin) in Guangdong province.  These instructors, and Wan, were known in the press as the “The Five Southbound Tigers.”

Li’s Lianguang Guoshu Institute first opened its doors in March of 1929, hosting three sets of two-hour classes a day.  The organization had an initial enrollment of 140 students, which quickly increased to close to 500.  Still, a closer examination revealed something odd. Rather than filling its ranks with local martial artists looking to get on board with the new national program, almost all of these students were low ranking civil service personal. Still, there was enough “official” demand to both expand the class structure and to begin to offer off-campus instruction at any business or office which could meet the financial requirements and guarantee at least 20 students.  Chinese sources note that, once again, it was government offices that dominated the off-campus study program.

Despite these initial struggles to penetrate the local martial arts sub-culture, or perhaps because of them, Governor Li pressed ahead with an ambitious agenda for the Lianguang Guoshu Institute.  This was aided through the efforts of the local government.  First, an ordinance was passed mandating registration and licensing of all martial arts organizations or schools in the province.  Second, the creation of any new martial arts school or organization not administered by the institute’s (mostly Northern) staff was banned. Finally, money was set aside for the creation of a regional publication dedicated to advancing the nationalist and pro-KMT “Guoshu philosophy.”

Backed by the full might of the Eighth Army, the provincial government, and an enthusiastic governor, such a set of reforms could have had stifled Southern China’s vibrant martial culture. Indeed, that seems to have been precisely the goal of their effort.  General Li Jishen was quite sincere in his desire to bring the local martial arts community to heel, effectively transforming it into a tool to be exploited by the state. While it remains unclear to me whether these sorts of orders could have been enforced in the countryside, their impact on urban Choy Li Fut or Hung Gar schools would have been disastrous.  Deep pools of local knowledge and experience were about to be sacrificed on the altars of “national unity.”

It is interesting to speculate on whether, and how successfully, the local martial arts sector would have resisted these efforts.  Fortunately, historians have no answer to that question as Li’s ambitious plans fell apart almost immediately. Indeed, the great weakness of Guoshu’s rapid expansion was that its success depended not so much on popular demand as the political calculations of often unpredictable leaders.

In May of 1929, General Li Jishen took the spectacular step of resigning as governor and traveling to Nanjing with the intention of mediating a truce between Chiang Kai-shek and the “New Guangxi Clique.”  This was, to say the least, a serious strategic miscalculation.  Negotiations went badly and Chiang (quite predictably) was furious. He had General Li arrested and held until his eventual release in 1931, after which he drifted towards the Communist Party. This left Guangdong in need of a new governor. They received one in the form of Chen Jitang, who is still remembered for his social reforms (the creation of a very basic social safety net) and building programs (he paved the streets of Guangzhou).

One of Chen’s first acts upon taking office was to disband the Guoshu Institute. It is likely that Chen saw this organization as a potential political threat. After all, he did not create it, and many of the individuals within it were loyal to his predecessor. It is also likely that Chen did not want to be that closely associated with a group that was so much under of the influence of Chiang’s most ardent supporters. Whatever the actual reason, budget concerns were cited as the precipitating factor.  With a total budget of 4,500 Yuan a month, the Institute was a notable undertaking. But that figure hardly seems outrageous given Li’s expansive vision for the organization.  All told the Lianguang Guoshu Institute closed its doors after only two months, and without making any progress towards its ambitious goals.

That is where its story ends.  The initial attempts to establish Guoshu in Guangzhou immediately fell victim to internal politics within the KMT. In retrospect it is almost too predictable.

All of which is great, because what happened next had an actual shaping effect on the development of Southern martial culture. The surprising collapse of the Lianguang Institute left a number of extremely talented Northern martial arts exponents unemployed (and more or less stranded) in Guangzhou.  This seeming setback created new opportunities that spread the Northern arts more effectively than anything that Li had envisioned.  After all, most of the instruction that had been provided in these initial months was directed at a relatively small group of government employees.  Chen’s forced dissolution of the organization allowed its instructors to enter into a much broader (and truly competitive) marketplace for martial arts instruction. It was within these smaller commercial schools that arts such as Bak Siu Lam and Taijiquan really took off and came to be accepted by the general public.

