Alex Gillis Discusses Tae Kwon Do and “A Killing Art” with Kung Fu Tea

Alex Gillis, author of A Killing Art.

***Alex Gillis was the very first special guest ever interviewed on Kung Fu Tea.  His book, A Killing Art, remains one of the most readable and engaging histories of an Asian martial art ever written. Be sure to check it out as soon as you are done with this interview!***

Welcome of the Halloween 2012 edition of Kung Fu Tea!  A few weeks ago I had the chance to review Alex Gillis’ groundbreaking work on the origins and development of Tae Kwon Do, A Killing Art.  Click on the links to see that post or the book.  This detailed study is a wonderful example of martial arts history and the sort of thing that I think we need to see more of in the field of martial studies.

I also had the opportunity to exchange emails with Alex and found him to be friendly and open.  He clearly has a passion for his subject and is immensely knowledgeable.  He agreed to drop by Kung Fu Tea and answer some questions about the process of writing this sort of history and the reception that the book has received.

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Kung Fu Tea (KFT): How have Tae Kwon Do practitioners, both in Korea and the rest of the world, received your book?  Has it received a generally positive reception?  Has it affected your relationships with other individuals in Tae Kwon Do community?

Alex Gillis (AG): Hundreds of people have sent me notes over the past four years, all of them positive about the English, Spanish and German books. I haven’t counted, but I estimate I received nearly 1,000 emails. Also, during book signings in the US, UK, Canada and Germany, I’ve spoken to thousands of people, and almost all the feedback has been positive — overwhelmingly so.

There have been negative comments, I’ve heard, on blogs, but most of them have been anonymous. I haven’t looked up the chat groups, listservs and blogs where I’m getting anonymously slagged, but I’m sure they’re out there somewhere. What I find incredible is that the major international Tae Kwon Do organizations, especially in South Korea, have ignored my book, but their instructors and masters (and some grandmasters) have contacted me individually, almost as if they were doing something wrong in talking to me.

The support has been over-the-top positive, because people have been gossiping for decades, so many people knew parts of the true history, but A Killing Art brings together different strands of the history, which, I now realize, readers appreciate. I put seven years of work into the book, ensuring that I got facts right, and I footnoted heavily, because I knew readers would say, “What the hell?! How does he know that?”

A fallen monument in the Goodleberg Town Cemetery, Wales NY. Photo Credit: Benjamin Judkins, September 2012.

KFT: What was the most challenging aspect of researching a project like this? Was it difficult to get your sources to agree to give “on the record” interviews about such challenging topics?

AG: The most challenging part of the research was finding solid proof that secret-service agents (those who worked for or with the Korean Central Intelligence Agency and North Korean secret service) were helping to run Tae Kwon Do federations, and that the agents/instructors collaborated with the South and North Korean dictatorships during different decades. Also challenging was figuring out what the founders added to the art as opposed to simply stole from Karate or Taekkyeon (an old Korean martial art).

It was difficult to get on-the-record interviews on these topic and others, but many masters and instructors participated when they realized that I knew a lot about the history. Interviews rise to a different level when interviewees know that one-liners or the “party line” won’t work. So, for example, telling a journalist that Tae Kwon Do is 2,000 years old might fly with a local newspaper reporter who doesn’t have time to check facts, but it didn’t work on me, as I knew the truth from background research. Tae Kwon Do is only 50 or 60 years old, and it developed mainly from Japanese Karate. However, if you type “Taekwondo” in Wikipedia or Google, you’ll find sites that state or imply that it’s hundreds or thousands of years old and that contain all sorts of drivel about ancient dynasties and hwarang warriors. I’m empowered by the fact that well known war heroes and super-athletes developed my martial art, not flowery unnamed warriors.

KFT: You have a background both as an investigative journalist and as a university instructor.  Do you think that this book would have looked substantially different if you had been a pure historian?  What skills did journalism allow you to bring to table that might be missing in more “academic” writing on the martial arts?