Following the breakup of the Guoshu Institute, Li Xian Wu was hired by the Guangdong branch of the Jingwu Assocation as its new director of academic affairs. He later published a well-known guide to taijiquan. Gu Ru Zhang proved to be among the most influential of the remaining staff. Attempting to capitalize on the work that was already accomplished, he sought to create the Guangzhou Guoshu Institute (formally established in June of 1929).  Gu was selected as its president, Wang Shaozhou was named its vice president and Re Shen Ku, Li Jing Chun and Yang Ting Xia (the wife of Wang), were all hired as instructors.

This new, smaller, organization enjoyed a measure of official backing and was housed in the National Athletic Association building on Hui Fu East Road in Guangzhou.  That said, the new institute never subscribed to the grandiose policy objectives of its predecessors. Rather than regulating Southern China’s martial arts sector, it essentially entered the economic marketplace as one school among many.

And as fate would have it, Gu’s new efforts found some real success. In 1936 the Guangdong Province Athletic Association sponsored a martial arts exhibition at the Guangzhou Public Stadium.  Gu’s Guangzhou Guoshu Institute performed for an enthusiastic crowd and received an award from the local government.  Still, like most of the other local martial arts organizations it was forced to shut its doors in 1938 during the Japanese occupation. Yet it was due to the more private efforts of Gu and his fellow instructors, rather than the grandiose machinations of General Li, that the Northern arts established long lasting schools and lineages in Southern China.  They did so by entering the marketplace and providing a good that consumers actually wanted.

 

An image of a now famous postcard that Gu Ruzhang sent to his students.

 

 

Martial Arts and the Weakness of “Established Churches”

It would be impossible to tell the story of China’s twentieth century martial arts without carefully reviewing the political opportunities, alliances and entanglements that presented themselves in each era.  Still, as we review this material it quickly becomes evident that political sponsorship is a double-edged sword.  More than one martial arts organization was destroyed by the capricious winds of change blowing through China’s political history.  Political alliances proved to be a pathway to rapid growth, but also rapid obsolesce.

Leaders have repeatedly sought to use the martial arts as one element of larger campaigns to shape society more to their liking.  In the short-run this creates funding and promotional opportunities. But it also creates martial arts institutions that are more responsive to the demands of political elites than the public who must actually attend classes and pay their sifu’s rent.  Such a bargain is rarely good for the martial arts in the long-run as it prevents them from establishing the type of relationship with consumers that is necessary to survive periods of rapid social change.

The story of the Lianguang Guoshu Institute offers a critical insight into the strengths and weaknesses of “established” martial arts (to borrow a term of religious studies.) As a government backed institution, the only students it seemed capable of recruiting were individuals already dependent on the governor for their paychecks. Yet when its instructors were released into the competitive marketplace, they created popular schools and practices that quickly spread the northern styles across southern China. That has had a lasting impact on Guangdong’s martial culture.

 

oOo

If you want to delve deeper into these questions check out: Government Subsidization of the Martial Arts and the Question of “Established Churches”

oOo

 

 

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

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Introduction

Its official, holiday madness is upon us. Still, I wanted to comment on some of the more interesting stories that have been floating around. For new readers, this is a semi-regular feature here at Kung Fu Tea in which we review media stories that mention or affect the traditional fighting arts.  In addition to discussing important events, this column also considers how the Asian hand combat systems are portrayed in the mainstream media.

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

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

 

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

 

News From All Over

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

 

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

Xu Xiaodong Strikes again!

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

 

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

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

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

 

 

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

 

 

Martial Arts Studies

 

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

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

ABSTRACT

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

 

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

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

Abstract 

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

 

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

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

Abstract

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

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

 

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

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

Abstract

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

 

An assortment of Chinese teas. Source: Wikimedia.

 

Kung Fu Tea on Facebook

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

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

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