AG: Perhaps the book would have been different if a historian had tackled the topic — perhaps a historian would have made it more abstract and less concrete and dramatic. Depends on the historian! I’ve read dramatic, concrete histories. My skills as an investigative journalist allowed me to ask the right questions and to delve into topics that were deeper than those asked by news journalists. Also, with all my research and interviews, I pushed myself to find engaging ways to present the facts and tell people’s stories — with storytelling that would go beyond lists of facts. Basically, I added heart and emotions where I could.

Presenting General Choi Hong-Hi’s life is an example. He was a complex person (as most of us are), and I wanted to show why people thought he was a genius and a dictator, a generous man and a selfish one, too — all at the same time. He seemed to be a megalomaniac and an extremely aggressive leader, but he had to seem that way when facing down homicidal dictators and rogue secret-service agents who wanted to kidnap him and his pioneers. I have a lot of respect for him (but not for all of his actions). While presenting people like that in my book, I felt I had to stick to the facts while adding complex emotions and context.

Barbed wire hanging from an oak tree. Conewango Valley, NY. Photo Credit: Benjamin Judkins, September 2012.

KFT: When I was reading Chapter 19 of your book (“Reprieve”) I could not help but be struck by the contrast between what you had written about, and what you and your daughter actually experienced in your neighborhood Tae Kwon Do school.  Has there always been this disconnect between what was happening at the top of the sport and at the bottom?  It seems hard to imagine that the chaos you describe in the 1980s and 1990s didn’t deeply affect the lives and careers of many aspiring martial artists.

AG: Yes, there has always been a disconnect between what happens at the top of a sport or martial art and what happens among instructors and students. From what I know, this occurs in many sports. Look at soccer and FIFA for instance! Tae Kwon Do practitioners typically had and have no idea how much corruption and cheating occurred in the Olympics for instance. When coaches and athletes did discover the levels of cheating, many had to keep quiet in order to compete, hoping that they wouldn’t be the next victims of “branch trimming,” which was the sophisticated cheating-system that ensured the strongest fighters got eliminated in opening rounds at the Olympics. Careers and lives were deeply affected.

KFT: It has been about four years since your book first came out.  How are things looking in the Tae Kwon Do world today? Have the governing bodies of the sport in Korea and abroad managed to clean up their act and live up to their promises for reform? Is the sport growing and healthy?

AG: There has been a lot of promise about cleaning up their acts — being transparent and fair — but I’m not certain that the governing bodies have lived up to their promises. I keep hoping.

KFT: What are the biggest trends you are seeing in the Korean martial arts today outside of the world of Tae Kwon Do?

AG: The unacknowledged Tae Kwon Do backgrounds of fighters in the MMA, UFC and other popular sports.

KFT: Yes, I can see how that might be frustrating to a lot of individuals within the Tae Kwon Do community.  Thanks so much for taking the time to stop by!

Pumpkin Still Life. Photo Credit: Benjamin Judkins

“Wing Chun: A Documentary” directed by Jon Braeley

***Greeting readers, and thank you for your continued patience.  Today we are going to revisit a review of a Wing Chun documentary that I wrote back in the Fall of 2012. This turned out to be one of two break out posts that really put Kung Fu Tea on the map, so its fun to go back and revisit it now.  This is still a great documentary, check it out if you have not done so. Enjoy!***

Empty Mind Films has produced some of the highest quality and most engaging martial arts documentaries seen anywhere in the last few years.  They are a small organization, and as a result they are selective about the projects they take on.  Luckily we seem to be on the same wave length.

They have also devoted substantial time and effort to documenting the Chinese martial arts.  It has been my personal experience (from traveling in Asia) that it is relatively easy to find interesting martial arts in Japan and they have shot some good stuff there.  China presents an entirely different set of challenges, and this is where they really shine.  Their film on the Chen village and Chen style taiji is a classic.  It is mandatory viewing for anyone interested in Chinese martial studies or the state of Taiji today.  I would not hesitate to use that film in a university level classroom.

I think they may have come close to the same level of excellence with their most recent martial arts themed release Wing Chun: A Documentary.  While filmed exclusively in Hong Kong and Foshan this study of the modern hand combat system sought to explore the diversity of thought and practice arising from the teachings of Ip Man.  He was an active instructor in Hong Kong from the early 1950s until his death in 1972.  All of the individuals who were interviewed for this film were associated with the Ip Man Wing Chun clan, either as direct descendants, students or grand-students.

Many individuals in the broader Wing Chun world will find this editorial direction limiting, and possibly offensive.  There was no discussion of non-Ip Man lineages, let alone non-Leung Jan lineages of Wing Chun.  The story of the art’s origin was told in a simple and direct way that supports the supremacy of the Ip Man Wing Chun clan.  Viewers are told that the art resided with Leung Jan who had only one student, Chan Wah Shun.  While many people taught Wing Chun in Foshan in the 1930s, what they did was different from the art that Ip Man spread to the world from his schools in Hong Kong.  Wing Chun as the world knows it today is a result of Ip Man’s innovations in the 1950s.

One can only assume that the makers of this film must have known they were bound to upset the Yuen Kay-San Wing Chun clan, among many others.  Nevertheless, I suspect that this editorial slant is largely correct.  While there are certainly lineages of Wing Chun being taught today that do not want to associate themselves with Ip Man, the truth is that he single handedly created the entire global demand for the art that we recognize today.  He did this by training hundreds of students, including Bruce Lee.

In a very real way Ip Man set the terms for the global discussion of Wing Chun that is still unfolding.  He codified the values, set the standards and decided which aspects of China’s complex martial heritage were best adapted to a modern, urban, middle class market.  Ip Man single handedly trained an entire generation of exceptionally talented martial artist that would bring his art to North America, Europe and even back to mainland China.  Without his innovations in Hong Kong in the 1950s, and the rise of Bruce Lee to superstardom in the 1970s, it is exceedingly unlikely that anyone would be interested in seeking out any of the non-Ip Man lineages that seem to be so valuable today.  In a very real sense they exist only because he existed first, and they define themselves in reference to the model he established.  So yes, the story of Wing Chun after 1949 really is the story of the social community that Ip Man gathered around himself in Hong Kong and its subsequent explosion on the world stage.

Overall the production values of the documentary are sound and the videography was always good, and occasionally great.  A few minor criticisms can be made.  I found the pacing to be a little slow in places.  The extra features were also quite brief and could have used more depth and development.  They appeared to be mostly an afterthought and contributed little to the overall presentation of the story.  I had hoped for more here.

On the other-hand, I quite liked how the documentary progressed and presented itself to the audience.  The director was not afraid to let the individual masters he interviewed tell their own stories on their own terms.  A majority of the screen time was dedicated to simply watching class room mechanics and instructions in a number of different schools throughout Hong Kong.  I am sure that this material will surprise a lot of martial artists used to more regimented and formal decorum of Korean or Japanese schools.

The exploration of modern Wing Chun starts off with a visit to the VTAA headquarters in Kowloon and includes interviews with both Ip Ching (the younger son of Ip Man) and James Jar (current Chair of the VTAA).  All of this information is very interesting.  Next they visited the school of Donald Mak (a student of Chow Tze Chuen) who discusses his own understanding of why Wing Chun is a principal based art.

Ip Ching, the younger son of Ip Man, discussing Chi Sao techniques with a teenage student at the VTAA headquarters in Hong Kong.

The narrative then turns to a branch of the Leung Sheung clan who have just opened a school in Mongkok.  Leung Sheung was one of Ip Man’s most skilled students.  He in turn taught Ng Wah Sum, who recently died.  Some of Ng’s senior students have opened a school in his honor and Sifu Leung Ngor Yin and Sifu Jason Fung put on a spirited Chi Sau and Chi Girk demonstration.

After that the film heads back across the ferry to the Central District where it drops in on a Wing Chun class being taught in an upscale health club run by Australian expatriates, Sifu Nima and co-owner Heather Hogan.  Nima is a student of Chu Shong Tin (the eldest remaining Hong Kong era student of Ip Man), and shares his master concern for the role of the mind and intentionality in Wing Chun.  While the class was mostly dedicated to beginners there was quite a bit of enthusiasm and even a classic “the time I got in a fight” story.  I have often thought about the role of this sort of personal narrative (one is tempted to compare it to religious witnessing or testimony) in creating identity and attachment with the art.

The next Sifu interviewed was Kong Chi Keung in the Wanchai neighborhood.  Kong’s teaching style included a lot of discussion and lecture.  His personal philosophy was somewhat eclectic and embraced borrowing and innovation, topics that were a matter of some concern to a number of other teachers (more on that later).  As if to reinforce this impression, his school displayed a number of Lion Dance heads.  While alive, Ip Man explicitly discouraged his students from becoming involved in Lion Dancing because of its association with criminality and the extortion of local shop keepers.  I know for a fact that Ip Ching still has the same attitude about Wing Chun schools and Lion Dancing today.

Perhaps the most interesting segment of the show was the visit to Master Sam Lau’s Wing Chun school and hostel on Nathan Road at the tip of Kowloon.  I was pretty impressed with what I saw here.  Most of the students were visitors, only staying for a month or so to take Master Lau’s “intensive” course.  That fact not withstanding he had them engaged in serious Chi Sao and everyone the camera turned to looked pretty solid.  Clearly they weren’t all experts, but they were working hard, their energy was good and you could just feel the intensity in the room.  I am definitely putting his school on my list of places to visit.  Of all of the classes that the show profiled his seemed to be closest to my own experience in Wing Chun.

Lastly the documentary heads back up the Pearl River to Foshan, the ancestral home of Wing Chun, Ip Man and Bruce Lee.  In fact, Wing Chun barely scratches the surface of this small city’s martial heritage.  A lot of my own recent research focuses on the economic and social development of Foshan as a handicraft center in the Qing dynasty in an attempt to better understand what made some market towns, but not others, incubators for the martial arts.

Rather than answer that question the film focused on the Ip Man Museum built on the grounds of the Foshan ancestral temple.  The segment was well shot and gave the feeling of actually being there.

This was followed by an interview with Lun Kai at the Sim Wing Martial Club in downtown Foshan.  Lun Kai was among Ip Man’s first students when he made his initial foray into teaching the martial arts at a friend’s cotton factory in 1941.  I thought that some of Lun Kai’s comments were quite interesting.  He seemed to indicate that already in 1941 Ip Man’s Wing Chun was different from what was being taught elsewhere in Foshan.  This really makes one wonder how early Ip Man began his reform process and what inspired him to do so.

It also gives one pause for thought as almost nothing being taught in that school was actually identifiable as “Wing Chun” to me, given my “modern” post-Ip Man vantage point.  The angles and pressures looked tortured.  It wasn’t clear what the intentionality behind the movements were.  If this was a reflection of Ip Man’s Wing Chun from the 1940s, which had already diverged from what was generally taught in the 1930s, it makes one really wonder what “traditional” Wing Chun would have looked like?  Once again, the modern understanding of the Wing Chun really begins with the thinking and innovation of one individual.  Even earlier stages of his own teaching seem oddly distant.

The director and editor of the film went to some lengths not to impose too much narrative direction on all of this material.  Even the film’s narration shows a light touch, keeping explanation of what is seen on screen to the bare minimum.  Still, some themes did emerge.  As I stated earlier, it is clear that they see the story of the Wing Chun and the story of the community of practitioners built by Ip Man as one and the same.

They also seemed to be impressed with the variety of different approaches to the teaching of the same art.  This diversity was most obvious at the philosophical level, with some teachers embracing globalization and change, and others hanging back.  But it also came up at the commercial level.  It was clear that not everyone had the same business plan.  Teachers operated out of larger associations, collective partnerships, health clubs and small, hole in the wall, schools.  Master Sam Lau even seems to make as much money from running a hostel dedicated to Wing Chun pilgrims as he does actually teaching.

Even more interesting were the strains of thought and argument that seemed to arise, almost spontaneously, from the many interviews they conducted.  By the end of the documentary there was a real sense of dialogue within the Ip Man clan.  Much of this dialogue was concerned with thorny questions of authenticity, identity and change in the face of a rapidly growing global movement.

Only one of the Sifus interviewed in the movie was of western origin, but it did not seem lost on any of the masters that the vast majority of teachers and students today live outside Hong Kong and are not Chinese.  Most of them are in Europe and North America where being in the third generation of local instruction is now pretty common.  While most of these individuals have no primary connection to Hong Kong or the Chinese ethnicity, they remain very dedicated to Wing Chun.  Increasingly it is their buying power and tourism dollars that are driving the development of the global Wing Chun movement.

Truth be told, many of these western practitioners are extremely good at what they do.  It was certainly neat to see all of the different schools in Hong Kong.  But I wasn’t really awed by anything I saw.  I have seen instruction, understanding and chi Sao that was just as good, if not better, right here in the United States.

Nor is the US even the epicenter for Wing Chun in the west.  There is clearly a lot more interest in Wing Chun in the UK and some parts of Europe than there is anywhere else in the world.  If the beating heart of Wing Chun is anywhere, it is certainly not located in Foshan or even Hong Kong.  Instead it’s metaphorical soul can probably best be found in the cold industrial cities of the UK, or maybe Germany.

This is both a blessing and a problem.  On the one hand it means that Wing Chun is unlikely to ever be threatened with extinction again the way it was during the dark years of the Boxer Rebellion (when all Chinese martial arts became deeply unfashionable) and then again after 1949 (when the Chinese Communist Party noticed the unique relationship that existed between Wing Chun and membership in the “new gentry” class).  The survival of the art finally seems assured.

On the other hand this is quite a problem.  So many martial arts have left their traditional homeland and entered the global market place only to be changed beyond the point of recognition.  How does Wing Chun spread itself around the world without losing its soul?

Specifically, how do we insure that this will remain Ip Man’s community, built on and promoting his insights and understanding of the Chinese martial arts?  Almost every speaker addressed this question, and some did so at length.

For Sifu Donald Mak, Wing Chun must always remain a Chinese art because it was built on a conceptual foundation that westerners simply cannot easily understand or accept.  If they wish to really understand the art it is necessary was for them to “come to china” in their thought, adapting themselves to Wing Chun’s mother culture.   His comments seemed to anchor the conservative side of the spectrum.

Sifu Nima and Sifu Kong Chi Keung were the least bound to tradition.  Both have a firm grounding in traditional Ip Man Wing Chun, yet both feel that the art must be open to adaptation to survive.  For Sifu Nima that means going further even that Chu Shong Tin in conceptualizing and teaching Wing Chun as an “internal” martial art (something I have argued against here).  Whatever the historical and philosophical problems with this move, it certainly seems to be popular among a certain group of western students.

Kong Chi Keung goes in exactly the opposite direction.  He has thought deeply about Jeet Kune Do, Thai Kick Boxing and Brazilian Jujitsu, all arts that are popular in the west.  He notes quite correctly that the martial arts landscape is changing quite rapidly right now and believes that Wing Chun must learn from these other arts and adapt in order to survive.

But how do you set the boundaries?  When have you adapted yourself out of your art and your community?  This is not an easy question to answer.  Ip Ching and Sam Lau address this paradox the most explicitly.   Both argue that Ip Man’s Kung Fu was genuine, and adherence to his principals remains the litmus test for “authentic” Wing Chun.  And yet both freely admit that what he did was also original.  It bore little resemblance to what was taught in Foshan and was a product of his life, experience and thought.  Authenticity is a difficult concept for all of these masters.  They all want to talk about it, to wrestle with it.  Still, there is a universal acknowledgement that it is not enough of a foundation to justify any given approach to the art.

“Adaptation” itself is not a problem.  Learning from your own experience and adapting your fighting style accordingly is not only a good idea, it’s a foundation concept for all of Wing Chun.  In a real sense it is where Wing Chun came from.  But clearly not all change is desirable or positive.

For Ip Ching the red-line appears to be intentionally lying about, or misrepresenting what Ip Man taught. This was a real problem in the early stages of Wing Chun’s globalization. During this phase the main body of students in Hong Kong were unaware of the claims that some of their brothers were making in the west.  Lack of English skills and no universally read publications allowed Leung Ting to claim to be the heir to Ip Man when clearly he was not.  More damaging to the reputation and growth of the art were individuals like Duncan Leung and William Cheung who made exaggerated and highly dubious claims about their “special status” and the “secret teachings” that only they were given, in an attempt to undercut the legitimacy of other Ip Man students.

Ip Ching and others roundly and forcefully rebutted this entire category of claims at multiple points in the documentary.  They pointed out that those who made such claims are not only wrong, but they totally misrepresent the most basic and fundamental aspects of Ip Man’s life, personality and teaching philosophy.  So clearly attempts to re-write Ip Man’s story in one’s own image are beyond the pale of what the community will accept.

Yet as Sam Lau reminds us, most of the problems that emerge in a global martial arts movement are more subtle.  They are expressed in slipping standards, eccentric personal philosophies or creeping adoption of outside material to meet the demands of a local market.  His solution to all of this is as simple as it is sweeping.  In his view there should be an international regulatory body that can determine what Wing Chun is, and should set clear standards for practice, advancement and licensing.

It is an interesting idea.  Lots of Japanese and Korean arts do exactly this.  Interestingly Chinese ones tend not to.  Why?  I suspect it has something to do with the social structure of the traditional Chinese arts.  They don’t facilitate a lot of trust or mutual reliance across party lines.

Every Wing Chun school already operates as a cell and is basically self-sufficient.  Given that the art has never been more popular, I doubt many individuals will be all that keen to pay the immense start-up costs, and surrender the personal freedom to run their own schools, that such a solution would entail.  And then there is the small issue of trust.  No one would ever trust someone from outside their own lineage and clan to run such an organization.  Regulatory bodies like this just make too convenient a club to beat your enemies with.  His proposed body is just never going to happen, even though other arts do quite well in this sort of institutional setting.

By the end of this documentary I was proud of the community that Ip Man had created.  He started a conversation about the nature of the Chinese martial arts in the modern world that is still going on today.  But the future seems cloudy.  While something called “Wing Chun” will continue to exist, I was less clear as to what it will look like.

Still, I do not foresee any immediate crisis.  Ip Man was successful because he asked his students a compelling question.  When we dedicate our minds and bodies to the practice of Wing Chun we are formulating our own answer, becoming part of the conversation that he started.  It doesn’t look like we are in any danger of running out of things to say just yet.  I suspect that Wing Chun will survive as a unified social community for as long people find Ip Man’s innovations relevant and his conversation gripping.

Wing Chun is one of the most popular martial arts to emerge from China.  It is surpassed only by Taiji in terms of total students in the global community.  Given the size of this potential market I have always been shocked that there is so little good media for Wing Chun practitioners.  I highly recommend this film.  It is topical and makes a valuable contribution to the conversation about Ip Man’s stature and place in the art today.  Wing Chun: A Documentary should be on your viewing list.  This film was directed by Jon Braeley and Betty Yuan.  It is 75 minutes in length and is distributed by Empty Mind Films.  You can order your copy here.

“Wing Chun: A Documentary” is produced and distributed by Empty Mind Films. It was directed by Jon Braeley and runs 75 minutes.

Chinese Martial Arts in the News: September 21, 2020: Mulan Struggles, Return of the Guandao, and the Future of Kung Fu Tea

Introduction

It has been over a months since our last news update. For new readers, this is a semi-regular feature here at Kung Fu Tea in which we review media stories that mention 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.

Lastly, this month’s news update ends with an important announcement about the blog.  Thanks for your patience.

Mulan

It is surprising how often a single event dominates the monthly news cycle for Chinese martial arts. This time the clear leading story was the release, and subsequent struggles, of Disney’s long awaited live action Mulan project. As most theaters in the US are still closed, or operating on a very limited basis, the studio decided to release the project on their Disney+ streaming service for an additional $30 fee.  Needless to say, that decision generated all sorts of controversy, and more followed quickly including renewed calls to boycott the film after consumers began to question the ethics of filming in a region of China where Uighurs Muslims are being detained in large numbers.

Mulan received an even more hostile reception in China (an increasingly important market for American films) where audiences felt that it suffered from wooden performances and cringeworthy cultural tropes, despite its obvious efforts to pander to Chinese audiences. The general consensus seems to be that the new project is a step backward from the beloved animated classic.  All of this is terrible news for Disney in a year when they badly needed a financial win. But it did generate a fair amount of discussion on topics related to the Chinese martial arts!

One of the more positive treatments of the film can be found in this piece on its co-star Donnie Yen who is “proud of the richness of Chinese culture, and celebration of family” in Mulan.

Action star Donnie Yen gets the chance to dazzle us on the big screen with his martial arts skills in Disney’s “Mulan.” But he had a very personal reason for wanting to be part of this movie. The veteran actor said he is completely familiar with the story; first, as part of Chinese lore. Secondly… because his daughter loved the 1998 animated movie!

“She grew up watching with me, ‘Mulan,’” said Yen. “We sang the songs over 100 times!”

More typical of the ensuring frustration was this conversation in South China Morning Post, which noted that Disney is just one US company to be called out for missteps regarding human rights in Xinjiang.  Alternatively, a reviewer in the Observer called Mulan “A mess of hollow representation and real-world controversy.”

More interesting than the reviews of the film itself were some of the stories that it inspired.  We might call these “Mulan adjacent” essays.  The first of these, published on the National Geographic webpage, provides a surprisingly indepth overview of Chinese martial arts history.  With the assistance of Dr. Johnathan Clements, who has been a talking head on a number of National Geographic projects, it touches on everything from General Qi Jiguang, the Maiden of Yue, Shaolin, the Shaw Brothers and (of course) Bruce Lee. At this this point my main question is, how does one get on the interview list for these sorts of things?

Equally interesting is this piece in the South China Morning Post modestly titled “Forget Mulan: meet Khutulun, Mongolia’s undefeated wrestling princess, Genghis Khan’s great-great-granddaughter and Turandot inspiration.” So far as a summery goes, the title pretty much says it all.

Rather than folk fable, the Mongolian warrior princess Khutulun was quite real and had the body count and fearsome reputation to prove it. She was the daughter of Kaidu Khan and great-great-granddaughter of Genghis, a cousin of Kublai Khan who would found China’s Yuan dynasty.

Chinese Martial Arts in the News

Earlier in the year we saw accounts of deadly skirmishes along the China-India boarder between groups of soldiers using improvised weapons and spiked clubs in an area where the use of firearms was prohibited by a treaty between the two countries.  Apparently tensions in the region have flared up once again, and Chinese soldiers have now augmented their arsenal with quickly made guangdao and spears. This story has been getting a lot of coverage both globally and in India.  For instance, Forbes magazine notes that “China May Be Arming Its Soldiers With Medieval Halberds To Fight India.”

Forget tanks and jet fighters. Chinese soldiers may have found a new weapon to battle the Indian army: medieval-style halberds.

Photos have surfaced that purportedly show Chinese troops in Tibet carrying polearms. Chinese soldiers in modern battle gear – including body armor and helmets – are seen holding long sticks topped with curved blades that resemble machetes. Presumably the weapons are meant to be used against Indian soldiers, with whom China has fought recent border clashes.

Not all of the news has been so grim.  Asian One ran a story on the growing popularity of Shuai Jiao, or traditional jacketed wrestling, in the Beijing area.

Chinese wrestling is making a return thanks to a veteran of the fighting sport.

At an indoor facility in downtown Beijing, a group of young enthusiasts was recently training and practicing the traditional martial art of shuai jiao, which is little known outside China.

As usual, there have been a fair number of “public diplomacy” stories in which the promotion of fighting arts is used as a way of strengthening, or celebrate, cultural ties between countries. The government run China Daily reported that “Martial arts supplies from China delight Romanians.” I thought that this story was interesting as one of the beneficiaries of this diplomatic largess was a Wing Chun school.  Generally speaking, these sorts of efforts favor official Wushu programs and sometimes community Taijiquan classes.  I don’t think I can recall seeing a Wing Chun school discussed in this context before.

Despite the prevailing pandemic, Romanian people’s passion for Chinese martial arts hasn’t faded. Recently, about 200 pieces of equipment for the sport were sent to many clubs in Romania, in large packages with “Friendship Lasts Forever” printed on the side.

-Interesting to see that in addition to the expected Wushu organizations a Wing Chun club was also the recipient of some of this gear.  We don’t as often see these sorts of folk styles being included in these programs.

Likewise, the Shanghai Daily news enthusiastically reported that a “Sword-wielding 17-year-old cuts a new path in martial arts world.” A fair amount of this report was actually on Wushu’s continued attempts to enter the Olympic arena, with some biography towards the end.

In January this year, the International Olympic Committee confirmed that wushu would make its debut as an official sport at the 2022 Dakar Youth Olympic Games.

“It’s exciting news for martial arts lovers, because it’s a good chance to make more people aware of this wonderful sport, and we hope it features at the summer Olympic Games one day,” said Wang Liang, chief range officer of the Ningxia championship. “More teenagers are engaged in martial arts competitions nowadays, and their competitiveness is improving daily.”

Who are the “Seven Best Taiwanese Martial Artists Masters of all Time?”  Click the link to find out!  Unfortunately this is more a list than an actual collection of biographies.  Still, it could be a great jumping off point for future exploration.  And yes, Cheng Man-Ch’ing does make the list.

Every once and a while, you run a cross an article that is a lot more detailed than you were expecting.  Such is the case with this breakdown of the various unarmed fighting styles practiced and implied throughout the Karate Kid saga at the Den of Geeks. If you are a fan of the franchise be sure to check this out!

More disappointing was this reprint of stories on martial arts in Hong Kong in the South China Morning Post.  While this is one of my favorite topics, I am not entirely thrilled to see a somewhat deceptive discussion of how Hong Kong (and Bruce Lee) is the true origin point for modern MMA. The city’s martial arts history is fascinating on its own without trying to pander in this way. But I have already critiqued a couple of these articles elsewhere so there is no need to repeat myself here.

Next up in the pop culture category, we have a new video game out of China staring the Monkey King.  On a technical level the gameplay in this looks great, but the project may also have added significance for students of Martial Arts Studies. Over the last decade video-games have become as an increasingly important vector for introducing all sorts of people to martial arts imagery, essentially supplanting the role of television as a pop-culture incubator. With increased competition between China and America in all sorts of cultural and tech spaces, this may be a potentially important story to watch.

Still shot of Bruce Lee in the opening scene of “Enter the Dragon.”

Next we have a couple of feature on the Little Dragon. What is better than a discussion of Bruce Lee in ForbesA Discussion of Bruce Lee and James Bond!  Second, the exhibition “Bruce Lee: Kung Fu, Art, Life” at the Hong Kong Heritage Museum has been extended to 2026.  The exhibit is also going to be restaged and expanded in 2021, and will continue to feature more that 600 Lee-related items, including 400 on loan from the Bruce Lee Foundation in the United States. I was planning on heading to Hong Kong this summer (thanks COVID-19!), but I guess I will now have plenty of time to check it out in the next couple of years.

Its facebook time!

News About the Kung Fu Tea

I recently accepted a job working with one of the federal government’s COVID-19 relief programs.  Needless to say, this isn’t what I anticipated I would be doing at the start of the year, but given that it has become difficult to travel for my research, or even visit library collections, this seems like a good use of the next six months or so. As a professional political economist I am really looking forward to getting a granular view of what is happening in the economy and society.

All of that is great news. The downside is that I am about to become very busy as I immerse myself in this new, 60+ hours a week, venture. Sadly, this means that I will have less time for blogging.

I am hesitant to declare the blog on hiatus as I hope to work on the occasional post once things settle down and I can establish a new schedule.  I also have a few guest posts and reviews lined up. Still, I expect that regular readers will note a marked decrease in the frequency of my posts over the next few months. WordPress tells me that I have published well over 800 posts (or 3.2 million words) at Kung Fu Tea since 2012, and I am guessing that no one has actually read more than a fraction of that material. As such, I will also be republishing some of my favorite pieces from the archives during this time just to keep things fresh.

I would like to thanks all of you for your support over the last eight years, without which this never would have been possible. A special note of thanks also goes to my wife Tara for her long  suffering and editing much of this material. It is amazing to see how much the field of Martial Arts Studies has grown in that time. I look forward to a return to regular blogging and research soon.